The latest poll results suggest a Yes vote for Scottish independence is a distinct possibility
In one sense Nigel Farage (leader of UKIP, the UK Independence Party) and Alex Salmond (leader of the SNP, the Scottish National Party) are doing the same thing. They are trying to convince voters that if only they (the UK and Scotland respectively) were free of them (Europe and the UK respectively) life would be better. The rhetoric is much the same: you will be free to make your own decisions, make your own laws, and decide your own destiny. Recent events suggest the rhetoric is working.
Here is another similarity. In both cases, the economic benefits that would flow from independence appear to be based on wishful thinking. Detailed analysis by economists not attached to any particular side come to a clear conclusion: existing arrangements are beneficial. (For example economists at the LSE for the UK and EU, and for Scotland studies by NIESR and IFS that I note here, or John McDermott on North Sea Oil here.) Let’s be blunt: independence is likely to make the newly independent poorer rather than richer.
Another similarity. At the economic level, neither side actually want complete independence. UKIP still wants all the benefits of free trade in goods with the EU – it is the free movement in people that they really object to. The SNP want to maintain a monetary union with the rest of the UK. What they do not want is to see their national health service starved of money, and their poor and disabled treated badly.
So the rhetoric is simplistic. Neither the SNP nor UKIP want complete freedom: they recognise the benefits that can come from cooperation with larger groups. So the arguments get into what is always involved in cooperative agreements: messy give and take. Will Europe allow free movement of goods without free movement of people (see Switzerland)? Will the UK allow a monetary union, and at what cost in terms of UK control over Scottish fiscal policy? But those promoting independence would rather you didn’t worry about such things, and instead focus on the rhetoric of freedom.
Of course UKIP and the SNP are in very different places on the political spectrum. How does this influence the rhetoric of independence? Traditionally the benefits of individual freedom and autonomy have been emphasised by those on the right, and the benefits of cooperation by those on the left. England votes more to the right, Scotland more to the left. So it is quite understandable that the English right (be it UKIP or Conservative party members) should buy the benefits of going it alone. There is, after all, the phrase ‘little englander’, not ‘little britisher’. Perhaps those arguing against Scottish independence have focused too much on the safety of the status quo, and not talked enough about solidarity.
But here is the rub. Is it solidarity with the British people, or with their governing class? Although an independence vote should be about the next hundred years, there can be no doubt that a current UK government that is arguably more right wing than Margaret Thatcher has won many to the independence cause. Yet ironically Cameron and Osborne’s Conservative party have probably also encouraged UKIP’s cause by trying to chase the anti-immigration vote, and appeasing its right wing by committing to a referendum on Europe.
Which brings me to this final thought, for those contemplating voting Yes to an independent Scotland on 18th September. Suppose you win, and as a result the remaining UK under a newly elected Conservative government without Scottish voters narrowly votes to leave the EU. Not our problem, the newly independent Scotland might say. But it would leave Scotland with a horrible choice. Do they forsake Europe to keep sterling and preferential access to their largest market, or do they become poorer still by joining the EU/Euro and trying to redirect their trade in that direction? But no worries: Scotland will be free to make that choice!