With the publication of Scotland’s Future yesterday, the battle lines for next September’s referendum were supposed to be drawn. Billed by Alex Salmond as “the most comprehensive blueprint for an independent country ever”, the document was to spell out the details at last, turning the rhetoric about an ancient country’s national story into a practicable analysis of quantifiable advantage. Instead, the White Paper is just more of the same, a 650-page confection of promises, guesses and elisions, part wish list, part Scottish National Party manifesto.
At its core is the assertion that, freed from the dead weight of Westminster indifference, an independent Scotland would be automatically and unquestionably better able to meet its (barely acknowledged) challenges. There were plenty of sweeteners. The minimum wage will rise, unpopular welfare reforms will be scrapped, the public purse will bulge with an extra £600 per year per head. Transport will be better, childcare will be universal, there will even be more opportunity to address the under-performance of more deprived schoolchildren.
In short, Scotland will – at the stroke of a pen – be richer, happier and more equal. At the same time, however, the more comforting aspects of union will remain unchanged. The pound will stay, thanks to a re-creation of the long-defunct Sterling Area; so will Strictly Come Dancing, courtesy of a joint venture with the BBC; and so will the Queen, whose sovereignty, via the Union of the Crowns in 1603, is apparently less of an infringement than the 1707 Union of Parliaments. And yet somehow, despite all this, “a vote for independence will be the clearest possible declaration of confidence in ourselves and our nation”. More emotive still, “if we vote no, Scotland stands still”.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, the old questions remained unanswered. Indeed, the SNP’s assumptions are so legion, the only difficulty is in selecting the most egregious examples. Take currency union. The White Paper presumes Scotland can stick with sterling, at the same time retaining the Bank of England as the lender of last resort. Such an arrangement is possible, but it requires more than Mr Salmond’s say-so. Yet, as the No campaign has been swift to point out, there is no suggestion of a Plan B. Furthermore, Plan A hardly constitutes the sovereign independence of which Holyrood is so vocal a champion (as the hard lessons from the euro crisis so compellingly attest).
Similarly, the SNP talks glibly of a “smooth transition” into the EU on the day of independence (scheduled for 24 March 2016). Not only do such assurances gloss over a multitude of diplomatic implication; they also overlook the awkward fact that new EU states are required to commit to a future in the eurozone, something that Scotland’s Future explicitly rules out.
Even the eye-catching pledge on childcare is not what it seems. Given that such matters are already devolved to Holyrood, it hardly requires the unpicking of three centuries of shared history and shared values to put the plan into action.
The Independent firmly supports the Scots’ right to choose. But we also firmly believe that their country’s interests remain firmly within the union. Mr Salmond has not changed the debate, he has merely conjured more castles in the air.