The debate around Scottish independence is one which the Scottish Nationalists have of late, like it or not, done an excellent job of defining, driving and dominating. Their membership has rocketed; their leader, Alex Salmond, is widely praised and showered with awards; the nationalists are listened to. It is also a debate that continues to attract widespread interest: this is no longer simply about a fringe group banging on about Their Oil: increasingly questions about the very nature of sovereignty (which varies from Scotland to England), political union and democracy are being raised. The SNP's success is, however, not purely down to political polish and intellectual interest. It has stemmed from a simple message promising that greatest of political gifts: 'change'. Perhaps more importantly, their opponents remain a motley crew; disparate and lacking a clear message or strategy.
More worryingly for unionists, their arguments are increasingly falling behind the more nimble agenda set by their separatist cousins north of the border. As Malcolm Rifkind highlighted at a recent debate at the Policy Exchange, and the Economist splashed on this week's cover, unionist arguments continue to fall back on a simple consideration of the figures involved. This is an argument of practicalities, bottom lines and hard-headed financial analysis. This is a flawed strategy for two reasons.
First, the economic argument is increasingly unstable. There never will be complete agreement over the economic outcome if Scotland were to separate. It is understandable that many see this, as Alice Thompson has in The Times, as a simple issue of the 'spades' of economics trumping the emotional 'hearts' of sentiment when it comes to the political game of poker being played. It's the economy, stupid - and what better place than the land of Adam Smith to reject self-love or national navel gazing in favour of cold dismal economics?
Yet the old argument about the benefits of English gold continues to be undermined. Consider this year - already Amazon, Mitsubishi and the human resources giant, Ceridian, have created hundreds of new jobs in Scotland. Doug Sawers, the UK managing director of Ceridian noted that Scotland will be 'more, not less competitive' if independent. A study from the (London based) Centre for Economic and Business Research has also highlighted that Scotland receives no net subsidy from the British government. And in terms of value added to the UK economy per person, Scotland ranks third behind London and the South East. The view of Scotland as a bloated province, dependent on subsidies from the Metropolis, looks increasingly dated.
Secondly, and more importantly, the question of Scottish independence should not be considered a narrowly economic issue. It is an expansive one, encompassing much more than financial interests. Nations are not built on balance sheets. As Thomas Carlyle, the Galloway born Victorian sage noted of his own age, prevailing modes of production can seep into the very way we frame our debates. Thus, for Carlyle in 1829, political arguments often took the form of mechanistic factories: questions were framed in terms of the physical, practical and economic conditions. For us the steel and glass towers of international finance have replaced the brick and mortar of traditional industry, but the point is the same. We almost can't help to define this issue as a financial one. Either way, as Carlyle lamented of politics, 'love of country, in any high or generous sense, in any other than an almost animal sense, or mere habit, has little importance... Men are to be guided only by their self interests.'
The Nationalists have not surprisingly been better at tapping into the electorates need for something beyond balance sheet politics. Unionists have yet to fully address this - perhaps due to the realisation that 'Britishness' is little more than multicultural mush compared to a deep rooted Scottish identity; perhaps because they have absolute faith in their economic arguments. Nevertheless, the terms of debate should be shifted to accept, as Carlyle did, that voters are not merely mechanical creatures concerned solely with their rational self-interests, but emotional and dynamic beings; rooted in culture and history. Whether Scotland is, or is not, a nation at all is an idea that exists purely in the mind; tussles between bureaucrats and politicians over balance sheets ring cold.
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