I was never good at maths in school: I was adequate at best. Arithmetic I’m fine with; trigonometry I could handle. Anything beyond that was anathema to me. I steadfastly refused to believe that algebra could possibly be of any use to me in my adult life, and actively made a point of avoiding anything that seemed remotely related to calculus. Yet so great is my desire for Scottish independence, I find myself willingly delving through reams of numbers. (You win this time, Pythagoras!)
Fortunately, there are many independence supporters out there far more acquainted with numbers than I.
We could nip-pick at details like the mysterious addition to the expenditure budget of net EU contributions (there’s always been an annex discussing this but this is first year it has explicitly been counted in a separate line in Total Expenditure) or notice that for the first time in at least five years our debt interest paid has increased as our UK debt increases have started to outweigh the effect of falling bond yields.
It’s all a shell game though. We know that GERS isn’t nearly as important as people hold it to be nor is it nearly as informative as it should be. It’s not going to change many minds on its own nor does it tell us one single thing about the finances of an independent Scotland. If we want to do that, we’re going to need to build a national budget from scratch, taking into account all of the taxes (existing and new) that an independent Scotland might choose to levy. We also need to have a look again at what Scotland actually needs to spend its money on. Could we use Citizen’s Income to create from scratch a welfare system worthy of the name? Would a Scottish Government able to issue its own bonds on its own debt be able to get a better deal than the one we have right now?
Quite simply can Scotland as a nation see ourselves as better than others would prefer us to be seen?
You can barely move from all the British Nationalist crowing about how this destroys the case for independence. Indeed, they’re practically identical to the celebratory yawps echoing from the rooftops following the last GERS report. And the one before that. And the one before that…
Yet now, more than ever, GERS is completely and utterly irrelevant in showing what an independent Scotland’s finances would look like because – in case you hadn’t noticed – Scotland is not currently independent. There is no method of comparison. The only way GERS could be meaningful in any way is if an independent Scotland is identical to Scotland inside the UK – and that is, ahem, not what British Nationalists like to say. However, one of the side-effects of the Independence Referendum is that we can now say, without doubt, that GERS is worthless – because if you’re going to argue otherwise, then you’re having to argue a Yes vote would’ve made absolutely no difference to GERS over the last 23 months.
You’re arguing that the UK government would still be allocating Scottish revenue to HS2, Trident, Westminster refurbishments, the Scotland Office, and more even though Scotland was on the road to independence. You’re arguing that the resignation of David Cameron – surely if he resigned after a Leave vote, he couldn’t stay after a Yes vote – would have changed nothing less than a year before a General Election: one in which his party was already considered to be on the defensive. You’re arguing that 59 constituencies that were preparing to leave the UK would still be involved in the next General Election. You’re arguing that we would manage to have exactly the same economic situation outside the EU, and outside a currency union – which is, after all, the previous “Vow” the Westminster parties made before they started to panic. You’re arguing not only that Scotland’s finances would be the same following a Yes vote, but that the UK’s would too.
Most of all, you’re arguing that all the nightmare scenarios about everyday life, work, jobs, pensions, energy, threats to our wellbeing and health services, the EU (whether in or out), currency, strained relations with England, geopolitical instability, economic mayhem, national and international chaos, terrorism, sport, and bizarre cultural vandalism would mean nothing – since as far as you’re concerned, that
£28 £15 billion deficit is truth carven on the rocks of eternity. That’s the problem of GERS and its magic £15 billion deficit – it’s simple, but it’s wrong. The truth of Scotland’s finances is complex, but whatever the “right” state is, we don’t know it: the Treasury aren’t even willing to share the details with the Scottish Government themselves.
But there’s another, unpleasant, chauvinistic element coming out in all this.
