The Blog

Scottish Independence and the Politics of Justified Fear

At times, justified fear has a legitimate place in politics. Fear of uncertainty, fear of investor confidence - these are things that the Scottish economy will consider constantly as an independent country - to ignore them now is to prefer utopia to reality.

'Scaremongering' has been one of the most used buzzwords of the Scottish referendum..

When Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, pointed out the problems of Salmond's proposed currency union it was dismissed by the 'Yes' campaign as a Westminster controlled scare-tactic. When BP released a public statement that North Sea oil was an untenable source on which to base the Scottish economy the 'Yes' campaign denounced it as Big Business seeking to bully the Scottish people.

But what about the small and medium sized Scottish businesses who have come out against independence? What about Deutsche Bank's warnings of economic catastrophe, and the numerous Norweigan bloggers who have cautioned against using Norway as a model given its high prices and post-independence economic problems? The SNP's ability to dismiss all criticism has been truly disconcerting; and evidence of the Better Together campaign's inability to frame their campaign in anything other than uninspiring terms.

The truth is that a promise of change from Salmond - change from a Conservative government, banking scandals, austerity and foreign wars to a society dominated by social inclusion, protection of the NHS and autonomy from the elites of Westminster and Fleet Street - is a far more persuasive political message than that of the economic risks of independence.

The rhetoric of change is valuable political currency; made fashionable by Barack Obama's 2008 US presidential campaign, and attractive to previously apathetic voters or those turned off by the modern political arena's propensity for faux sincerity, sound bites and lobbying scandals.

The response of the Better Together Campaign and Westminster politicians has been to change their message in recent weeks to persuade Scots that a vote against independence still equals a vote for change through the carrot of further devolution.

The lateness of that promise, and the method in which it was delivered, smacks of a London political class who didn't expect independence to gain the traction it has; and who for too long have been unwilling to tackle Salmond on his own ground - to extol the virtues of the Union and tug on the emotions of voters by invoking the UK as a shared historical and political project of astounding success. A distaste for nationalism seems to have caused the Better Together campaign to shrink in fear at the prospect of running a positive case for the Union; as though Scots are only capable of seeing themselves within in a singular binary of 'Scottish' or 'Tory' and not within a holistic picture of a successful and stable United Kingdom.

But the main problem the Better Together campaign have is that the very people promising that a 'No' vote still equates to change are those who best represent what Scots see as the out of touch Westminster establishment. Even watching Miliband speaking to Labour voters on his visit to Scotland last week must have made Salmond smile - the overly-sincere facial expressions, bouncing outstretched hand movements and carefully rehearsed pauses made Miliband's performance look too practiced; a career politician's attempt to seem normal with a team of political advisors and spin doctors behind him coaching every carefully positioned move.

The failures of Better Together have allowed the 'Yes' campaign to easily dismiss economic concerns as 'scare-mongering'. Even within the 'Yes' movement itself there have been accusations that those within the campaign who ask questions regarding currency plans or what an independent Scottish economy would look like have been side-lined and accused of 'negativity'.

One of the biggest travesties for voter information has been the dismissal of legitimate concerns over currency. A currency union opens up both partners to fiscal and financial risk based on changes in each other's economies. In particular, given the difference in size and population of Scotland and the rUK, there would be particular asymmetry of risk to the detriment of the rUK should the Scottish economy fluctuate based on the volatility of oil prices or market uncertainty created in the wake of independence. In those circumstances, an independent Scotland would have to agree to numerous constraints and oversight of its fiscal policy from Westminster; recreating the same problems that nationalists complain of in the current system.

Of particular importance would be the political relationship between the independent Scotland and rUK. Any inclination by markets that the currency union lacked stability, political commitment from both sides, or that Scotland would fail to adhere to Bank of England control over certain fiscal policies could lead to a lack of investor confidence with catastrophic effects for a currency union - crucial factors involved in the UK's departure from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in 1992 and the collapse of the Czechoslovakian currency union in 1993. In this atmosphere, negotiations after independence would take place on a knife-edge; with any impasse or disagreement being carefully noted by cautious investors keen to punish any indication by the new Scottish state of a move away from the neo-liberal economic programme or failure to honour debt obligations.

Theoretically, if a newly independent Scotland and the rUK could not come to an agreement on a currency union, Scotland could informally use the pound anyway. This would leave Scotland with no control over its fiscal policy, and severely hamper its ability to meet the needs of its diverse and complex financial sector.

Equally, if Scotland were to join the EU but wished to retain use of the pound, it would have to negotiate an opt-out from the Euro in the same manner as Denmark and the UK - which would need to be agreed by all member states.

The creation of a new Scottish currency was originally floated by the SNP but altered in favour of a currency union. Introduction of a new currency would allow an independent Scotland to implement its own exchange rates and fiscal measures. If it were to opt for a floating currency, the new Scottish state would risk an increased level of volatility in exchange rates; whereas a fixed exchange rate would be more likely to adversely affect wages and prices. Though numerous countries have successfully dealt with these problems, they have usually done so by implementing restrained fiscal arrangements and maintaining a budgetary surplus - things that would be politically difficult to implement in an independent Scotland given the SNP's promise to maintain and increase social welfare spending should a 'Yes' vote take place.

An independent Scotland has 18 months after a 'Yes' vote to resolve these currency uncertainties - to negotiate entrance terms and a possible opt-out of the Euro with the EU; and to renegotiate treaties which they were previously party to under the umbrella of the UK.

The scale of this task is huge - the UK is party to over 14,000 multilateral and bilateral treaties. The vast majority of legal analysis suggests that an independent Scotland would not remain privy to those treaties, and there would be little political incentive for the rUK to help Scotland along the path of securing favourable terms and entering international organisations successfully. Polls are already indicating an overwhelming opposition among English voters towards joining a currency union with an independent Scotland or providing financial assistance. In such an embittered public atmosphere and continual media scrutiny of negotiations, it's unlikely Cameron or any then-incumbent Prime Minister could be seen to kowtow to all of Salmond's demands.

Even as the first poll showing a lead for the 'Yes' campaign came in last week, the pound dropped to a 10 month low as investors panicked at the uncertainty which would be created should the Scottish electorate vote in favour of Independence on Thursday. Confusion over what an independent Scotland would look like - how its' intellectual property law, financial system and currency would work; mean that the 18 months of negotiation time before a Scottish election will be one of precarious risk and uncertainty.

Scotland won't get everything it wants; even with a negotiator with the panache of Alex Salmond. His vision for a future Scotland will depend on the rUK agreeing to all of his plans - something which seems hopelessly unrealistic given the predictable anger of the average English, Welsh and Northern Irish voter if Scotland is seen to leave the UK while taking all the perks of its 300 years as a successful union.

The rhetoric of the referenda says a lot more about class than has previously been recognised. The rhetoric of change is more akin to the nationalism of Braveheart-style 'Freedom' than the SNP would care to admit - freedom from the control of big business, bankers and political elites. These are notions which are attractive to many Scots - Scots who see their national ethos as far more socialist than that of their English neighbours. But the truth is that an independent Scotland would not exist in an isolated bubble neatly separated from the influence of banks and large corporations.

At times, justified fear has a legitimate place in politics. Fear of uncertainty, fear of investor confidence - these are things that the Scottish economy will consider constantly as an independent country - to ignore them now is to prefer utopia to reality.