Commentary by Derek Bateman
The theory runs that Scots won’t move on indyref2 because the economic pointers are all facing south and anyway, who wants to add more turmoil on top of Brexit? Perhaps that’s the explanation for unpropitious opinion polls. Then again, perhaps it isn’t. Damned if I know.
I am pretty sure though that the issue of oil prices and debt is clearing the way through the verbiage to reveal a straight path ahead. What I mean is that many of us are now confronting for the first time the true reality of self-government – that taking your independence eclipses all other transitory factors. If not totally ‘an end in itself’, it is nevertheless the platform from which everything else can be addressed in the Scottish national interest.
As it stands, we are largely powerless to make strategic moves to transform key areas of national life – we have limited access to borrowing, can’t adjust corporation tax, set VAT or alter competition policy or industrial relations. We have no separate foreign or immigration policy, our defence needs are (not) met elsewhere, our energy likewise – even our broadcasting is not our own. But we do at last control traffic signs.
A country denied the ability to run its own economy is blamed for being bankrupt by the authority which exercises those macro economic powers over it. The British Treasury pulls our wings off and then laughs when we can’t fly.
One of the underlying aspects of the debt is that we are paying not just for Scotland’s borrowing and spending but for Westminster’s too. This is a debt over which Scots have no direct control and stands at nearly £1.7 trillion. We pay a population share.
Debt comes and debt (hopefully) goes. At the time of Waterloo British debt was twice GDP. We know from more recent history that oil can go through the roof – as in the oil crisis of 1973 – that inflation destroy savings, pensions and jobs – it stood at 24 per cent in 1975 – that house prices can lead to damaging borrowing and that, if you trust bankers, as in 2007, they can cause catastrophic results (and get away with it).
These are all the freak waves that hit any and every country and still the battered vessel remains afloat, just as the UK will after the Brexit finale. Britain survived the currency controversy with the IMF loan in 1976 and parachuting out of the ERM in 1992. What makes us think Scotland can’t also cope with the storms and headwinds that the UK and other countries have survived? We’re pretty sanguine about stormy weather, aren’t we?
And oil price fluctuations are nothing new. Throughout the 1950s to 1970, oil was between 20 and 30 dollars. It rocketed to nearly 120 in 1980 and was back below 18 in 2000. Eight years later it stood at 140 dollars. It’s volatile, remember?
My point is that we can fret and become fearful at every passing squall or else we decide it’s time to pilot our own course in our own vessel. Everything else is transitory. Ask yourself this: If today we’re too poor yet when the books balance we’re rich thanks to the Union, when will the time be right for independence?
I was gratified to read the First Minister say that independence supersedes the economy and all other factors because that’s my side of the argument. It isn’t that I don’t understand the utilitarian case because I am also convinced that we will do a better job than the rats-in-a-sack Tories who are little more than an on-going class war in office. Things will be better after self-government but the impulse isn’t, or shouldn’t, be to vote Yes for a fat wallet. Even the case for jobs and investment on which so much of Better Together was based simply isn’t a solid enough case either way because the promises of employment have already been dashed…from the Clyde shipbuilding work on planned frigates to the hundreds of job losses at HMRC where 17 centres will close.
(I did a hustings in 2014 with Linda Fabiani where the Unionists planted a union rep in the audience to ask if tax jobs would be guaranteed at HMRC East Kilbride if we voted yes. I said no one guarantees jobs that way and anyway 200,000 public sector jobs had been lost already in the UK. A year later hundreds of those staff had gone and the office will shut in a few years. Better Together in a paragraph.)
No other country I know of has taken its independence to be richer. You do it to be free to make your own decisions in your own best interests and, yes, to make your own mistakes. Ireland did just that when the Celtic Tiger turned round and bit them. They took their medicine and fought their way back, recording recent GDP growth of 26 per cent. I know it sounds dubious but even if it’s exaggerated, it was nearly 8 per cent in the previous period. The UK’s latest figure is 0.6 per cent.
I’m taking Sturgeon’s remark as a sign that her argument is moving beyond the policy detail of independence to the real meat of the case. Scots have a right to run our own country and will never be at ease until we do. If you’re frightened by passing storms, then stay indoors and keep your head down. If you really do think your own people couldn’t run a whelk stall – unlike the statesmen who brought us Brexit – then vote No the next time too.
But it’s becoming clearer that we can either suffer helplessly as collateral damage from the mess created by the Union or trust ourselves to run the country and tidy up ourselves. Deference or dignity, you might say.