Why I am not in favour of independence

This is the post about independence that I have been threatening to write for months.

I am seriously considering voting SNP at this year’s Scottish Parliament elections. But I will probably stand in the voting booth thinking long and hard about it, with my hand quivering. And it will definitely be only for the constituency vote — purely as an anti-Labour tactical vote. The SNP are in the second place in my constituency. I’ll see how the local campaign pans out, but for the time being, voting SNP is the only (slim) hope of booting Labour out of Kirkcaldy.

However, I normally wouldn’t vote SNP. Yes, they are probably in my eyes the second least-worst party, but that says more about the shoddy state of political parties than anything else.

There has been an awful lot of talk about independence in the past few months and I wouldn’t blame SNP supporters for getting carried away. I said a few weeks ago, though, that I thought there wasn’t really a proper debate on independence. For most people it has just been an issue that’s been there for decades. As such, it doesn’t get tackled properly by anybody on any side.

Take, for instance, the SNP’s astonishing reliance on oil. Unbelievably, this still sits at the heart of SNP ideology. It is an argument that might have been convincing in the 1970s. But it should have stayed in the 1970s.

Economic report after economic report rubbishes the SNP claims that oil would keep Scotland’s economy afloat. Surely even the most blinkered nationalist has to realise that the oil argument is in trouble when the SNP’s rebuttal to Professor Arthur Midwinter’s report is to cite the GERS report which said much the same thing!

I don’t know about you, but usually when two studies come to broadly similar conclusions — and conclusions that are supported by the majority of fiscal policy experts — I take that to usually mean that there might be something in those conclusions.

The joke normally goes that if you have two economists you get three different opinions. Here we have economist after economist lining up to give the same opinion — that the oil argument is a complete red herring.

The fact that the SNP are left pointing out differences in the size of estimated deficits is telling. The fact is that these estimates are both deficits. Whether it’s £11 billion or £4 billion, it’s a lot of money to be chucking down the chute.

Meanwhile, the reaction from the nationalist commenters on the Scotsman.com website speaks volumes about how much the average independence supporter actually cares about economic arguments, with such incisive gems as:

I got as far as paragraph three….zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Putting aside arguments over balancing the books, for an independent Scotland’s economy to rely almost solely on oil would be incredibly dangerous. I say “almost solely”, although I’m sure most nationalists would soon be able to pull all sorts of other things out of the air that provide “evidence” of how much Scotland’s economy is superior to the UK’s. But why do we never hear as much about these?

The SNP acts as though oil is a panacea to all of Scotland’s economic ills. But you have to be burying your entire body in the sand to believe that it actually would be. An economy that relies upon one single industry — one single natural resource, indeed — is a very unhealthy economy indeed. It’s called putting all your eggs in one basket.

So what happens when the oil runs out, which is bound to happen within a matter of decades? North Sea oil production has already halved in just the past eight years. Since Scotland will have lost its biggest argument in favour of independence within a matter of a few decades, I suppose it will be time to sign a second Act of Union in 2050?

You want more? Let’s leave the economy completely out of the equation. How about the environmental effects? The SNP touts itself as a green party. Yet at the very core of its ideology sits a love of consuming oil. Exactly how environmentally friendly is that? Ryanair would have a more convincing claim to be an environmental group.

Below I have written two lists. The first list is of things we know about oil for a fact. The second list is of things that we just don’t know about oil.

List 1:

  • Oil is a finite resource and is bound to run out sooner or later — we know this for a fact
  • Oil markets are highly unstable and prices fluctuate wildly — we know this for a fact
  • Oil extraction causes pollution and oil consumption is a major contributor to CO2 emissions — we know this for a fact

List 2:

  • Will North Sea oil be enough to plug an independent Scottish government’s budget deficit? — we just don’t know, although the evidence strongly suggests that it wouldn’t

I really don’t understand why the SNP isn’t picked up on this more often. This is a raging, gaping hole that sits at the very core of the SNP’s plans. Moreover, the fetishistic love of oil is at odds with the SNP’s desperation to present itself as environmentally-friendly. And here we sit considering the possibility that they might be in charge come May.

But oil is not my only beef with independence. The main reason why I don’t support nationalist movements of any form is that I just don’t believe that it matters where you are governed from. What matters is how you are governed.

I once read an SNP supporter say that a unionist criticising nationalism is a hypocrite because while a supporter of Scottish independence is a Scottish nationalist, unionists are British nationalists. But this is nonsense. I am not a nationalist of any sort. I don’t have to be “proud” of Britain to recognise that the Union works by and large.

