Scots should embrace independence, even at a priceby Frances Cairncross / September 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
The cleverest politician in the British Isles, Alex Salmond, has played an unpromising hand with extraordinary skill. The Scottish Nationalists, whose party conference takes place this month in Perth, remain overwhelmingly his country’s most popular party. But putting the case for independence has grown harder, at a time when it should have become easier. Hence the current standoff between the Nats and Westminster about whether to offer the punters independence tout court or to add a second less scary option, of a bit more devolution, for those of a nervous disposition. Michael Moore, the Scottish secretary, has said firmly, “There is no second question to ask.”
This cooling has occurred not just because the Olympic Games have left Scots feeling warmer about the Union Jack. They have also begun to think a bit more about the economic risks of independence. A survey at the end of last year found that only 21 per cent of Scots would vote for independence if it left them worse off by £500 or more. To rewrite the splendid Declaration of Arbroath of 1320: “It is in truth not for glory nor riches nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom—as long as it doesn’t cost more than £500 apiece.”
Of course, freedom looks less attractive when there is no need to fight off an invasion by Edward II to secure many of its benefits. Indeed, the Scottish government offers goodies unavailable south of the border. Scots have universal free nursing and personal care, and free university tuition; there is talk of free universal child care and better state pensions. Yet council tax is frozen and other taxes are no higher than in the south. Public spending per head in Scotland was 14 per cent higher than in Britain as a whole in 2010-11, and the public sector provides a quarter of Scottish jobs, compared with a fifth in the country at large.
No wonder, then, that Scots feel ambivalent about their government’s pledge to cut ties with the southerners who finance this conjuring trick. In July, before the glow of the Olympics altered the mood, 30 per cent of Scots told YouGov, the polling agency, that Scotland should be an independent country; 28 per cent liked the status quo; and 29 per cent were in favour of more devolution, a strategy whose lack of detail is hidden under the cartoon-character title of Devo…