Ben argues that the positive side of the case for Scottish independence has been taken for granted. On closer inspection its policies bear a striking resemblance to those of New Labour and referendum voters should consider whether an independent Scotland will be able to avoid history repeating itself.
As the Scottish independence vote draws near the media narrative has been firmly fixed on the strength of the negative case against independence. The Better Together campaign has anxiously attempted to draw voters attention to the potentially intractable, and increasingly overfamiliar, sticking points of currency, EU membership, and immigration, (whilst also flirting with exciting new vexed issues such as dividing the armed forces, civil service, and public sector debt). Largely absent from this debate however has been any sustained investigation of the positive case for independence. The form of the discourse appears to tacitly accept that independence is attractive and that the Yes vote turns on whether the negative case overwhelms this (as expressed in the ‘head over heart metaphor’).
This presumption is dangerous however, as the positive case has received deplorably little criticism. The Yes campaign’s advertising touches passingly on the substance of the positive case (the illegitimacy of Tory government, preserving the NHS, preserving free education, garnering greater control over industrial investment). Such rhetorical engagement rarely pauses to explore the detail of these policies however. This is unsurprising as dwelling on detail would likely disrupt the primary aim of stoking nationalist sentiment with utopian promises layered over stirring music and juxtapositions of rolling Highlands and happy children (in the case of independence) with riot police and unpopular politicians (in the case of remaining within the UK).Dwelling on the substance of these proposals however, the formula is actually a fairly attractive sell. The combination of constitutional reforms to reduce the power of unsympathetic right wing elites; high spend policies on health, education and industrial development; and plans to fund these policies through economic growth rather than raising taxes is incredibly attractive. It is also incredibly unoriginal, being in essence the New Labour manifesto of 1997. Whilst for young voters 1997 will barely feature in political memory, the promise of greater equality, improved public services, and, perhaps most importantly, little in the way of tax rises, was a powerful proposition when wielded by Blair and is proving just as effective at the hands of Salmond.
Whilst I shall offer no opinion one way or the other regarding ‘the third way’ the would-be ‘Yes’ voter should take pause and consider the manner of the collapse of these policies in the UK over the latter half of the last decade and ask why it is that they believe that Scotland can pull of the New Labour trick where New Labour themselves failed. Whatever one thinks about the Scottish economy, it is by definition smaller and less diverse than the UK’s was when New Labour’s policies began to give way. We are not in such rude shape as we were in 1997 and the New Labour fallacy that prudent economic policies could effectively avoid the ravages of the economic cycle has been proven wrong. North or South of the border the economic result is record public sector debt, austerity and an increasingly nationalist public sentiment. However great the economic impetus provided by the feel-good factor following a successful vote for independence, the waining of optimism in the years following the euphoria of May 1997 should be seen as a warning.
For the Yes Campaign’s ‘3rd way’ style policy to work – preserving service provision without tax rises or a spiraling deficit – an independent Scotland will require strong and sustained growth at a time where there is no immediate prospect of such growth. The European recovery is stalled, debt continues to grow and even if Scotland shirks any share of the UK public debt the fiscal prospects are grim for independent Scotland and the rump-UK alike. The only policies that have been suggested by the Yes campaign to encourage an influx of growth are, ironically, exactly those that Salmond’s reviled Thatcher introduced in the 1980s and which were accepted as the status quo under New Labour. Lowering corporation taxes and subsidising private industrial development out of public funds are awkward but necessary components of the Yes campaign platform. For Scots hoping for greater equality, societal fairness, and a movement away from the status quo it would be wise to consider the flip-side of the soaring rhetoric. Before making a decision based on the secondary (albeit extremely important) negative case that has dominated media coverage, voters should reflect on the fragility of the positive case for independence. Even if Salmond is able to achieve all of his aims a yes vote will not free Scotland from the tough political and economic compromises that are the reality of the current economic climate. I hope that voters will pause to reflect on whether the independent Scotland they are being promised is anything more than a rehash of policies that have already been tried, under more favorable circumstances, and failed.
By Dr Benjamin Jones, an academic researcher of constitutional history who currently works as a law lecturer at Pembroke College, University of Oxford.