Most have heard of Schrödinger’s Cat, a thought problem originally brought up in reference to quantum mechanics, but is largely applicable to the scientific method in general:
A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.
It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation. That prevents us from so naively accepting as valid a “blurred model” for representing reality. In itself, it would not embody anything unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.— Erwin Schrödinger, Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik (The present situation in quantum mechanics), Naturwissenschaften
(translated by John D. Trimmer in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society)
Got that? Place a cat in a sealed windowless room, with a machine containing a Geiger counter, a tiny amount of radioactive material, and a deadly amount of poison, for one hour. Within that hour, one of the radioactive material’s atoms might decay or break down: the Geiger counter detects it, and releases the poison, killing the cat. If the radioactive material remains stable, then nothing happens, and the cat lives. The only way of knowing for certain whether the cat is alive or dead is to open the door and look – until then, the cat is both/neither alive and/or dead. Indeed, you could even argue that the cat is effectively in a state between life and death – but how can that be, when life and death are the only two states possible?
Scotland post-referendum feels a bit like that poor cat, caught between independence and union. So much of the anti-independence campaigner’s argument is based upon a Scotland that they cannot directly observe – one that might be taken out of the EU, that might not have the pound, that might have to drive on the other side of the road and wouldn’t get the BBC. Yet any scientist would say the only way of knowing what something is, or isn’t, is to observe it directly. The papers are full of stories about how Scotland would start off independent with typical Dunning-Kruger assurance, even though we cannot know for the simple reason that Scotland is not currently independent. But we can directly measure how Scotland’s doing in the Union – and it isn’t looking good for them.
GERS is a perfect example. The argument about GERS and its non-applicability to an independent Scotland seems a lot more complex than it really is. You can say things like “GERS is specifically designed to undermine Scotland & non-Tory parties,” “the entire point of independence is that we wouldn’t do what the UK government have been doing” and “things would be different by the simple fact we would be independent” until you’re blue in the face: opponents will still maintain the illusion that an independent Scotland’s financial situation would be identical to its situation in the UK, only with a £15 billion BLAGOLE to deal with. In other words, they argue that nothing would change.
Is that really the road they want to travel? Because if it is, then it contradicts an awful lot of other things they’ve said.
The No campaign have said a great many things would happen to Scotland after a Yes vote: no currency union, no EU membership, businesses would flee south, jobs would disappear, border controls would be put in place, the pandas will be confiscated, whatnot. Yet if they are arguing that GERS reflects where Scotland’s finances are in the event of an official Yes result, they are are also saying that had Scotland been negotiating for independence in the past year, then Scotland’s economy would be identical to what it is now. If you are using GERS as a measure for a hypothetical Scotland following a Yes vote, then you’re arguing that there would be no difference whether Scotland had voted Yes or No, all the way up to independence day.
Here’s the executive summary:
Total Public Sector Revenue 2014-15
Scottish onshore revenue was estimated as £51.6 billion (8.0 per cent of UK onshore revenue). This represents £9,600 per person, £400 less than the UK average;
Including an illustrative geographic share of North Sea revenue, total public sector revenue is estimated at £53.4 billion (8.2 per cent of UK public sector revenue). This represents £10,000 per person, slightly below the UK average, although not notable when rounded to the nearest £100.
Total Public Sector Expenditure 2014-15
Total expenditure for the benefit of Scotland by the Scottish Government, UK Government, and all other parts of the public sector was £68.4 billion (9.3 per cent of total UK public sector expenditure). This represents £12,800 per person, £1,400 more than the UK average.
Current Budget Balance 2014-15
This is the difference between current revenue and current expenditure (i.e. excluding capital investment). The current budget balance:
Excluding North Sea revenue, was a deficit of £13.7 billion (9.8 per cent of GDP).
Including an illustrative geographic share of North Sea revenue, was a deficit of £11.9 billion (7.8 per cent of GDP).
For the UK, was a deficit of £59.8 billion (3.3 per cent of GDP)
Net Fiscal Balance 2014-15
This is the difference between current revenue and total public sector expenditure including capital investment. The net fiscal balance:
Excluding North Sea revenue, was a deficit of £16.7 billion (11.9 per cent of GDP).
Including an illustrative geographic share of North Sea revenue, was a deficit of £14.9 billion (9.7 per cent of GDP).
For the UK, was a deficit of £89.1 billion (4.9 per cent of GDP).
If we are to use GERS as a basis for a Scotland which was negotiating for independence, then it must be assumed that the numbers in GERS are directly comparable whether it was a Yes vote or a No vote. All of Scotland’s taxes, levies, duties and revenues would be completely unaltered by the idea Scotland had voted to become independent; likewise, it assumes the UK government would still see fit to spend billions on Scotland’s defence, employment policies, broadcasting, social spending, and other expenditure even if Scotland had just voted to leave the UK. The idea that this could be the case without the current economic factors – such as currency union – much less with them, is beyond reason.
This can mean only one of two things to me:
1. An independent Scotland would have started off with a 1% drop in overall revenue and a £15 billion deficit with the possibility of a currency union, remaining part of the EU, businesses acting identically, and so forth – in which case GERS does reflect a post-Yes Scotland, but all the No campaign’s other warnings were false;
2. An independent Scotland would have started off with a 1% drop in overall revenue and a £15 billion deficit without the possibility of a currency union, a withdrawal of EU membership, businesses leaving Scotland in droves – in which case GERS does not reflect a post-Yes Scotland, even if all the No campaign’s other warnings were true.
Otherwise, you must acknowledge that the numbers in GERS are, in fact, not reflective of an independent Scotland at all – in which case, you must acknowledge that GERS is completely irrelevant in the context of an independent Scotland’s finances.
We can surmise that many things would have been different after a Yes vote. David Cameron prepared a letter of resignation, itself one of several massive changes in the course of the 2015 General Election; all the constitutional wrangling about full fiscal autonomy would be moot as we negotiated independence; we could argue about our people, land, and resources from the position that we would have responsibility and control over their futures, rather than an incompetent government tearing itself apart over its own budget. Most importantly of all, the “uncertainties” of our place in the world could finally be negotiated. We’d finally now whether Scotland would remain part of the EU or not; whether the currency union would happen; whether we could look after our elderly and disadvantaged without the “broad shoulders” of the UK.
Even so, this is where we are: still campaigning for independence on what so easily could have been our Independence Day. Scotland is already something of a Schrödinger nation: we have so many of the things which other, normal countries have, yet lack so much. We get to be called a country, but are not listed as one in the International Organization for Standardization. We have our own parliament, but not our own embassy. We have our own football team, but not our own broadcaster; a Commonwealth team, but not an Olympics team; a national poet, but no national anthem; our own legal, education, and health services, but no defence forces. We are a country, and we aren’t a country, at the same time.
The Westminster establishment seeks to keep the people of Scotland forever guessing at what independence would be like. Up until now, we only know how a modern Scotland does as part of the union – and even then, there’s much being kept from us. Schrödinger’s nation is still in the box, and the truth is we wouldn’t know if it lives or dies unless we open that box. An official No vote on the 18th of September 2014 just ensured that the box was kept shut, on the assumption that the cat was dead. The only way we can know what an independent Scotland would look like is if we open the box.
Only this cat isn’t a wee fluffy kitten, used to purring contentedly on its master’s lap after supping its generous portions of milk. It’s a proud apex predator, thick of mane, brave of heart, and filled with resolve. Wild animals shouldn’t be held in captivity.
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