Supposing that Scotland had voted to become independent in 2014. Supposing that this nation had not fallen stillborn from the ballot; that negotiations with the UK and the EU had proceeded amicably; and that by 2020 it had a currency that was as sound as a pound. Supposing – and we have already had enough “supposings” to cave in a camel’s back – that Scotland had not needed to endure phenomenal austerity to get to this position. Supposing, finally, that an independent Scotland was more or less recognisable as the same nation that it is today, running the same deficit and with the same level of welfare spending.
If COVID-19 had ever darkened this alternate-reality, thought-experiment Scotland, how would the Scottish government have dealt with it? Would Scotland have been able to afford as generous a job-retention scheme for Scottish workers as that paid out by the UK’s Chancellor Rishi Sunak? Would the same options and resources have been available to it?
This is the ostensibly “killer” question that is now being brandished by that rump of the UK Conservative party that is still interested in rescuing Scotland from itself. For example, on Wednesday the Spectator’s political editor James Forsyth had relayed Sunak’s intended message that, “an independent Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would not have been able to have done such schemes.” Forsyth had added that, “this is a sign of how the Union is rapidly rising up the list of concerns in Whitehall and rightly so.” He foresees that the Tories will from now on forever bombard Scottish nationalism with the question of how it could have coped alone.
Within Scotland, Murdo Fraser, the Tories’ finance spokesman, has been already pounding on this drum for a while. This is him in the Scotsman at the start of June:
The SNP argue that, without substantial borrowing powers, Holyrood is restricted in the business and other support that it is able to offer, ignoring the fact that the Scottish Government does already possess powers to borrow, albeit limited, and also the facility that is known as the Scotland Reserve. The issue is that these borrowing powers have already been substantially committed, and the Scotland Reserve run down…
His argument goes swimmingly, of course, until one begins to question whether Sunak’s programme is really the best or the only way of dealing with a crisis on the magnitude of COVID-19. The current resurgence in Scottish nationalism remains strangely meaningless because Unionists and Nationalists share many of the same assumptions about the proper role and size of the state. In this encounter, the issue of independence is reduced from a fruitful political dispute to an empty competition.
An independent Scotland could have paid a fraction of Sunak’s furlough – say between a third and a half of wages – and funded the remainder with a compulsory suspension of rents, mortgage payments, and commercial rents. This would mean that the banks and the rentier class would have paid up front for most of the emergency, essentially as a windfall tax, with less of a reliance upon the money markets. If an independent Scotland was feeling cheeky, it could have left the government in London to automatically bail out any banks that had run into trouble as a result of held-up Scottish mortgages.
I am not in any way presenting this scenario as a responsible solution. I have not thought through all of its potential consequences and, if I did so, I might recognise its inherent foolishness. I would be most daunted by the problem of how to impose a rent suspension universally, without payments continuing as normal on various black markets. But if I was leading an independent Scotland during a pandemic, then this approach would be my starting-point. You would have to hope that the civil service would guide my hands gently away from the relevant levers.
For here’s the thing. A Unionist such as myself is actually left cold by the argument that there is no serious alternative for Scotland aside from Rishi Sunak. This threatens a lowering of horizons and a reconciliation with all of the miserabilism of the status quo. It is synonymous with contending that we should be grateful for today’s state-capitalism because it provides people who would be otherwise unemployed with jobs in which they scramble around delivering hundreds of Amazon parcels; or the idea that the North Korean economic system is indispensable because without it people would not be able to bask in the eternal wisdom of the Dear Leader.
We should apparently celebrate the Union because with it we are only economically depleted, whereas without it we would be ruined. Under this logic, Scotland is increasingly spoken about as if it is a schizophrenic patient that is unwisely threatening to stop taking its Unionist medication. The fact that independence has a fifty-four percent rating in the latest opinion polls, when there is literally no functioning economic model of Scottish independence, demonstrates the subsequent extent of the Union’s vulnerability. All that the SNP now need to achieve is a bare veneer of financial competence and then their nation is theirs.
