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Sunday, October 1, 2023

Scottish Independence Referendum: Would 18 September be a divorce or renewal of vows


Leading the pro-independence camp is Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP).  Fronting the anti-independence camp is the former British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, who was at the Treasury (the Finance Ministry of the UK) when the banks in the UK went bust, triggering the global financial crisis. 

But why would Scotland want to break away from the United Kingdom, which is one of the oldest political unions in history, with a permanent seat at the United Nation, the second most powerful nation in Nato, an influential player in the European Union and the sixth-largest economy in the world?  

It is one of the biggest political gambles ever seen, but don’t tell this to Alex Salmond. Scotland, the argument of the Yes camp goes, has been hardest hit by unpopular policies drafted by “fake political elites from Westminster”, location of the British parliament.  From the poll tax of Margret Thatcher to David Cameron’s bedroom tax, Scotland has borne the brunt of de-industrialization and regulation, not to mention spending cuts, of successive conservative government cuts. Most of the people there are heavily reliant on food banks for survival. Trade union movements, which were very powerful in rallying coal and mine workers to fight for decent living wages and better conditions, were weakened. 

The pro-union Better Together camp’s argument is simple: Scotland is better off in the United Kingdom, not outside it.  By being part of the UK, according to Alistair Darling, they can share risk and rewards.  Making one of his frequent remarks, which had been derided by the No camp as fear-laden, he said: “One of the biggest danger in this referendum is to take a leap to the unknown.”

The unknown that he is referring to is the fact that many questions about Scotland’s future still remain unanswered by the SNP. For instance, it is certain that the flag of an independent Scotland in the event of a Yes vote will be Saltire and its capital will be Edinburgh. But what about its currency? The currency that Scotland will use, should they vote to break away from the rest of the UK, remained shrouded in the fog of mystery.  All the three major parties in Westminster ruled out a currency union with Scotland, making it categorically clear that it would be “unworkable” and “without a political union, currency union is prone to risks, as the Eurozone crisis shows”.  There is logic in that argument.  

Earlier this year George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, Ed Balls of the Labour and the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander,  made clear to Salmond and the SNP that having a currency union with an independence Scotland would be like “two couple who divorced and still using the same bank account”.  This announcement, which was made in February, punched a big gap in Alex Salmond armory. It gave the No camp a big momentum. Reacting angrily to this, Alex Salmond described it as “bluff” and “bluster”.  His threats of reneging to pay Scotland share of the UK debt did nothing, absolutely, to force the three parties to reverse gear. 

As it stands, he is faced with four options according to currency experts. One is to use the pound without the consent of the UK, which is known as “sterlingisation”. The risk to this is that there will be no lender of last resort if Scottish banks and final institution needs bail out. Panama is using this model, using the US dollar, which is known as “dollarisation”.

The second option is to join the EU and use the Euro, but Salmond ruled this out pointing to the fatally flawed currency union there.  The third option is to use a new currency. 

Another risk posed to Scotland going it alone is its economic viability. The North Sea oil has always been seen as crucial, not only to employment and oil revenues, but to the whole prospect of its economic goal. It is assumed by both sides of the border, north and south, that 91% of those tax revenues could be taken by Scotland on the basis of an internationally accepted median line drawn out by between Scotland and England straight out into the sea.

Salmond, a former oil minister, has argued that an independent Scotland could exploit the £54bn in tax taken from the North Sea in the next six years up to 2016-2017.    And he believes that there are 24bn barrels of oil equivalents (boe) of reserves – which includes gas – still lying under the seabed and waiting to be exploited.             

Such figures have proved to be a bone of contention. According to the acknowledged oil expert of Britain, Sir Ian Wood, the recoverable reserves of 10 billion barrels and North Sea tax revenues of just £61.6bn between now and 2040 is the reality.


Who stand to lose if Scots voted Yes?

Last weekend two polls strongly indicated that Scots will vote for independence. The YouGov and Panablles polls gave a one percent lead to the Yes Camp. This was a bitter pill for the No Camp to swallow. After all, they were in the ascendancy since currency union was ruled out. But two factors swung the pendulum against their side. One was the last televised head-to-head leader’s debate that Salmond had with Alistair Darling. The first debate was won by Alistair Darling. He easily saw off Salmond on the currency issue. The victory was a surprise in some quarters. Very few people were hatching their bet on Alistair. He was described as one of the most insipid politicians in Westminster. But on that night, his punchlines were too powerful for Salmond to stomach. He described a currency union with Scotland as “a stupidity build on stilts”.

