I have been very reluctant to write more about the Scottish independence question. Earlier this year I wrote a couple of pieces about the currency question, and one about the implications for the rest of the UK. But since then I have become very aware of how painful this is for many people, including me. This piece is not easy for me to write: I have strong personal and family ties to Scotland, and have always seen my Scottish friends as part of my British "family". My own identity is more British than English, and I am deeply hurt by people who say "the United Kingdom is not a country" or "there is no such thing as British". That may be how they feel, but it is not how I see myself. For me, I am British first.
I am also concerned that anything I write now would be inevitably seen as taking a political stance. The economics of what is being called "independence" are horrible, at least in the short term: but if I write a piece explaining that, it will be seen as "anti-independent" and feed into the SNP's "Project Fear" rhetoric. But nor do I want to contribute to Yes campaign euphoria. The economics are horrible for the people of Scotland. They are not being told the truth.
I do not like the way in which the facts are being skewed, changed or omitted to suit the political stance. And I should emphasise that BOTH sides are guilty of this.
There have been actual lies from the SNP, such as Salmond's false claim that a Scottish government would be unable to prevent the Scottish NHS suffering spending cuts if Scotland remained in the union. The Scottish government already has full control of SNHS spending, so any cuts would be its own decision, Nor does the argument that SNHS spending would have to be cut due to reductions in the Barnett formula stack up: Scotland's receipts under the Barnett formula have actually risen by 3% under the Coalition government and it now receives more in fiscal support than any other region of the UK.
The SNP has also made many claims that cannot be substantiated. It continues to state that Scotland would remain part of the EU, despite clear statements from EU member states and officials that Scotland would have to apply for membership and meet Maastricht criteria. It also continues to insist that the UK government will eventually agree to a currency union which would be highly detrimental to both sides and probably would not survive anyway. And the SNP conceals important facts, such as that leaving the UK could mean temporarily losing EU support for Scottish farmers. .
Telling the Scottish people things that are untrue, making claims that have been rejected by the other parties concerned and concealing facts is unfair. The people of Scotland cannot make an informed decision if they are not being told the truth about what leaving the UK would mean. I call upon the SNP to come clean about what leaving the UK would mean for Scotland in the first few years. There would be a deep recession, possibly a currency crisis, and a substantial loss of capital and trade. It would be grim.
But in its way the approach taken by Better Together is more poisonous. Better Together's approach has been to paint a completely negative picture of an independent Scotland in order to frighten people into voting "No". This is just wrong. Scotland is perfectly capable of surviving as an independent country. It would suffer serious hardship for some years, but independence would enable it to rebalance its economy away from risky financial services and declining oil, and become a well-diversified, successful market economy. I have no doubt that the determination of the Scots, and their ability to endure difficulties for the sake of the future, would enable them to do this. They have every right to manage their own affairs and are more than capable of doing so.
And that brings me to the real problem at the heart of this debate. When I looked at the ballot paper for the vote on Thursday, I was surprised by the wording:
"Should Scotland be an independent country?"
My immediate response was "Yes of course it should!". Why would anyone want to be a citizen of a country that was not independent? If this were a vote about English independence, I would be very tempted to vote Yes and damn the economics. But that would cause me a problem. I said at the start of this post that I am British first, English second. Why should my desire to see England independent mean that I have to give up my British identity? Similarly, for those Scots who also see themselves as British - and there are many of them - why should they have to give up part of their identity in order to achieve independence for Scotland?
This is the dilemma that has been created for Scots by the way in which this vote has been framed. It was reiterated by David Cameron yesterday: he said Scotland has to decide whether it wants to remain in the union. But that is not the question the Scots are being asked! Scots are being asked whether Scotland should be independent, not whether it should leave the Union. Independence and membership of a successful supranational union are not mutually exclusive.
The SNP leadership do seem to grasp this, which is more than can be said for Better Together. But they explain it extraordinarily badly. They call for "a share" of UK institutions and insist that there must continue to be a currency union. This won't do: all it does is annoy the other side, who then close ranks and refuse to co-operate at all. It would be far better if the SNP explained clearly that although they want Scotland to be an independent country they do not wish to leave the Union: they want to reinterpret the Union in a way that works for them. They want, in short, to be treated as equals. Welsh nationalists have much in common with this view. And so do I.
I would like to see the UK recognise its constituent parts as independent countries in their own right, united in a federal model. I would like to see the anomalies of the Westminster system, such as the West Lothian question, resolved once and for all by creating a system of governance for the United Kingdom that truly recognises that its citizens really have dual nationality - they are British, but they are also Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish.
I wouldn't like anyone to interpret this piece as endorsing a "Yes" vote. I fear that the intransigence of the UK side is such that a "Yes" vote would indeed mean, as Cameron put it, a "messy divorce" - a divorce which, as far as I can see, neither side really wants. I actually have a problem with both "Yes" and "No" votes: "Yes" because it could result in a costly and unnecessary breakup, and "No" because it could entrench existing governance and lead to an even more painful separation further down the road.
We do not have to sleepwalk into this. Both sides must change their stance before it is too late.
I called above for the SNP to come clean about the costs of this potential divorce for the people of Scotland. Now I call upon the Better Together side to state plainly that a "No" vote would not be a vote for the status quo but would be followed by real changes to the way the Union is constituted, recognising the legitimate demands of the constituent countries of the UK for self-determination and self-government.