THE BLOG

The Case For Scottish Independence Has Not Been Made

15/09/2014 20:04 BST | Updated 15/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Two years ago I founded the Scotland Institute, a new think tank for Scotland. Since then we have brought some of Scotland's finest minds to bear on the biggest issue to face our country perhaps since the Act of Union in 1707: independence.

Like you, we have listened to the arguments on both sides. Now it is time to weigh them, assess priorities, gather our findings, and decide.

There will be some, on both sides of the campaign, who want to argue that this decision is not really one to be made on the basis of facts and evidence, but a matter for the heart. Some are passionate about the idea of independence, with all its connotations of boldness, self-determination, and fresh beginnings. Others feel in their gut that we should stick with what we know, that 'if it ain't broke don't fix it', and that if our three hundred year history of union with the rest of the United Kingdom is a tradition which has endured, it is because it has deserved to and has built up reasonable consent with the Scottish people.

There is nothing wrong with taking this decision on the basis of heart. But our job as a think tank is to do our best to marshall the facts and evidence set out by both sides. That is what we have tried to do here. I want to set out how I see the balance of advantages and disadvantages on a variety of issues: national prosperity, defence, public services, energy, foreign policy, and Scotland's economic arrangements.

Let us take each in turn.

Defence

It is the first duty of any nation to keep its citizens safe and secure, which is why the Scotland Institute commissioned the most comprehensive study on the effects of independence on Scottish defence to date. Our report, 'Defence and Security in an Independent Scotland,' was overseen by a panel of experts including Professors from Oxford University and the University of London and Major-General Andrew Mackay, who commanded a Task Force in Afghanistan.

It highlighted a number of unanswered questions. How would the UK Armed Forces split up without damaging ties of loyalty? Currently the Scottish Armed Forces enjoy economies of scale. But surely independence would mean that the Scottish taxpayer had to pay for a new defence academy, research establishment, a reinvigorated Rosyth base so that we retained two naval bases, a new Scottish Ministry of Defence, and so on? What would independence mean for Scotland's defence contractors, who currently rely on the UK government as a client? These questions are consequential; jobs, livelihoods, and the fortunes of thousands of families await their answers.

Then there is the question of whether independence would make Scotland easier or harder to defend. If Scotland were to try to get by with little more than a coast guard, police force, and intelligence-sharing, would we be as safe? And if not, how much would it cost us to recreate the military capabilities, including a cyber security and intelligence infrastructure, which we use at the moment?

One thing that our report was clear about was that Scotland would not automatically inherit any defence assets from the UK. Anything we did inherit would come as a result of negotiations. Having explored the issues from many angles, our team of experts concluded that the case that independence would benefit Scotland's defence had not been made.

Public Services

Let us turn to Scotland's public services.

Currently, of course, Scotland shares matters of social security, immigration and defence with the rest of the UK.

In other matters Scotland sets her own policies. In these areas we are functionally independent today; there will be a limit to how much difference we will notice if Scotland becomes independent in these areas. They are: education, health, law, tourism, enterprise, the environment, the countryside, transport, housing, and social care.

The only way that these areas will be affected by independence is when they rely on economies of scale, things which we already do together with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, so that we share the costs and benefits.

For example, our NHS has many fine specialists which we can see if we need to. If you will permit me a personal anecdote: just recently a friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer. He was advised that the specialist in his kind of cancer care was based in England, and he went there for treatment. Would he have been able to do so if that specialist had been employed by the healthcare system of a foreign country? Perhaps. But the case for independence has not been made with attention to such granular detail.

Another example is medical research. Currently, it is conducted jointly across the United Kingdom. Would Scotland be better off paying for medical research itself? Maybe. But the vast majority of medical academics say the opposite. And we cannot ignore the risk that it might mean charging the taxpayer to duplicate research conducted south of the border.

Pensions and welfare are two more examples. They involve shared burdens and benefits. On these matters, both sides agree that it's in Scotland's interest to share them over the population of the whole of the UK rather than the five million population of Scotland. So what changes would independence bring? The SNP has not suggested any big changes which it couldn't do already.

Energy

What would independence mean for energy security and supply? And would it make your energy bills more likely to go up or down?

Today, Scotland produces a lot of energy from our nuclear plants and our renewables sector. We produce so much relative to the rest of the UK that we export it; in 2013 we 'exported' more than a quarter of the total energy produced, mostly to the rest of the UK.

But there are two twists. The first is that much of the renewable energy produced in Scotland is currently subsidised by the UK government. If Scotland were independent it would of course not continue to be. And the second is that one of the reasons we export so much energy is because of our two nuclear power plants, Hunterson and Torness. But they will reach the end of their natural life soon and the SNP has said it does not want to replace them, it wants to power Scotland by renewables alone.

