The Scotland that could have been

Had Scotland voted Yes in the independence referendum in 2014 today would have been the preferred date of independence as announced by the SNP Government and would have marked the start of Scotland’s journey on its’ own two feet.

It’s hard to believe that it’s only 18 months that have passed since then; surely for Labour supporters it will feel like a lifetime ago.  Scotland has changed significantly since we voted on our future, and the terms of any future independence debate – and there likely will be one at some point – have changed too.

This article will set out the state of affairs that an independent Scotland would be in on this, day one, and discuss how things are different that we have stayed in the UK.

Economy

First and foremost is the economic implications that independence would have.  There’s no real way of knowing how things would be if Scotland had chosen independence, because the cloth cutting of separating from the rest of the UK was never something that was close to being agreed upon by the Yes and No campaigns – with independence supporters saying we’d get a good deal and No campaigners saying we’d be worse off.  There’s also still no way of knowing whether or not we would have been able to keep the pound as a currency – although it’s worth noting that former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King has since said that a currency union would be “feasible” and that the Treasury’s stance towards it would be different had there been a Yes vote.

The real economic point of interest since the referendum though has been the oil price collapse which has left the North Sea industry gasping for breath.  Prices of oil have plunged to lower than $40 a barrel – which means that it is worth only a third of what it was worth when Scotland voted on independence.  This would have been a hammer-blow to SNP predictions of an oil bonus from independence and would have dipped the Scottish economy into a certain fiscal crisis.

It’s worth noting on this point too, though, that the Chancellor’s budget last Wednesday actually went as far as to abolish the petroleum revenue tax that gives the Treasury some form of income from North Sea revenues, which is obviously going to factor in to future forecasts.  Regardless of whether this stimulates the industry, by removing this tax it gives corporations free reign to make what they can out of our natural resources.  This would never have happened in an independent Scotland, where we would properly value the profits of our natural resources as something for all our citizens rather than for multinational companies.

So really the economic vision is unclear, but it’s likely that an independent Scotland would have had to come out fighting in economic terms to succeed in the way it was hoped.

Government

Here is where things would probably be most likely the same.  We would be heading into Scottish Parliament elections in May with the SNP riding high and the opposition parties trying to create an alternative based around the new powers the Scottish Parliament has at its’ disposal.  Sound familiar?

The difference would be in terms of personnel and in terms of the scope of the debate.  Having power over things like defence, foreign affairs, taxation, welfare, energy policy and the like would be a massive shake up and make Scottish Parliament elections more important than they’ve ever been before.  Instead of proposing ideas that can never be implemented unless UK parties agree to it, the Scottish parties could propose real change that would make Scotland a better country for us all.

With the constitutional question out of frame, it would be fascinating to see how parties would have positioned themselves.  The SNP’s driving goal would have been achieved and the loose coalition of members bound together by the desire for independence would likely have been broken.  The unionist parties would be free of the shackles of their UK parties and would be able to put forwards agendas that suit their members rather than toeing the party line.

While economic constraints could well have limited the options available to Scotland’s parties, I think it’s almost certain that we would have a more engaging and more alternative election on the way if we were an independent country.  The idea that Scotland’s future was in Scotland’s hands was a major component of the Yes argument and one that I’m sure many Unionists were tempted by.  This is an area where I believe most would look at as an opportunity lost.

Society

Although the initial post-referendum fears of a full-on Ulsterfication of Scotland have been dispersed, there still seems to be a divide in Scotland drawn upon independence lines.  That would likely have remained even if we’d voted Yes, but with the relative permanence of that decision compared to what appears to be happening with independence it seems that there would have needed to be more togetherness in Scotland if we were going it alone.

The referendum brought out some of the best in Scotland, and the largely convivial nature of the debate really showed that people were thinking about their country in the terms of what it could be.  That vision of peacefully building a new country would have been almost unique in an international context and could have been an exemplar across the world of how a nation can stand on its’ own two feet.

I believe that if we had voted Yes that the excitement and engagement of the public in the debate would have held true for much longer as people across the country, who had votes Yes and No, would have got involved in the process of making the Scotland they’ve always wanted to see.

The best evidence for this is in the victory speech that Alex Salmond never got to give.  It’s laden with quotes that extend this vision of a unified Scotland, here are just a few:

“We are One nation. One Scotland. Let us shape the future together.”

“This must be the start of new politics – a time when the voices of the many will be heard.”

“I want every person, Yes voters, No voters, everyone in this proud and ancient nation to pause, reflect upon and remember this greatest day in Scotland’s history.”

“A country reborn. A democracy reclaimed. We reach towards the future.”

This new Scottish society is one that would definitely have come from an independent country, as the opaque political institutions of Westminster gave way to a more open system as Holyrood has set out to do over its’ 17 years.

 

That’s how things might have looked if Scotland chose to go it alone, but the truth is we’ll never know what would have happened.  Before the referendum all we had were plans on the way things would be, nothing concrete.  Even the infamous “Vow” of more powers a few days before the vote was far from set in stone.

As things stand, support for independence has grown since the 2014 referendum but is still not the preferred option of a majority of Scots.  Opposition parties have struggled to comprehend the groundswell of support for independence and are still playing catch-up to public opinion more than 18 months later, and that has meant that both the SNP and independence support has held strong despite the Yes campaign’s defeat.  Here’s how the polls have shifted between September 2014 and now:

indp-polling-24-mar-16

The only sure thing that has come from the referendum then is that Scotland’s constitutional future is far from settled.  The new powers to be delivered by the Scotland Act will come into force during the next Scottish Parliament and will change the way in which our politicians debate in a big way.  It will be on the basis of these new powers, and how well they are implemented, that the Scottish people will eventually decide whether there should be another campaign for independence or whether our future lies within the UK.

Today could have been our independence day, but even though it isn’t: this isn’t any old Thursday.  The 5th Scottish Parliament elections take place six weeks from today and the official campaigns are now underway.  Before us is a choice of who we trust to shepherd us through the next five years and who we want to be in charge of the new powers the Scottish Parliament have at their disposal.

We’re not independent; but we are closer in spirit and in power than we have been in some time.

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