Wednesday 17 September 2014

Guest post: 5 reasons to vote No, from an Englishman looking in

Slightly last minute: a "guest post" from someone who (unlike me at the moment) has managed to think through many of the arguments. 



Please vote “No.”  This is happening all the wrong way, and it’s likely to go terribly badly for all of us.  It’s not that I don’t understand that “Yes” voters want a different and independent Scotland.  I do.  It’s just not likely to happen.  And it’s not that I don’t understand “Yes” voters’ complaints about the past, and “the Westminster government”.  I understand those, and share many of them.  It’s just that voting Yes in this referendum isn’t likely to help any of that either.

This isn’t going to be an emotional appeal by an Englishman about 300 years of the union, and the fact I want you to stay etc.  Yes, it would be terribly sad if that all went out of the window, but sometimes the past has to be the past.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire worked for a while, and then it didn’t and nobody misses it now; albeit its collapse did leave a terrible mess at the time and that probably ought to be born in mind - Central Europe wasn't a great place to be for some time afterwards.  Self-determination should be the right of all, and if the Scots had a good reason to leave then they must leave.  Given this will affect me deeply as an Englishman, I’m pretty miffed that I don’t have a vote – butthat’s not the Scots’ problem.  (Although as an aside, self-determination is a bit over-rated – if I was an Aberdonian I’d be seriously considering an independence movement of my own to take all the oil – but I don’t suppose the rest of Scotland would be too impressed.)

In short, and for the reasons I expand on below, as far as I can tell there is simply no good reason to vote “Yes” in this referendum at this time.  

The benefits will be minimal at best, and the costs may well be enormous.  First, the economic case for “No” is unanswerable – and that has to be important.  “Liberty” isn’t much use if you’re on the breadline.  Second: what liberty?  The idea that “Scottish” people will be more able to pull the levers of power in the interests of “Scots” (whoever they are) is a fiction.  Third, the world is dangerous out there, and there is no real doubt that an independent Scotland will be weaker and more vulnerable than one in the UK.  And the world will become more dangerous for all of us simply because the UK as a whole will be weaker.  Fourth, as for the suggestion that Scotland will be a “fairer society”: that won’t be possible because the sums won’t add up; and anyway this whole affair has been hugely divisive within Scottish society – a divide which will become more acute if there is a Yes vote. Finally, if being proud to be Scottish is something important (and who am I to question if it is?), then know that The Greatest Scots In History (who were also very proud to be Scottish) would definitely have voted No.  (Clue: not William Wallace)

The bottom line is: in this referendum, “Yes” in fact means “Yes at all costs”, because what eventually happens is so unclear and most of all so dependent on the rest of the UK giving up things it may well not give up, and Scotland will be at the mercy of the financial markets from Friday 19 September.  And those costs could be vast – ruin-Scotland-for-a-generation vast.  Whereas “No” can just mean “Not at the moment.”

1.  The political establishment.  This is one of the supposedly unanswerable arguments of the “Yes” campaign; i.e. Westminster stinks, let’s rid ourselves of it and even if we have to tighten our belts in the initial rocky period, at least we’ll be “free”.

It’s a fiction.  The idea that by gaining independence from England, Scots will have detached themselves from the remote Westminster political class and be able to replace itwith a magically much friendlier and responsive set of rulers who are Scottish and therefore inherently better, is plain wrong


I understand that many Scots don’t like Westminster, and see it as remote and wrapped up in its own issues (whether duck houses or otherwise) and not those of the country which it is supposed to be governing. Because I feel that too.  It’s not a uniquely Scottish feeling.  I live within 15 minutes walk of Westminster (many of my neighbours are politicians), I work in a traditional establishment profession which has sent manyof its members (usually the less competent ones) to becomeMPs to Westminster (e.g. Tony Blair), I went to Oxford, I even studied PPE just like Cameron and Clegg and half the rest of the Cabinet, and I was privately educated.  I should be immersed in it.  This should be my world.  These should be “my people” if they are anybody’s.  But they aren’t and it’s beyond a joke, especially when they want 10% pay rises.  I’d like there to be change too.

I also understand that many Scots don’t like the Tories (although at the last general election the SNP won around 490,000 votes in Scotland and the Tories about 412,000 - so the idea that the Tories are somehow “un-Scottish” is clearly nonsense.)

So why won’t Scotland be free of these malign influences?