So where would Scotland's energy come from in the future? The 'Expert Commission on Energy Regulation' was set up to answer this question. Its answer is that "under current forecast scenarios of high renewable generation installation in Scotland and closure of current coal and nuclear generation, Scotland is likely, at time of low renewables availability, to import electricity from [the rest of the UK] in order to continue meeting demand." The key word in that quote is 'import.' If we followed the SNP's policy, Scotland would become an energy importer.

Energy is, in short, is an area where currently we share costs and the benefits with the rest of the UK. Yes, it is clear that Scotland could power itself as an independent country. (Importing energy does not preclude that: even the US was an energy importer for many years). But whereas at the moment energy brings money into the country, independence would mean reversing that flow and sending money out of the country. On energy, the evidence does not favour independence.

Scotland's place in the world

What of Scotland's place in the wider world?

Let us start with the European Union. Everyone agrees that an independent Scotland would not automatically become a member. So how could it become one? Here the parties differ. The pro-independence camp argue that an independent Scotland would try to negotiate terms of Scottish EU membership before Scotland become independent, in other words while it was still part of the UK and so still within the EU. This would strengthen its hand in negotiations. The pro-Union camp argue that that an independent Scotland would have to go through the normal procedure for countries that wanted to be a member of the EU for the first time. Both are decent arguments, over which reasonable people can disagree.

However, for me the key point is this: neither process guarantees Scotland EU membership. Whichever scenario happens, Scotland would only carry on being an EU member if we were able to negotiate it with the other EU governments. So in the end, the outcome will come down not to process, but to politics. The EU President, Claude Juncker has tried to play things straight by saying that whilst Scottish EU entry would not be automatic, the EU will deal with whatever result arises. But here things get messy. Scottish membership would have to be approved by European governments, but some have reasons not to make it easy for Scotland. Mariano Rajoy, in particular, the Prime Minister of Spain, wants to prevent Scottish independence encouraging campaigners for Catalunyan independence. Nor would Scotland be 'at the front of the queue.' The evidence is that Scotland might end up remaining an EU member, but it would be a bumpy ride.

And beyond the EU? One of the areas in which the UK has punched above its weight historically is in foreign affairs. Not just because of the quality of the Foreign Office and its Civil Service, but also because of its web of international networks, the British Council, the Commonwealth, membership of the UN Security Council, and so on. What would Scottish independence mean in this area?

An independent Scotland would apply to join NATO and it would expect to negotiate a share of the UK's diplomatic offices overseas. But what if that negotiation proved hard? After all, the rest of UK would not likely be in benevolent mood having been decapitated. And if it was not able to negotiate such a share in the UK's diplomatic and consular offices in, say, Peru, and a travelling Scot was in trouble there, who should they call? The consular office of the United Kingdom?

Then there is the question of the United Nations. An independent Scotland would have no problem retaining membership. But it would not expect to retain the UK's Permanent seat on the Security Council. How can that be good for Scotland?

There may be perfectly good answers to all these questions but so far, we have not heard them.

Scotland's Economic Arrangements

Finally, what about Scotland's economic arrangements?

There are two ways of looking at this. The nationalists argue that no change means no need to worry about the effects of independence. The 'Better Together' campaign argues that no change would mean an independent Scotland continuing to be affected by decisions taken in a foreign country, which did not necessarily have Scotland in mind. When the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee sit down to decide on interest rates, for example, they currently take into account Scottish prices, mortgages, wages, and so on. But would they continue to do so if Scotland were a foreign country?

Then there is the currency. Alex Salmond says Scotland will keep the pound. Better Together says the UK will not welcome that, to which Salmond says an independent Scotland would do so anyway. But this is not without risk. Ronald Macdonald, an expert on international economics and exchange rates, has said he believes that such a currency union would "unravel within weeks" driven by the financial markets. We cannot be sure that the Professor is right. But we can be sure that the currency union Scotland is in at the moment works pretty well. The pattern here is the same: there may be answers to all these questions, but the case has not been fully put.

Conclusion

This debate has been good for Scotland. It has reinvigorated civic participation, especially amongst young people. It is an important debate, and I hope that the Scotland Institute, and this analysis, encourages people to carry on thinking about it. I do invite your comments.

My conclusion is as follows: in the round, independence raises more challenges than it solves. There might be good answers to all the questions raised above. But that case has not been the one the 'yes' campaign has made. Instead they have presented a much less sophisticated and developed case. It has rested heavily on promising changes which they are already entitled to make, and continuing to share so much with the rest of the UK that their claims of independence are undermined.

When the referendum comes, I will be voting no. The case for independence has not been made.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of the Scotland Institute think tank