I find it difficult to be proud of Scotland. Being proud of the country in which you are born is as bizarre to me as being proud of this week’s lottery numbers. I certainly have a love of and affinity with Scotland. But I recognise that this is only because I was born here and all of my memories are from here. If I was born in any other country I would love that country also. That is why I can’t be proud of my nationality.

Moreover, while there are many parts of my culture that are derived from Scotland, it is not difficult to find the influence of Britain. It is no inconsistency to say that I feel equal parts Scottish and British, and even European. I find the idea that I cannot be both, or that I somehow have to choose between them, offensive.

And I should make clear here that I am not in favour of London having all of the power. I am a federalist. I was in favour of devolution. To me, it makes common sense for national issues such as defence to be controlled at one level and for issues such as education and health to be controlled by a more local level, just as most people believe that the council is the right body to arrange rubbish collection.

I am also in favour of greater fiscal autonomy. Perhaps the biggest problem with the Scottish Parliament as things stand is that it does not have the responsibility to raise the tax money that it spends. I was struck by an article in The Economist which said:

Holyrood’s politicians… do not, however, suffer the discipline of having to raise their revenue themselves: they are like teenagers on an allowance. And they have no incentive to promote economic growth through taxation.

The Scottish Parliament has only a piddly power to vary tax levels by ±3%, and it is too scared to even use that. The Scottish Parliament needs to mature. Greater fiscal autonomy would allow this to happen.

But that does not mean that we should leave the United Kingdom. It is crazy that in an increasingly globalised world that we should consider building a barrier. And let’s face it, if drawing a boundary isn’t designed to build a barrier, what is the point?

By now some nationalists will be shrieking, saying things like, “Look at Ireland!”, or, “Imagine if Norway wasn’t independent!” Norway is a favourite example of everybody who wants to advocate a certain policy. I remember a few years back David Farrer praised the prosperity of Norway, suggesting that it might be because it was outside the EU. Though I doubt Farrer would be too quick to praise Norway’s generous welfare system.

Whatever the causes, Norway apparently does well for itself. Nationalists believe that this is because it is independent. The thing is though, we already live in an independent country. It’s called the UK. This brings me on to a point that I have never heard a supporter of independence adequately respond to:

The relevant question isn’t, “Why should Scotland be independent?” The relevant question is, “Why should Scotland be independent?”

What is so magical about Scotland that it should deserve to be independent? Scottish nationalists know full well that if Scotland were to become independent, that wouldn’t be the end of the debate. It would probably just mean that the Orcadian nationalist movement would stamp its feet more loudly.

Maybe Aberdonians would start an independence movement on the basis that “It’s Aberdeen’s oil”. And who would blame them? After all, surely even Newcastle has a stronger claim to North Sea oil than, say, Stranraer.

Latching on to words like independence and freedom tugs on people’s heartstrings and gets people heated. But it ignores one vital thing: we are not oppressed. And if we are oppressed, it isn’t because we are ruled from London.

And this brings be on to yet another bugbear of mine about the independence movement. Nationalists often make the claim that Westminster politics is corrupt and that the only solution to it is for Scotland to become independent. But we are talking about politicians here. It is every bit as conceivable that an Edinburgh-based administration would be just as bad (or good) as a London-based one. As I said before, what matters is not from where you are governed, but how well you are governed.

Just moving Scotland’s politicians from one building to another won’t make politics any rosier. And in case you need reminding, the shitbags that currently run Westminster enjoy their greatest concentration of support in Scotland. As we Scottish bloggers have been noting recently, that support is too unquestioningly loyal.

And while I believe that the claims that there is a “Scottish Raj” are overstated, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer were both born in Scotland, and there are more Scottish cabinet ministers. It hardly fills me with a great amount of confidence that an independent Scotland would have inherently better politics.

I could actually go on, but for the good of my readership and my page load times I’m going to call it a day there. But to think that this is the party that I’m actually thinking of voting for. At the risk of sounding like Polly Toynbee (please, no!) I’ll have to get the nosepegs out.


  1. Interesting post. Responding to your points in no particular order, I’d say that by definition, almost all natural resources are finite. However, according to the DTI, there’s as much to come that we know of as has already been extracted from the North Sea. And while the price fluctuates, in the long term, who expects the price of this most valuable and scarce of resources to be heading anywhere other than up?

