Would Scotland be better off as an independent nation? As we have seen in our series on the independence referendum this week, much of the devolution debate seems to have boiled down to this simple question, which is strange because, straightforward as it is, it is impossible to answer.
The answer is indeterminate because it all depends on what sort of administrations are formed in Edinburgh after the presumed separation in 2016. It may be that a succession of brilliantly wise ministries creates an economy that is the envy of the developed world. On the other hand, the people of Scotland might elect a series of incompetents. The decision, at least, will be in their own hands, but whether the country would be better or worse off under such a regime is hard to judge.
With one exception: the currency. As we have seen with successive currency unions, most recently in the eurozone, independent political entities that share a currency without a fiscal union often end up with interest rates that do not suit them. An independent Scotland can expect, at best, one observer on the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, itself a structure that can be abolished by Westminster whenever it likes.
Sharing the pound means that an English Chancellor of the Exchequer might be able to take back power over monetary policy and set interest rates for Scotland. In which case the answer as to “would Scotland be better off” depends on who the English elect to govern them. The irony, therefore, of the SNP’s campaign is its insistence that the single most vital sinew of sovereignty will be exercised in London, be it Threadneedle Street or Downing Street. Some freedom that will be.
More broadly, it is rarely the case that nationalism is the answer to anything in a democratic society. Oppressed peoples labouring under the yoke of a colonial power have always found an energising faith in the power of nationalism to free them from oppression. That is not Scotland today. The problems faced by its urban poor and isolated rural communities are the same as those faced in the north of England, or South Wales, or Cornwall. Of course, an administration based in Edinburgh has a more immediate understanding, which is precisely the point of devolution.
But these problems will be solved, fundamentally, by political argument between left, right and centre; nationalism perverts that essential debate by asserting that, in essence, the problems are the fault of someone else. Hence the impoverishment of political debate in Quebec, provinces of Spain and Northern Ireland, not to mention the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union.
Scotland’s problems are not down to the Union, any more than Lancashire’s are. Devolution and indeed more effective and responsible local government can redress the flaws inherent in a centralised state and economy. Scotland might well be better off free – if its future governments pursue successful policies, and the Bank of England happens to get things right for the Scots. But those are by no means an inevitable consequence of independence.