Alex Salmond, Lallands Peat Worrier, Nicola Sturgeon, Nigel Farage, North Sea Oil, Opinion, Politics, Reverend Stuart Campbell, Scottish Independence, Scottish National Party, Scottish Nationalism, SNP, Unionism
Let’s glance back over some recent headlines about Scottish politics:
“SNP’s independence oil forecasts ‘wrong by £155 million a day’” (Telegraph, 29 December 2014).
“Ashcroft polls show sensational surge for SNP and suggest they will win more than 50 MPs in May” (New Statesman, 4 February 2015).
“Independent Scotland would now be bankrupt due to plummeting oil prices, Lord Foulkes tells peers” (Daily Record, 10 February 2015).
“SNP set to double its vote in general election, poll finds” (Guardian, 10 February 2015).
Is Scotland going completely around the bend? The latest TNS poll reports that 46% of the Scottish electorate are likely to vote for a political party with an £18.6 billion “black hole” in not just its economic forecasting, but in its very model of a future society. I’m referring, of course, to the Scottish National Party, its 2013 White Paper, and its anticipated tax revenues from North Sea oil over the first three years of independence. As the Herald pointed out in December:
The black hole in 2015/16 – between what the SNP predict they would take in revenues and what the OBR have forecast – is almost £5bn. To put that in perspective, the Scottish Government plans to spend £2.5bn on justice, £2.9bn on education and £4.4bn on finance, employment and growth in the same period.
As an admirer of Scottish financial disasters throughout history such as the 1698 Darien scheme, the 1826 National Monument of Scotland, the thing with the parliament and the thing with the tram, it’s such a privilege to be living through another one. The oil tax shortfall is already set to become a future classic. But, to paraphrase Adam Smith, what the fucking hell is going on? Has any British political party ever been proven to be so wrong on the most basic questions about running the country, and yet continued to enjoy such unflagging popular support?
More to the point, what does the SNP have to do to get its poll lead dented? Poison rivers and harry the north? Close down the two nuclear power stations which provide half of Scotland’s electricity? Replace “Flower of Scotland” with the Anaconda song?
Despite appearances, this is a serious question. For it seems that Scotland is now so contaminated with identity politics or a populist disaffection with politics, that when some previously unremarkable political questions come along – such as “how do we run the country and pay for it?” – they are viewed as intruders in the proper realm of debate. Perhaps I should spell it out: if Scotland had voted Yes last September, there would be currently absolute panic in Edinburgh. The headmasters of schools and the chief executives of hospitals would be enjoying living in the present, valuing all of the good things that they have now. Independence would be poised to fall over Scotland like a horrible black shadow.
Of course, we voted No and so we are not going to face cuts to Scottish public services which would make boneheaded Thatcherites spill their G&Ts. But amongst Scotland’s political elite, there is no audible relief at what we have escaped. Even worse, there is no tacit acceptance that the pro-independence lobby might have to be more economically reliable in the future. It’s not even that independence has been cynically traded for economic security. The SNP’s campaign for “Home Rule” in the forthcoming general election wishes to retain the disastrous “full fiscal autonomy” of independence without the supposed advantages of self-determination.
(Long-suffering observers of Scottish politics will have seen that Home Rule is just a repackaged Independence, in the same way that Independence was just a repackaged Devo Max. All of these models avoid the actual independence of printing your own currency and empowering a government which is accountable to the demos. Call it what you will, but in the same recycled sub-democratic policy, interest rates will be set in London and over 60% of laws will be made in Brussels.)
Even Scotland’s famous blogosphere, which is usually congratulated by itself and the rest of the media for being bold, inspiring, and plucky, has next to nothing to say about oil. Indeed, there is such a failure to square up to the topic, and deal with it intellectually, that the embarrassment almost eclipses that of a nation’s independence drying up along with its oil.