    I have some sympathy with the environmental argument you make, but since every developed economy is currently dependent to some extent on hydrocarbons, I’m not sure how much it advances the argument for or against independence. In any case, for me one of the strongest arguments for independence is how you can use the resulting powers to help reduce Scotland’s dependence on a few narrow markets and grow the rest of the economy so that, for example, oil and financial services become less important in the context of an economy which is growing overall.

    Midwinter’s report, which I have read word for word, is hardly the touchstone of objectivity that its cheerleaders would have you believe. He is almost entirely uncritical of the GERS figures, but rather than properly critique the SNP critique of GERS, he uses the differences between the two to assert that since he believes that GERS is substantially correct, the SNP must be wrong. A very circular kind of logic, which as someone on the Scotsman board (not me) pointed out yesterday, would have had him evaluating claims that Saddam Hussein had WMD solely by the contents of the 2 government dossiers.

    In that regard, he seems to have more confidence in GERS than the GERS authors do themselves, when they generously concede on p6 of the most recent edition that ‘it is emphasised that there is no uniquely correct way to undertake the exercise. And if you want ‘economist after economist lining up to give the same opinion’, how about Professor David Simpson, founder Director of the Fraser of Allander Institute and senior economic adviser to Standard Life; John Blundell, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, Prof Robert Wright of Strathclyde University; Ronald MacDonald, the Adam Smith professor of political economy at Glasgow University, all of whom have come out in favour of Independence in recent weeks?

    In any case, lots of countries run deficits. The UK, for example, is chucking £35bn down the chute this year on the same basis, taking us to a projected £700bn deficit by 2010/11. And if you’ve never heard of that before, I don’t blame you. It’s not one of the figures published by the Treasury which they are particularly anxious to advertise for some reason.

    I’d agree with you that it matters more about how you are governed than from where, but surely the two are linked?

    For me, independence represents the constitutional settlement for Scotland superior to all others, since it gives maximum scope for a government of whatever persuasion to pursue its policies and to be held accountable for its actions. That’s not something which can be said about the present hotch-potch. Federalism might improve matters, but since England is too large in relation to the rest of the UK to make that work and England has so far resisted being broken into regions, I can’t see it happening any time soon.

    Anyway, you do always have the option of voting SNP, then voting ‘no’ in any independence referendum – it would be a perfectly legitimate choice and a perfectly coherent use of your vote. Nats like me might not like it much, but if it happened, ultimately we’d just have to lump it and get on with running the country as best we could 🙂



  2. Good piece Doc. I’ve got mine up here.

    On Norway, you’re correct in suggesting that I don’t like their over-generous welfare system. I can’t remember where, but I’ve seen Norwegians expressing their concerns about the resulting lack of entrepreneurial drive. This will have dire effects once the oil money slows down and eventually runs out.

    As I said, spending on Norwegian infrastructure will have better long-term benefits than encouraging individuals to be overly dependent on the state. The same goes for Scotland.

  3. I see what you’re saying about economy, but I’d be interested in your thoughts why similarly sized countries nearby like Iceland, Norway and Ireland outperform the UK, but an independent Scotland could not.

    Relying on economic statistics and relative deficits while in the Union is useless, as surely the SNP’s point is we have an underperforming economy because of the Union.

    Regarding the arguments about the figures, as Richard said above, the UK regularly runs an annual deficit of billions of pounds – as do many countries. It’s not a big deal.

    WRT your question as to why SCOTLAND should be independent. Nationalists would defend the principle of a people’s self-determination. If Aberdonians see themselves as a nation then let them campaign for it. If a majority support it, they get it. Your point is very flippant if you don’t mind me saying so, it’s abundantly clear there is a Scottish national tradition and a feeling of nation dating back centuries.

    To David, the Norwegians have put aside a fund where a proportion of oil revenues was directed each year. The fund is currently sitting at £100bn, the growth on which (10% annually let’s say) is providing more than oil revenue itself and will last in perpetuity. By contrast, Scotland’s wealth has been frittered away for decades while we could have been enjoying, as a Whitehall economist put it “chronic surpluses to an embarrassing degree” in that time. It’s not too late to salvage quite a bit though.

  4. I’m not going to make a long comment except to make the following points:
    1. you have talked more about Oil and Scottish Independence in one post than I have ever in 10 years of campaigning for independence
    2. the UK is in deficit, as is most developed countries around the world, so why can’t Scotland?
    3. people in Scotland don’t talk about the constitution or independence as a concept in itself but they don’t take long to gravitate from social, economic and civic problems to a realisation that they feel powerless and the limited powers of the Scottish Parliament epitomises this
    4. if you think Marilyn Livingstone is a better MSP than what Prof Christopher Harvie, your SNP candidate in Kirkcaldy, could be then frankly I am more surprised at that lack of judgement than anything you have to say about Scottish Independence, the economy and the political process

    I’d like you to reflect on these points before rushing to pain yourself with the post above.

