In case any of you thought that yesterday’s post seemed way too speculative and a bit too 'lefty' (I think it was just - admittedly rather speculative - political economy: trying to explain an empirical phenomenon involving beliefs by thinking about self interest and ideology), here is an antidote that takes another look at Scottish independence. My cue comes from the excellent George Monbiot, who I always look forward to reading. The quality of most of Monbiot’s writing is so good because it is well researched, and this sometimes leads him to conclusions that are politically uncomfortable for him.
This, as you might have guessed, is a preamble to saying that occasionally he can get things very wrong. In a recent column, Monbiot describes a No vote to Scottish independence as “an astonishing act of self-harm”. What he does is list all the things that are wrong with governance in the UK. It is a long list, and I agree with quite a bit of it. Then he says, in effect, why not vote to be free of all that?
This seems to me like utopianism at its worst. Why should we presume that an independent Scotland would be free of all the things we dislike about the UK? He talks about the UK economy being about “speculation and rent”, “beholden to a corrupt financial centre”, compared to a Scottish economy based on “enterprise and distribution”. Does this assume that much of the Scottish financial sector leaves on independence? If they do not, how long will it be before they use their influence (and the threat of leaving) at Holyrood?
I do not want to suggest that an independent Scotland would not be different from the remaining UK in some ways. But to understand what these ways might be, you need some serious analysis of why the things you do not like in the UK happen, and why they would not happen in Scotland. I would be interested to see analysis of this kind, and I hope I would be prepared to change my view about what is in Scotland’s interests as a result.
But there is an uncharacteristic lack of analysis in this article. He writes “The monetary policy committee is based in London and bows to the banks.” That really is nonsense. He is right that plenty of small countries with their own currencies thrive, and I have argued that an independent Scotland would be better off with its own currency. But that is not the policy of the Scottish government. Are they lying to attract votes, or do they want to be beholden to the interests that Monbiot derides? Either way, that does not reflect too well on Scotland’s future rulers.
Or what about newspapers? The UK “is dominated by a media owned by tax exiles, who, instructing their editors from their distant chateaux, play the patriotism card at every opportunity.” I have a lot of sympathy with that view. But in Scotland the largest selling newspaper is the Scottish Sun, owned by guess who. And no Scottish political leader would play the patriotism card, would they?!.
But surely Scotland is much more left wing than England? More, probably; but much more, unlikely. As John Curtice notes here, attitudes on inequality are not that different between the two countries. He writes “what emerges is a picture whereby the balance of opinion in Scotland is only a little more social democratic than that in England, and certainly to nothing like the extent that the relative weakness of the Conservative party north of the border might lead us to expect.”
I think it is possible that some of those intending to vote Yes are reasoning in a similar way to Monbiot’s article. The question to ask is not could things be better in an independent Scotland. Of course they could. The relevant questions to ask is are there reasons to believe things will be better. That involves taking a realistic rather than romanticised view of its people and institutions, together with an honest assessment of the constraints an independent Scotland would face.