Knowing that there is no room for complacency, Alex Salmond deployed his major weapons on Alistair and the No Camp. He is one of the most skilled and accomplished debaters in the UK. At Hollyrod, the Scottish parliament, no one can match him in terms of debate. In the second televised debate with Darling, Salmond’s technique of moving from his designated podium to answer the questions put to him, passionately engaging the audience, won him the day. During this, the camera used to show Alistair Darling standing helplessly watching Salmond in front him.

During the cross-examination, Alex Salmond ruffled the feathers of Darling, when he caught him pants down, asking: Name me three job creation scheme that will bring more jobs in Scotland?”  Alistair Darling, not expecting such question, mumbled and fumbled his way out of the question. But it was powerful! The audience, who were evenly balance among Yes, No and undecided voters, like it! Andrew Sparrow, the political editor of the Guardian newspaper, who was blogging the debate live on his Politics blog, spoke for many when he said that “the question was a virtuoso’s forensic duffling up by Salmond”.

After the debate, Salmond allowed himself a little smile of fatigue and contempt. It said a lot, that smile. It affirmed the SNP leader’s view that the Yes Camp moral turpitude is an on going calamity which can be remedied by a general mobilisation of Scotland’s most high-minded and progressive citizens. 

The second factor that worked for the Yes camp was the surged in support from Labour voters. Here lies a big headache for the Labour leader, Ed Miliband. If Scots decides to be independent, he will lose 41 of his Members of Parliament. Key among them will be Douglas Alexander, his campaign strategist with a brilliant political mind. 

For David Cameron, pressure in being increasing mounted on him to make an impassioned head, heart and soul plea for the Scots to vote No. But his appeal in Scotland is limited. As a Tory leader, who is from Eton school, he is toxic to Scottish voters. The prospect of seeing the UK breaking apart, and sensing that the No camp need a revival after the polls are indicating a win for the nationalist, he, together with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg the Lib Dems leader, decided to abandon the weekly Prime Minister’s Question to be in Scotland. They are promising Scots more powers over tax, spending and the welfare state.  It is an act of desperation, but it might work. 


Would Cameron be prime minister after a yes vote?

Already, some MPs are clamouring for Cameron to resign in the event of a Yes vote. It would be interesting to see how this will play out. But one thing that the No camp is making clear is that Cameron’s future is not on the ballot paper. Constitutionally, he is allowed to carry on as the prime minister. A yes vote might even push MPs to cancel the 2015 election in England to 2016 to decide the future of Scottish MPs and the negotiations that will follow independence with Scotland. Some Labour MPs would be unhappy; as polls are showing that they can win the elections, and put an end to the zombie parliament in England, which is limping into its final year. Even Ed Miliband, in the event of a yes vote, could be defenestrated by his party. 


Can the Yes Camp salvage a Quebec-style win?

In 1995, the people of Quebec faced similar situation like Scotland. The choice for them was whether to remain part of Canada or breakaway. The polls were indicating a win for the separatist until a last-gasp campaign by the union camp on the eve of the referendum. The unity rally proved a big game-changer, and they voted to stay with Canada, with devolved powers in education, health, tax and immigration. The win was a breadth-hair percentage point of 49.5% to 50.5% .Only the last few days of the campaign will tell whether the No camp can keep Scotland. 

There is no appetite for separation across Europe. Belgium and Spain are facing their own separatist movements. They will be humming and hewing for Scotland not to join the EU. When Scotts are casting their ballots, this will be weighing on their minds. If they voted Yes, Britain will be a diminished country with a diminished Prime Minister. I am hoping that a “catastrophe of huge proportion” will be averted on 19 September, 2014 when the results are declared. For a country whose cultural export has touch people – including me – from Ulan Bator to Umtata, my heart will be broken to see it ripped apart.  


Amadou Camara studied political science and history at the University of The Gambia.


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