First, if Scotland does keep the pound (as Salmond says it will), then it won’t have detached itself from this elite.  rUKwill still make all the important decisions about the Scottish economy – it will do that if Scotland is a partner in a currency union, and especially if it isn’t.  But the trouble is rUK will be a foreign country, and won’t have any reason or obligation to make those decisions with Scotland in mind.  In fact, Scotland will be less powerful because it will have no say in Westminster (and the City of London) where all the important decisions will still be made.  A version of this has happened with the Euro.  Germany made all the important decisions, and the upshot was that it did rather well and Greece/Portugal/Cyprus suffered badly – oddly, the Greek economy was at the whim of Chancellor Merkel, in a way that the Bavarian economy (because Germany is a federal state) wasn’tIt will be “independence” without any real independence.  

In fact, the greatest deception of the “Yes” campaign is that, in my view, actually that is an outcome they would be content with.  It would be bad for Scotland, but they could pretend to the world that Scotland was “independent”.  They could start ordering all those statues of Salmond, Sturgeon et al for squares around Scotland.  They would have “won” and their egos would be inflated.  But Scotland would have lost.  The fact they will have been able to get away with this betrayal of Scotland is a symptom of my second point.

The second point is that, as Scots know well, Scotland alreadyhas its own equally unattractive ruling elite.  Scots will be exchanging like for like, just with different accents.  Salmondand his pals aren’t the visionary Founding Fathers, dodging harsh winters and British cannons to draw up lists of self-evident truths for the benefit of America and the world.  They’ve been in power locally for ages.  They could have used their tax raising powers to raise NHS spending in Scotland, but they haven’t.  They talk about a “fairer society” but spend weekends at Gleneagles and rub shoulders with Donald Trump (“A new gold resort Donald, on pristine countryside near Aberdeen?  No problem.  I’ll sort out any problems with the little people.”)  This isn’t a party political issue – just like in Westminster, they are all up to their necks in it.  These people will be in charge, and they will sell Scotland (incl what is left of the NHS etc etcdown the river if it suits them just like the Tories might do in England.  

In fact, they’ll have to, because it’s going to be hard for Scotland to balance the books.  Which brings me on to…

2.  Economics.  It might be called “the dismal science” and there are very few certainties in economics.  But there is one thing that is certain in economics and that is uncertainty.  The economy doesn’t like it.  It’s going to be very bad for all of us if there is “Yes” vote, and especially Scotland.  This uncertainty already exists, but if there is a Yes vote it will get much worse.

I’m won’t dwell on what might be called the “balance sheet” approach to asking whether Scotland’s economy will succeed; e.g. there is oil, and skilled people, and other useful resourcesetc – great assets that already mean Scotland is a rich country.  All other things being equal, it probably would continue to be a rich country, simply because it is at the moment.  But all the other factors wouldn’t be equal.  Many of them are going to change a lot, and the big problem is that nobody knows how, because the Yes campaign hasn’t explained it.  And even to the extent it has, none of it is guaranteed as they need rUK to agree to it.

None of those (considerable) assets are of much use if there is uncertainty, and people feel unable to make the decisions about the future that allow Scotland to benefit from those assets.  

On Day 1 after a “Yes” vote, no one knows what an independent Scotland will look like.  How laws will be made,whether it’s going to be in the EU, how the banks will be regulated, what the currency will be, even whether it will pay its debts…. the list is endless.  The Yes campaign has notprovided any of the details. Consequently, investors have to assume that there is at least a reasonable possibility that they will make a terrible mess of it – which possibility begins to feel like a probability when Yes Scotland are pressed for answers and can’t give them.  Zimbabwe was a rich country once, and it could be again, but bad government sent it into chaos.

This is a big problem.  For investors to make decisions about putting money into Scotland (or leaving in money that is already there), they have to be confident that it is a stable country where people, and especially the government, pay their debts.  But all bets will be off.  People will stop putting money into Scotland to invest in its future.  And people that have already invested money in Scotland may take it out if they can.  There will be a similar effect in the wider UK but probably less severe.  The existing prosperity of the UK is the result of 300 years of stability.  

What will happen?  Economics 101.  The value of the pound will fall dramatically, which means imports cost more.  The value of the stock market will drop.  This means that the value of people’s pensions and savings will drop.  The housing market will crash.  And companies (especially Scottish companies) will be poorer.  There will be less money for them to invest in expansion, and it will be harder for new businesses to start.  This means fewer jobs.  The interest rate the government has to pay will go up, which means less money for nice things like the NHS, or higher taxes.  Everybody is poorer, and the government will have less money to help with that.

