I read Alistair Darling’s essay for Scotland on Sunday on the benefits of the Union early yesterday morning and key passages gnawed away at me all day.
The final part of a very good series of essays, three for independence and three against, it gave a wearily familiar view of why Scotland should stay in the UK, one we’ve heard quite a lot of from Labour protagonists. And no matter how well they turn a phrase, their argument amounts to little more than Scotland being too wee and too poor to go it alone.
But worst of all, it is an argument predicated on the past which offers nothing but warm words and vacuous reassurances for the future.
Darling argues that the financial crisis that faced the UK in 2008 was only resolved because we were all in the UK. And he claims that this crisis – or at least the Royal Bank of Scotland’s role in it – was made in Scotland. Implied is that had Scotland been independent and responsible for the bank, we would have been unable to bail it out, causing global collapse of the economic system. That’s a heady charge.
There’s also some evidence of a god complex – that it was down to me to save not just the masters of the universe, but its mendicants too. But the charge that the RBS debacle was made in Scotland is utterly wrong: RBS and its fellow travellers only got into the mess we are all paying for now because of louche regulation not just here in the UK, but in the US. Scotland with no powers to control how financial services go about their business was impotent throughout.
Yes, the First Minister lauded these economic success stories and the Scottish role in creating them, but then so did everyone else. And while the First Minister has much less to say on these financial institutions these days, apparently they are still essential to the economic success of the UK. That’s why successive UK Governments have failed to do anything to clip their wings.
Had Scotland been independent in 2008, things might well have been different. Had we been independent, we might not have allowed banks and financial institutions to play fast and loose with the nation’s and customers’ hard gotten wealth. We might actually have chosen the Swedish route years before and while our house might have wobbled under the seismic shocks of 2008, its stronger foundations might have meant we would have escaped much of the pain, just like Sweden.
We cannot allow Better Together to issue such airy charges unchallenged. Scotland did not allow RBS to take us all to the edge of the economic abyss – the UK did.
And when we do become independent, I hope we choose a rather more conservative and cautious approach to wealth creation using other people’s money. The UK is still trying to undermine and/or cut loose from a tighter regulatory regime applied Europe wide. I want to be on Europe’s side on this one, not the City of London’s.
Darling also suggests that in the future, Scotland would have difficulty trading with its closest neighbour. There is no doubt that the rest of the UK would remain a big trading partner – but independence would free us to chase and secure a bigger share of markets elsewhere. We have products and services people want to buy; with all the powers of a normal nation, we can provide support to producers and favourable trading conditions (currently denied us by the need to be part of a bigger partner which does not always take what is in Scotland’s best interests as its lead) to external partners. Independence provides trading opportunities as yet untapped.
Moreover, Darling’s argument appears to ignore the reality that many of the goods and services we trade with the rest of the UK are largely invisible and/or intangible. Financial services and energy supplies do not involve freight trains or truck convoys heading over the border. The borders Alistair Darling is so fearful of are a figment of his and his campaign’s imagination. They don’t exist at the moment for the UK trading such services around Europe; indeed, gas supplies which are one intangible which does need to be transported are already taken from Scotland’s oil and gas fields in pipelines running all through the country and under the sea, particularly to Ireland. I recall vividly the local campaigns to give Scottish people access to some of this piped gas as it passed below their communities – and these campaigns were frustrated by Scotland being part of a UK member state.
I don’t recognise the picture Darling paints of interdependence on these islands, for it blithely ignores current political realities. The Conservatives are dismantling the NHS in England; the UK has just reneged on previous promises on the level of armed forces to be based in Scotland and our universities are able to punch above their weight largely because of policies and decisions forged and honoured in Scotland. It is the divergence of policy on such fundamental issues between Scotland and UK Governments which supports the need for independence: all the while we are dependent on a UK Government to give us what we need to spend on key policies, we are at risk of having our democratic decisions undermined.
I want Scotland to be independent so that it can have all its resources and all its decision-making powers to determine the priorities for our population. I might think that the NHS badly needs reform, but that isn’t the same as opting to privatise huge chunks of it. I might think that Scotland’s defence needs should be predicated on being a pacifist country or at least, one which practises staunch neutrality but that isn’t the same as supporting a slash and burn approach to logistics while investing millions on unnecessary and unwanted nuclear capabilities. And I might not agree that free tuition fees do anything to close the inequality gap in educational attainment, but that doesn’t mean I support young people being saddled with debt they will take half their adult lives to repay. I might agree that £600 million is a rather steep price to pay for a tax system but I might think it is one worth paying if it keeps local tax offices open and allows for enough inspectors to clamp down on avoidance.
Darling’s cosy picture of interdependence within the UK also ignores global realities. Scotland’s universities can and do attract research funds from elsewhere on these islands – why would that stop, particularly when those funds come not from government but from charities like the Wellcome Trust? It and other bodies are not going to stop funding research and innovation in Scottish universities simply because we are independent, but rather more prosaically, if we became no good.
His premise also suggests that independence threatens the good things to have come out of the Union and which apply to others in the UK. But he doesn’t say why. There is no reason why an independent Scotland would do away with a minimum wage; indeed, we might choose to legislate for a living wage to be the standard. He implies that familial relationships and bonds with friends would be broken by independence. Why? Won’t we still be able to visit, phone, skype and email?
He suggests that staying in the UK means we will all be better off. He argues that “we” have spent 300 years building a shared strength. History does indeed suggest an element of truth in this.
But we should not choose how we live in the future by what happened in the past. Indeed, our current situation is of greater relevance surely. I’m not sure the 70,000 households in Scotland about to be hit by the bedroom tax, the 90,000 families who lost out on child tax credits last year, the thousands of young people who have been without work for over a year and the one in four Scots children growing up in poverty would agree that we are better off together.
Three hundred years of union – and in particular, the last three decades – have created a situation in Scotland where despite our abundant resources and potential, we are now a more unequal society than at any time since World War II. That fact in itself presents a compelling argument not to stay and suffer more of the same, but to vote yes to independence and the possibility of a different future.