Nicola Sturgeon puts all Scottish nationalist chips on Brexit ‘disaster’
GLASGOW — The case for Scottish independence, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon declared Sunday, is being made “greater and stronger by the day” thanks to the U.K. government’s “chaotic” approach to Brexit.
It was bullish talk as her Scottish National Party’s annual conference got under way in Glasgow, and Scottish government ministers wasted no opportunity to remind delegates (and voters) that they remain Scotland’s most popular political party.
That may be true, but politicians indulge in hubris at their own risk. The pro-independence Scottish government appears to be banking everything on the U.K.’s exit from the European Union being, to quote Sturgeon, an “unfolding disaster.” So once that process reaches its end in the spring of 2019, nationalist logic runs, a majority of Scots will be so desperate to escape the “utter chaos” of Brexit that they’ll swing behind independence.
If only it were that simple. As one former Scottish government adviser said: “The SNP gets things wrong when it concludes everyone thinks like itself.” A case in point was its initial response to last year’s Brexit vote, when Sturgeon said a second independence referendum was “highly likely.” She followed that statement through to its logical conclusion earlier this year when she formally demanded another plebiscite.
It proved a colossal misjudgment. In two subsequent elections, for Scotland’s local authorities and a U.K. general election in June, voters expressed their opposition to another referendum by voting Conservative or Labour. The SNP’s perceived enthusiasm for rejoining the EU (although its position on this is more nuanced) also lost the party thousands of votes.
The first minister envisages Scotland at the forefront of technological change, but has no credible narrative of how that might be achieved.
All of this, however, misses a more profound problem for Scotland’s independence movement, one the SNP still hasn’t confronted, and that’s economics. A recent YouGov survey found that 48 percent of Scots believe the economic forecasts deployed by the Scottish government before the 2014 referendum were “a misrepresentation to increase support for independence.” Only 28 percent thought they’d been fair.
In short, if Scots had only been voting with their hearts three years ago, they’d overwhelmingly have backed independence, but when their heads were factored in, a majority — even those sympathetic to the SNP’s arguments — simply didn’t believe breaking away from the United Kingdom would make them financially better off.
And if they didn’t believe that then, it seems unlikely they’ll do so now.
Projected North Sea oil revenue in 2014 proved to be grossly exaggerated, and had Scotland voted Yes in 2014 it would now be £11 billion worse off than SNP ministers anticipated. Not only that, but the Scottish government’s own annual fiscal balance sheet shows the gap between tax revenue raised in Scotland and the amount spent on public services is in the region of £13 billion a year.
Oil rigs in the Cromarty Firth off the coast of Scotland at Invergordon | Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Beyond token acknowledgments regarding the scale of the challenge posed by this notional “deficit” (at present, the U.K. government plugs the gap via fiscal transfers), Sturgeon has done little or nothing to improve perceptions of her party’s credibility when it comes to the economics of independence.
This is partly due to a lack of economic expertise among a younger generation of nationalist politicians who bought into unrealistic notions of never-ending growth before the financial crisis, and partly it comes down to a realization that it’s easier to talk process than hard statistics. A few weeks ago, Sturgeon delivered what was billed as a “major” speech on the Scottish economy, but beyond £45 million for research and development it contained nothing new or particularly bold. Elsewhere, she’s cited (West) German “Rhine capitalism” as a possible model, but with little follow through.
The first minister also envisages Scotland at the forefront of technological change, but has no credible narrative of how that might be achieved.
Au revoir North Sea oil
Then there’s fracking. Last week, following years of prevarication, the Edinburgh government banned it in Scotland, infuriating the energy company INEOS (responsible for 4 percent of Scottish GDP) and baffling some nationalists who believe that closing down a potentially lucrative source of revenue defies rationality.
Significantly, the decision ignored advice from the Scottish government’s own panel of expert advisers (who had been broadly supportive of fracking), but kept on board the six Green members of the Scottish parliament the SNP needs to retain a pro-independence majority. While “understandable” for those reasons, said an SNP insider who didn’t want to be identified, “in the long term, Scotland will have to frack.”
Some nationalists believe the fracking ban closes down a potentially lucrative source of revenue | Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images
“We can talk about North Sea oil all we like,” he said, “but that resource is running out, and we need something to replace it.”
Official figures show that Scotland’s economic growth slowed to 0.1 percent in the second quarter of this year, something Economics Secretary Keith Brown hailed as “good news.” As a devolved administration, the Scottish government doesn’t have full control of economic policy, but even pro-independence economists believe the SNP is being extraordinarily complacent about Scotland’s financial prospects, either devolved or independent.
There has been modest movement on two other fronts. In her recent program for government, Sturgeon hinted at tax rises to mitigate spending cuts from Westminster. Although a recent poll suggests voters support would back such a move, the SNP is cautious, realizing the reality might be more electorally damaging than the theory. Not only that, but even modest tax increases for middle and higher earners would do little to plug Scotland’s notional deficit.
Critiquing Brexit as an economic catastrophe is all well and good, but the SNP badly needs to ensure its own independence project doesn’t go the same way.
A “Growth Commission” established by the SNP about a year ago, meanwhile, is close to finishing its work and will likely publish three separate reports on public finances, economic growth and the currency options for an independent Scotland. The party leadership, however, is hesitant about how to present this “new thinking.” Publish too soon and opponents will accuse it of being “obsessed” with independence, hold off and it loses a valuable opportunity to prepare the ground for a second referendum.
“I suspect,” said one figure involved in the process, “such tentativeness reflects the fact that economics is no one’s strong subject in the current leadership team.” But if that’s true, then it’s a significant weakness. Critiquing Brexit as an economic catastrophe is all well and good, but the SNP badly needs to ensure its own independence project doesn’t go the same way.
David Torrance is a political commentator and biographer of Nicola Sturgeon.