  5. Grant:

    1. That’s okay because my post wasn’t talking about you. It was talking about the SNP as a whole.
    2. I am quite aware that most economies run a deficit. But the SNP claims that Scotland would not, or even that it would run a surplus — this is a lie. If running a deficit isn’t a big deal, why would running a surplus?
    4. I said in my post that I was probably going to vote SNP precisely because of my anti-Labour feelings. So I’m not sure what your point is there.


    I’d be interested in your thoughts why similarly sized countries nearby like Iceland, Norway and Ireland outperform the UK, but an independent Scotland could not.

    It’s because of the individual policies they pursue. Any government — no matter where it is based or how large the country is — can set good policies.

    I simply do not believe the notion that “we have an underperforming economy because of the Union”. What a load of nonsense. As if anybody says to themselves, “This country is called the United Kingdom and not Scotland as I would prefer. I guess I won’t set up a business then!” What a strange mindset that would be, and if the majority of Scots did have it then it is just as well we are not independent.

    Nationalists would defend the principle of a people’s self-determination.

    This is a tautology. By this logic, given that a majority of people would prefer to remain in the union (no matter what supporters of independence tell themselves), this means that we should remain in the union. I agree with that as well.

    …it’s abundantly clear there is a Scottish national tradition and a feeling of nation dating back centuries.

    I don’t deny that. But that does not mean that Scotland cannot be part of a larger union. After all, the SNP would have us remaining in the EU and don’t see this as such a traitorous position.

  6. The point surely with Norway, Iceland and Ireland, as economists will point out, is that smaller nations can outperform bigger ones by virtue of their ability to be robust, flexible and adaptable to the needs of their people.

    When it comes to business, the fact is that there is no competitive advantage to locating yourself in Scotland when London is nearby. Ireland is attractive to business despite this proximity to London because it realised it had to compete in order to survive.

    So when you speak about policies that are pursued being the fount of success, you are absolutely right. The more clunking a structure is, the less likely it is to be relevant to the needs to all its people. This is what we have in the UK at the moment, and this I would submit is why for the first time we have business leaders climbing en masse into the independence bandwagon.

  7. The point surely with Norway, Iceland and Ireland, as economists will point out, is that smaller nations can outperform bigger ones by virtue of their ability to be robust, flexible and adaptable to the needs of their people.

    It depends on how you mean by “outperform”. Certainly in per capita terms smaller countries tend to be richer than larger countries — but this comes at the expense of influence on the world stage. In an increasingly globalised world this is very important. Everybody is looking towards China, Brazil and India as the economic powerhouses of the future. Not Norway and Iceland.

    When it comes to business, the fact is that there is no competitive advantage to locating yourself in Scotland when London is nearby.

    In an independent Scotland, why would anybody locate in, say, the Highlands when you can locate yourself in nearby Edinburgh or Glasgow. Or London?! Independence will bring little comfort to people in genuinely poor areas of Scotland in this regard.

  8. Duncan, I’ve re-read my original replies, and apologise if any sounded harsh, because they do to me. They were written in a rush, so apologies for leaving out needed niceties.

    You use the same argument at the end that basically says “Where does nationalism end? Why don’t the Highlands become independent?” The same goes for what I said earlier, if the Highlands wanted to campaign for independence in order to have a lower tax regime etc then they have a right to. In the same way for Scottish nationalists it’s up to them to make the case. It’s no good asking where does it all stop, you need to show why it’s not in their interests to do it.

    As for world influence, I would put it to you that the UK has very little, and that is constantly declining. On the global stage, it is blocs that matter and the UK is not going to be competing with the might of the US, China and India – let’s face it. This is why the EU is important. And I know there’s the whole “how can you be independent when in the EU” thing, but it is clear that member states’ relationship with the EU is completely different from that binding together the UK.

  9. Doctor Vee, you make the common mistake of thinking that SNP policy would shape an Independent Scotland and that would be that. As an SNP member who is not particularly fond of their economic plans, I must point out that it is very likely the SNP would split into at least 2 or 3 different splinter groups/parties upon acheiving Independence.

    The fact remains that while I won’t agree with lots of what the SNP have in their final manifesto, they are still the most ‘business friendly’ and thus most economically progressive party in the Scottish Parliament.