It could all have been so different. If Scotland had voted Yes to independence on 18 September 2014, 24 March is the day that it would officially have embraced its new status as a sovereign country of its own. The United Kingdom as we know it would have been no more.
To mark the occasion, Alex Salmond, the man who brought Scotland to the brink of its own “independence day”, has penned a tongue-in-cheek address to the nation written as if the referendum had been won by the Yes side. The spoof speech appears in a special supplement of the pro-independence newspaper The National on 24 March.
“Whatever policies are pursued they shall be our choice, whatever mistakes are made they shall be ours with our own lessons to learn for the future. Whatever success is earned then it shall be by our own efforts and our own national will. That is the dividend of independence,” Scotland’s former First Minister writes.
Mr Salmond selected the date for both symbolic and practical reasons. On the same date, 24 March, the Union of Crowns took place in 1603 following the death of Elizabeth I; it is also the date that the Acts of Union were signed in 1707, creating the country of Great Britain. But the delay between the referendum result and the official severing of the UK would also have allowed both governments to hammer out the details of what happened next.
According to newly-published research, the future for an independent Scotland would have looked far from rosy. It concludes that had the country voted Yes, the Scottish Government would have had to find £9 billion per year, which it could only realistically have done by reducing spending – meaning fresh austerity – or increasing taxes.
Setting this figure in context, the study commissioned by the Scottish Conservatives to coincide with “independence day” points out that £9bn per year is 13 per cent of total Scottish public spending, is greater than the country’s entire education and training budget and is 77 per cent of the total amount it raises in income tax.
Written by the economic analyst Kevin Hague, it calculates that it may have taken 90 years for Scotland to have closed the deficit gap it currently has with the rest of the UK – before starkly concluding that independence will only happen in the future “if the majority of Scots are willing to vote to become considerably worse off, quite possibly for generations to come”.
Other economists agree on the difficulties that an independent Scotland would have faced. Ahead of the general election last year, the respected economic think-tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) caused a major stir by predicting that a financially autonomous Scotland would have faced a deficit of £9.7bn by 2020.
On 23 March it published an updated bulletin showing that the situation has got even worse: Scotland’s deficit would soar to £12.2bn by 2020, it predicted, mainly due to falling oil and gas revenues. “If an independent Scotland faced a budget deficit anything like that in our projections, spending cuts or tax rises would be needed to put the public finances on a firmer footing,” the IFS said.
“The recent weakening in Scotland’s public finances – driven to a significant extent by falls in oil revenues and associated economic activity – clearly would have made it more difficult for an independent Scotland to manage its public finances,” it added. “The oil revenue and public finance forecasts produced by the Scottish Government in the run up to the referendum also look increasingly further away from what is now expected.”
Such financial gloom perhaps explain why, aside from Mr Salmond’s rogue intervention, the SNP has decided not to use “independence day” for political purposes. Labour have also been largely silent on the issue, wary that standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Tories during the referendum did severe damage to their reputation among Scottish voters.
Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP’s current leader, will spend the first official day of campaigning ahead of May’s Holyrood election preparing for the first televised leaders’ debate this late on 24 March. When she faces the other Scottish party leaders in front of a live audience at the BBC’s studios in Glasgow’s Pacific Quay, she will perhaps be silently cursing the fact that the date is 24 March.
What if Scotland had become independent?
A month before the 2014 referendum, oil was valued at about $100 a barrel. The Scottish Government’s blueprint for independence predicted it would rise in price: instead it has slumped by more than 50 per cent. According to economists, the knock-on effects on an independent Scotland’s economy would have been catastrophic.
The most recent analysis, published on 23 March by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, suggests that Scotland’s deficit would soar to £12.2bn by 2020 mainly due to falling oil and gas revenues. The only realistic way out? Higher taxes or reduced public spending – in other words, fresh austerity.
A huge issue before the referendum was the currency of an independent Scotland. Alex Salmond insisted it would have kept the pound through a monetary union with the rest of the UK, but this was ruled out by George Osborne early on in the campaign. Mr Salmond’s plan B was for Scotland to keep using the pound informally, an approach that was ridiculed by his opponents who drew comparisons with Panama’s use of the dollar.
However, the idea recently gained the backing of Mervyn King, the former governor of the Bank of England, who said an unofficial currency union would have been “totally feasible” and “wouldn’t have posed any threat or difficulty for an independent Scotland”. The reality is that nobody knows what would have happened, but it probably would have been messy.
Terrorism and security
Removing the UK’s Trident nuclear submarines from Scotland would have been a priority for the SNP, but the party may have faced a backlash due to the inevitable loss of jobs this would cause. A phased withdrawal would have been the most likely solution, giving the UK Government time to find a new home for the weapons.
Although before the referendum there were no plans for checkpoints on the border between Scotland and England, in the wake of the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks they may well have been considered – especially if Scotland negotiated its way back into the EU but the UK voted to leave. According to the pre-referendum plans, Scots would have been eligible to apply for a Scottish passport from the date of independence.
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