The temperature of Scotland’s independence debate has finally started to rise, but sadly the argument continues to produce more heat than light. Despite the publication of today’s White Paper on Scottish Independence, the narratives haven’t changed on either side: the SNP promises a land of milk and honey, while the Better Together campaign continues to warn that an independent Scotland would be isolated and poor. Increasingly frustrated voters have resorted to sarcasm, with one joking that an independent Scotland could always use Irn Bru empties as a currency.
The promises in the White Paper largely fall into two categories: (1) things that the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) can already enact under the current devolution settlement; and (2) matters over which the SNP has little control. Proposing universal childcare falls into the first category. The SNP clearly favours Scandinavian-style public services without Scandinavian levels of taxation. But unless substantial changes to taxation are needed, there is nothing to stop the SNP, who have a majority in the Scottish Parliament, from introducing universal childcare tomorrow. Have they been holding back their big announcement as a bribe for independence, leaving Scots to struggle with inadequate childcare in the meantime? Or will the practicalities of such a scheme require more money than is currently available?
The list of matters over which the SNP has no control, or will have to negotiate, is extensive. For example, Scotland wants to keep the pound, but this will rely on goodwill from the rest of the UK. This is unlikely to be forthcoming without compromise from the Scots. If the UK’s nuclear weapons, currently based on Clydeside, are ordered off Scottish soil immediately, it is hardly likely that a currency union will be forthcoming. Realistically, an independent Scotland would end up trading these two priorities.
If the SNP’s practical case for independence has more holes than a Swiss cheese, the Better Together campaign is equally aereated. The SNP have nick-named it ‘Project Fear’, and not unreasonably so. Plenty of countries smaller than Scotland have forged happy and productive nations within the EU and NATO. From Ireland in the west to Estonia in the east, none of these countries regret their independence, despite its challenges.
In the short term, all the ‘No’ campaign needs to do is plant seeds of doubt in the minds of undecided voters. Better Together is in the lead, so there is no need to give hostages to fortune. However, if they are to put the independence debate to bed, at least for a generation, they need to make a positive case for the future of the UK. An apathetic discussion, followed by a close result, will only keep the issue of independence on the agenda, resulting in an indefinite limbo for Scotland and an ever more snarky relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK. That is in nobody’s interests.