Back before the Indyref, during the infamous Darling-Salmond debate, the Lord-to-be opined that he “didn’t want to be like Panama for six minutes“- cheerfully echoing the warnings of George Osborne not long before. Reg Empey was terrified that in the event of Scottish Independence, Northern Ireland “would end up like West Pakistan.” The recent think-tank’s proclamation that an independent Scotland “could be like Greece without the sun” is just the latest in a series of comparisons to that independent Mediterranean nation. That’s before we get the swivel-eyed comparisons to North Korea.
Consider that graph. It shows Scotland at the bottom of the OECD (again, assuming that an independent Scotland would run its economy as poorly as the UK evidently did in 2009, and as it currently runs Scotland) giving the impression that a deficit share of GDP of -10.1% is cataclysmic, devastating, insurmountable. Thing is, there are only 35 countries in the OECD. That’s less than 18% of all the world’s nations. And once you go outside the OECD, you start to notice some things.
Look at the IMF’s World Economic Outlook, for an example, which include some 187 countries. The most recent findings are from October 2015, so not as up-to-date, but they show that there’s a much wider range of economic realities than the bubble of the OECD:
Even if you assume – and I won’t mince words, stupidly – that an independent Scotland would indeed have a 10.1% deficit, then there are still at least 33 independent countries in the world with a worse deficit ratio than Scotland. Do you think a single one of them is thinking “oh, no, we were fine being independent and all, but having a worse deficit than Scotland has convinced us we’re all utter failures and should just give up now”?
I can already hear the cries: “but why would you want to be a third-world backwater like Liberia, a warzone like Libya, or a despotate like Zimbabwe, when we could be part of The Greatest Political Union in History?” Just stop for a minute, and consider: these “third-world backwaters” are independent nations. They have seats at the UN. They have centralised governments which have ultimate jurisdiction over their domains. They can enter into relations with other sovereign states. They have their own flags; their own anthems; their own internet top level domains; their own ISO codes; their own calling codes; their own broadcasters, and passports, and postage stamps, and freedom to choose what they do with what they have.
To hell with this parochialist outlook that champions Western economies and democracies as the ideal, where any nation that doesn’t subscribe to this economic league table is deemed undesireable and worthy only of patronising pity. “Do you want to end up like Panama?” Yes, I absolutely do want to be like Panama, Liberia, Libya, Zimbabwe, or any of the other nations on that list, because every nation from Kuwait to Kyrgyzstan has one thing in common: they are sovereign. What is being in one of the richest “unions” in the world worth where you cannot control even your own share of that wealth? What does the “strength” and “security” of one of the most powerful states on earth matter when you have no say in the form that strength and security takes? Who cares about being at the top of a table when you don’t even get to to come into the hall without permission?
We Scots used to know the value of sovereignty. Just a few days ago, the Society of William Wallace commemorated the death of someone who gave his life for that freedom. He was murdered by a foreign king for the “treason” of defending his homeland from an invading force intent on domination. And what happens in the centuries later? He is ridiculed; his cause is ridiculed; the people who appreciate what he did are ridiculed. All too many people of the nation he fought so hard for are now calling the idea he died to uphold impossible – because “we cannae afford it.” And we allow ourselves to get caught up in the sort of things that ultimately pale in comparison to that single, defining, unavoidable issue – of the sovereign will of the people of Scotland.
Even with their deficits, their struggles, their tragedies, their disasters, not one – not one – of the countries in that list are signing their independence away. Mozambique is not crawling back to Lisbon, cap in hand, pleading to be admitted back into the Portuguese Empire. Saint Vincent & the Grenadines isn’t considering rejoining the ever-shrinking British Empire. And Mauritania – a nation with far, far greater problems than Scotland – still retains its independence from the French over half a century on. If Britain is your nation, then there’s no problem. I have no problem with those who consider Britain their nation. It just isn’t my nation. It hasn’t been mine for a long time.
Too many of us are inordinately obsessed with the price of independence, far beyond the reasonable appraisal of possibilities. It’s a waste of time, and a waste of soul. Instead, let us think about the value of independence.