Or maybe its brains have dried up along with its oil. You might think that the collapse in the price of Scotland’s leading resource would raise no end of questions. Is Scotland merely a supply region and henceforth too economically unsophisticated to become a viable nation? Are its cities still, even today, too immature to support a welfarist nation-state? Will the oil price rebound in the future and should this argue for the economics of independence to be postponed rather than abandoned? Or is nationalism such a valuable thing in itself that it does not matter if we are financially poorer, so long as we have an independent nation?
If the latter is the case, then Scottish nationalists might be sympathetically aligned with those who want Britain to leave the European Union. The UKIP leader Nigel Farage is on record as saying that, “I would rather we weren’t slightly richer and I would rather we had communities that felt more united.” He might have here unwittingly furnished a usable SNP slogan.
Most of the Scottish blogosphere, however, ducks the oil. The music journalist Paul Morley once confessed that the blogosphere depressed him, in regard to its music criticism, because the whole thing had somehow assumed a bland, almost corporate tone, with its writers voluntarily taking the same line on any issue. Within the Scottish blogosphere, the corporate line is to pretend that economics is presently not a part of the Scottish independence debate.
In December, Wings Over Scotland maintained that in the post-independence negotiations the oil price would have been London’s problem and that oil workers were still losing their jobs within the Union. And moving on to the broader implications for an independent Scotland? “…on balance we’re going to stick to writing 2016’s stories in 2016.” True to his word, this year the Wings writer Reverend Stuart Campbell has written all of one article about oil.
It’s amusing to see Magnus Davidson, writing for the post-Occupy nationalist hangover National Collective, reassuring its left-wing readers that oil-pumping capitalism remains in rude health. Davidson’s guarantee that “We’ve been here before. The oil price has been this low before” rather overlooks the foolishness of expecting a stable market for any single resource, and then building most of a nation on that market. This has never worked in the long term for any nation in the history of economics (and, in common with Jane Jacobs, I would rank such apparent success stories as Norway as supply regions). Bella Caledonia and National Collective are more generally wistful about factoring oil out of Scotland’s economy, which is appealing but not actively helpful. It’s rather like wishing that you were playing with different cards.
Even the altogether more intellectually enthralling Lallands Peat Worrier focuses on the latest travails of Unionism, whilst ignoring the reality-bending economics on his own side. He writes (about a recent Unionist attempt to woo Scotland with infrastructure spending) that “it is still about the cold hard cash. And it still does not answer the deeper, more ineffable concerns… about how to build the British solidarity found wanting in the run up to last September.” This is very similar to the representation of Scottish nationalism within much of the mainstream media, one of regimented Scottish nationalists marching brainlessly towards victory, in an unstoppable wave of history, without any consideration for the practicalities of running a country. So yes, when the sheer banality of nationalism is weighed against some sturdy infrastructure, it really is all about the cold hard cash.
Perhaps I should interrogate my own reluctance to write this article. When girding my loins this morning, I had expected to find half the internet to be filled with articles just like it, in a loud cacophony of raspberries and told-you-so-ing. But there is instead as much reluctance amongst Unionists to dwell on oil as there is amongst Yes men. We are still, I guess, haunted by the paralysing spectre of “Project Fear.”
Last year, those of us who were sceptical about Scottish independence always had to formally declare, at the start of our scaremongering, that yes, of course Scotland could “go it alone” and that of course Scotland is not “too wee, too poor, too stupid.” If any of us had dared to predict that Scotland would be bankrupted by an oil crisis, you can imagine the gleeful pandemonium amongst the nationalists. And even though on the scaremongering spectrum, the worst-case scenario has turned out to be unnervingly realistic, not all of this agonisingly-polite mentality has been frittered away. Economics still seems like a pollutant, and our soaring Scottish future, with all of its dreams and plastic aspirations, should be kept pure.
After observing the referendum debate throughout September, Tychy concluded that the Yes campaign was a flight of fantasy back to the 1980s, an attempt to restore a model of social democracy which the masses had previously rejected time and time again. If the SNP dementedly persists in screwing down its oil-impoverished nation, regardless of the consequences for actual people’s lives, then the fantasy could become a nightmare.