This is why 80% of FTSE 100 chairman think a Yes vote is a bad idea.  These aren’t fatcats in their ivory towers.  Ok they might be fatcats – but these are the people that employmillions around the UK.

The Yes campaign has no answer to this, because it can’t be answered.    I can be sure about that because it’s already happening, simply because markets are concerned about the risk of a Yes vote.  Money is already leaving Scotland (and to some extent the UK).  The value of the pound and the FTSE dropped sharply on the first poll that suggested a possible Yes vote. To put that in perspective, the value wiped off Scottish companies following that poll was more or less equivalent to total annual tax receipts from North Sea oil.  So much for oil paying for everything…

When there actually is Yes vote, it’s going to get pretty out of hand for a while.

This isn’t a question about whether Scotland has the “assets” (natural resources, skills etc) to survive in the long term.  It’s a question of whether it can survive the initial weeks and months.

When the benefits of independence are far from clear (see 1 above), what’s the point?

3.  The dangerous world.

The world outside the borders of the UK is a dangerous place.  It’s probably more dangerous now than it has been in a generation.  Dark forces like ISIS are filling the power vacuums that are appearing all over the Middle East.  Putin has made it pretty clear that he wants to expand the borders of Russia in more or less any way possible.  The US has made it pretty clear that it’s not going to be the world’s policeman anymore – it doesn’t have the appetite.  It’s pretty wild out there.  Some of the fault for this situation I think has to be laid at the door of Bush and Blair and others.  But it is the world we live in now.

In spite of all of those threats, we are in the UK fortunate enough to live in a country which is relatively rich, stable, and just and fair for most people most of the time.  We are more or less protected from these forces outside in the world – or as much as is reasonably possible.  There may have been times when we were slightly better off.  But compared to the history of the UK we are largely better off than we ever have been and we are certainly better off than the vast majority of the people in the world.  The “Yes” campaign wholly lacks a bit of “big picture” perspective.

The reason we are in this fortunate but delicate position is because of hundreds of years of building a country which has the resources to keep those dark forces at bay – whether it’s people, or technology.

Why would anyone break this up?  Why gamble, for no obvious benefit (see 1 above)?

4.  The “moral sin of separatism”

Enough from me for a bit.  Let’s hand over to MichaelIgnatieff, former prime minister of Canada – a country which has had its own separatist issues (see his article “A secessionist lust for power that tears lives asunder”  FinancialTimes, 27 June 2014,

Secessionists, whether in Scotland, Catalonia, Quebec or anywhere else, invariably assume that a person must either be Scottish or British, Catalan or Spanish, Québécois or Canadian. What about those who feel they are both? I know that I cannot share the same sense of being a minority my Québécois friends feel but I do know that Quebec’s soil, its language, its winter cold, its languid summers, are part of who I am.

I am not so exceptional. There are hundreds of thousands of Scots who acknowledge English, Irish or Welsh parts of their very being. Lives and destinies are similarly intertwined in Catalonia and Spain, in Ukraine and Russia. The same was true in the former Yugoslavia, where in the 1990s women with Croatian names and Serbian husbands used to ask me with tears in their eyes why the nationalists were forcing them to choose between parts of their being.

This is the moral sin of separatism. Separatist politicians, desiring to be presidents or prime ministers of little countries, force their fellow citizens to make choices that they should not have to make between identities that they have combined, each in their own unique way, and now watch being ripped apart – one portion of themselves flung on one side of a border, a damaged remnant on the other. If Scotland does secede, there will be many torn souls the day after.

I do not claim secession is never justified. When blood has been shed, people will fight to be free of an alien yoke. But where, as in the UK, Canada, Spain and Ukraine, peoples have lived side by side, perhaps not always in justice but usually in peace, secession is the worst sin in politics, a gratuitous infliction of political choice on peoples who do not want to be forced to choose."

This is all very compelling.  But for Scotland it goes even further.  Many Scots (perhaps a majority) don’t want to be forced to choose.  They want to stay in the Union.  These people self-evidently have a different view of what “Scotland” is and means from the Yes campaign.  Why should they be forced to assume a different identity?  Maybe they’ll leave – and go to a nearby neighbour where they speak the same language, differences will be respected, jobs will be available etc.