I am dreading the return of Scottish independence. This is chiefly because it is just so monumentally boring. Reading dreary bickering about “fiscal transfers” every day will be like signing on to a year-long course on Applied Technocracy at a higher education college. It is rendered additionally boring by the fact that each side has stiffened into a caricature of themselves from 2014. The Unionists still think that Project Fear has some sort of rusty mojo; the Nationalists continue to behave as if independence is a wonderful daydream and that asking blunt questions about what the currency will be, or whether any public sector will survive, is to reveal a damning lack of poetry in your own soul.
Mind you, if it remains possible to negotiate, I would happily accept three independence referendums, one after the other, on the condition that National Collective* were legally prohibited from reforming. [*National Collective. A Blairite lobbying organisation, 2013-2014, that had pretended to be an arts movement. All of their “art” was clichés, which they then proceeded to prostitute for political revenue. They humiliated the arts in Scotland and contributed absolutely nothing to the history of art.]
To place the emphasis that Murdo Fraser does upon an independent Scotland’s financial exposure, with the chiding implication that Scotland will be always out of its depth as a standalone nation, might have the opposite effect from deterring curiosity about separatism. In short, Scottish independence might be no longer quite so monumentally boring. Fraser is laying down a challenge about how an independent Scotland could be financed and this challenge will appeal to innovators and the practically minded.
This will be a challenge that is familiar to those on the left who are always having to explain how the nationalisations will work and how the free broadband will be paid for. Admittedly, most of the left are so chronically short-termist these days that they cannot see any further than the next tweet. Nonetheless, it could be that some outsiders to regular politics, a passing band of refugees from Hong Kong, say, will brainstorm an original way of bankrolling the Scottish state that will change everything.
Another small thing has shifted within the overall stagnation of the Scottish independence debate and this is a genuinely new and ominous development. It is a quality that I have noticed particularly in the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
It seems that he has made a private calculation that Scottish independence is inevitable. Next, he has started to invest in it, as though it is a start-up and he believes that it will eventually yield him a handsome return. The Union has been always lopsided in how it is weighted, with an overinflated nationalism in Scotland and a confused, underdeveloped one in England. Mogg’s calculation is that in the parleys that follow a YES vote, English nationalism will awaken from its sleep of thousands of years. He clearly anticipates that public opinion in England will wish to take a punitive or aggressive approach towards “the Scots.”
How else to account for his appearance in the House of Commons earlier in the month. Sneering at the prospect of a Scotland with its border closed to English visitors, he waxed into an openly anti-Scottish rhetoric that it is quite extraordinary to hear issuing from the top of the British government:
A border is something that you may stop people crossing. Even I am not suggesting that we make people from Gloucestershire present their passports before coming into Somerset. Passport to Pimlico, the honourable gentleman will remember, was when Pimlico was thought to belong to the Duke of Burgundy or some such and therefore had become an independent state within the United Kingdom.
He isn’t this stupid. As an MP from a party with “Unionist” in its title, he knows that we live in a Union of nations and that Scotland is not a shire or a county or a geopolitical nonentity such as Pimlico. He is mocking Scottish MPs and jibing at what he sees as their comically uppity country. It is inconceivable that he could have taken this tone with any other nation – even Wales – and it is fairly remarkable that he has faced no rebuke from the Tory leadership for doing so. But you have the impression of somebody who is finding their feet. Mogg evidently foresees a long career ahead of him of stirring up English nationalists in the fleshpots of Gloucestershire and Somerset, with abuse that passes for wit.
Unionism should be resourceful and commonsensical but at the moment it is barely even alert. The case for the Union should not sound as far-fetched, or as removed from realistic everyday politics, as it does presently. A load of people who live on a single island, who speak the same language, who are culturally synonymous, and who have been together part of one of the most productive and unusual projects in political history, should not randomly revert to medieval state formations over what a certain psychoanalyst has termed “the narcissism of minor differences.” And if all that Unionism can muster, conceptually, is crass commercial advertising in which the Union is Sunak’s reliable and generous insurance scheme, then such philistinism could well end it for good.
[Previously on Tychy: “The Lockdown and Thanatos.”]