Broadly speaking, I’m indifferent to the outcome of the Scottish referendum. Not because I’m uninterested, but because the debate seems to be motivated by entirely the wrong intentions. Whilst tonnes of ink have been spilled as to whether there would be greater benefits to Scotland to remain in the Union or leave, far less has been said on the subject of whether the far larger remainder of the UK would benefit.
As an Englishman, I see few material benefits to the UK of Scotland’s presence in the Union. Ridding ourselves of the Barnett formula, some broken banks and Scotland’s over-represented, lefty MPs would all be substantial benefits for me.
I’m tempted to argue that, if the Scots do vote ‘no’, it would be sensible to politely but firmly ask them to leave anyway. On the other hand, Scottish independence might well impose some serious costs and risks in the short to medium term which means that one should be cautious about advocating Scottish independence.
If the Scots do vote ‘no’, they are virtually guaranteed ‘Devo Max’, which might offer the benefit of forcing some sense of fiscal responsibility onto Scotland and, if the West Lothian question were adequately dealt with, have some political benefits as well. Sadly, I fear that it may simply mean greater plundering of the few productive parts of the UK economy in order to provide further subsidies to the unproductive parts—thus worsening the situation of all concerned. If this sounds very self-interested, one can hardly accuse the Scots of lacking in that quality.
From a Scottish perspective, the outlook seems entirely ridden with paradox. Many Scots seem to believe that, by voting Yes, they will help secure greater public spending. However, the reverse seems actually to be the case—an independent Scotland would face serious fiscal challenges which would probably mean very significant fiscal consolidation, especially in the absence of a central bank.
Given the welfarist nature of Scotland’s public discourse, the likely outcome would seem to be tax rises and economic malaise. Of course, if an independent Scotland did significantly cut public spending, it would likely be beneficial to Scottish performance—but that is not what many in Scotland seem to desire. The same could be said of the deregulation necessary to move Scotland closer to being a ‘Nordic’ economy.
On the other hand, Scotland has hardly prospered within a Union that has—with the support of the Scottish electorate—imposed high levels of taxation, regulation and welfare spending in both Scotland and the UK.
If the Scottish independence movement were imbued with the doctrines of Smith, Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment, one might have rather more faith than an independent Scotland might flourish under a less burdensome government. However, we can hardly have much optimism for a Scotland that seeks to leave the centrally-planned mess that is the UK economy in order to pursue a greater level of central-planning, taxation and expenditure.
Indeed, the most unedifying spectacle of the Scottish referendum has been the sight of politicians of all stripes falling over themselves to offer the greatest amounts of cash to sway voters. If either the Yes or No campaigns offered real liberty to the people of Scotland (or the rest of the UK), we might have a more optimistic future.
Similarly, the greater devolution that might be on offer to the rest of the UK is all well and good, but only if it means genuine devolution of powers to the individual and not simply shifting power from bureaucrats in Whitehall to bureaucrats in town halls.
Karl Popper, in The Open Society and its Enemies, enjoined us to consider that what matters is not ‘who governs?’ but ‘what are the proper functions of government?’. Whilst the two are intertwined, it is the latter question, not the former which is key. The Scottish referendum debate has ignored this distinction. It is predicated on the belief that there is a substantive choice between government from London or government from Edinburgh that will determine whether the individuals who live in Scotland flourish or not.
This is a false dilemma. What matters is liberty and the restraint of government to its proper functions. Until Scotland, either as part of the UK or independent, rediscovers this, its future looks bleak indeed.