Which brings me onto what being Scottish might mean for some people, and what Scots can genuinely be proud of…

5.  The Scottish Enlightenment.  

This is the really important one for Scots who care about Scottish history and identity.  

I think unquestionably the greatest thing that Scotland has ever given the world, and the thing that all Scots (whoever they are – see below) should be most proud of, is the Scottish Enlightenment.  It’s more important than the TV or the telephone or anything else that Scotland gave the world.  It’s in a different league entirely.  

Central to this 18th century movement (see Smith, Hume et al) was the idea that decisions about important things, like the way a country is governed, should be made on the basis of observation and logic, and not emotional and atavistic impulses like nationalism or ethnicity.  Seems pretty sensible and obvious.  In the 21st century the vast majority of people in the West accept that lots of different national and ethnic groups can rub along in one state under one government, which allows differences to flourish.  In fact, differences of nationality or ethnicity should be no more important in working out how we should be governed than differences of class, or sexuality, or marital status, or hair colour etc.  We accept that the role of government is not to favour one tribalgroup (or any other kind of group) over another – it’s to work for all.  Democracy isn’t even just the rule of the majority – it’s government of the people, by the people, for (all) the people.

This was a revolutionary idea in the 18th century.  It led indirectly to the French and American Revolutions, and it more or less introduced the idea of liberal democracy to the world.  The history of the 20th century could be said to be about the fight of ideas like these against the despotic ideas of nationalism in its more extreme forms and the communism of Soviet Russia. And some thought in the 1990s that that battle of ideas had finally been won (well, Fukuyama did.  A lot of other people thought it was obvious that it hadn’t.).   People like Putin and ISIS remind you that it definitely hasn’t.

However, a “Yes” vote by Scotland would be a wholesale rejection of those ideas.  It would be a return to the ideas and values of pre-18th century Britain.   Scotland would be going back on the greatest thing it ever gave the world.  

For example, one of the Scottish enlightenment philosophers might have approached the debate in the following way:-

“We use the same currency in England and Scotland.  This makes sense because there is lots of trade between us. It also helps us as people living in Scotland to have the much bigger backing of all the people in England in case anything goes wrong.  So it helps for the governments to be fiscally united. We’re better together.  The fact that I’m Scottish and English people are English is irrelevant.  We can each be different and live in a mutually beneficial state which allows us all to prosper.

These guys would utterly reject the notion that you should make decisions in the following way:

“I would rather be governed from Edinburgh by Scots, because that is the capital of Scotland, and I am part of the imaginary community of Scotland, which is comprised of Scots, who are some people living north of an invisible line through heathery hills somewhere between Carlisle and Berwick-on-Tweed, and whom I imagine to be a bit like me and love haggis and tartan and football and Irn Bru.”

The enlightenment philosophers might point out that an accident of geography or a shared way of speaking is no basis for a system of government.  They’d urge you not to consider yourself bonded to all other Scots in some special way, any more than you are bonded to anyone else that you might have one or two things in common with as: (i) most of them youhave never met, and you know nothing about; (ii) most ofthem aren’t in fact remotely like you in any way, save the one fact that they live within a few hundred miles of where youlive and have a sort of similar way of speaking; (iii) many ofthem aren’t in fact even “Scottish” by a lot of definitions i.e. they weren’t born here, or have only lived here briefly, or (worst of all) they are English.  The fact that some of them put on blue shirts and go to Murrayfield with you might be fun.  For some people it’s important.  For (many) others it’s meaningless beyond a bit of fun and other bonds of family or class might dominate.  As Billy Connolly has said, he feels he has more in common with a welder from Liverpool than most Scots – does it follow that welders should declare some sort of independent state?

Put another way, separation on the basis of geography is drawing an arbitrary line – you are no more likely to get a government that represents your interests than in the status quo.  What you are more likely to get is a government which speaks with a similar accent to you, and maybe supports the same football team.  But does that really matter?  Of course not.

As Rory Stewart MP points out in this elegant and brilliant article linked here (, there is an invisible line in the Solway Firth that used to be important.  During Roman times it was the line between civilisation and barbarism, and there was in fact a physical barrier – Hadrian’s Wall.  But for the last 300 years it has been as it should be – invisible and basically irrelevant.  Why draw a line when there isn’t one there?  It’s totally arbitrary.  

This pretty much kills the main argument advanced by “Yes” people i.e. that you can leave aside the economics, “we” all know there are risks, “we” just want to govern “ourselves”.  

There isn’t a “we” that is meaningful to this question.


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