RIP Great Britain?
The response of the London parties to opinion polls released last weekend, showing the pro-independence “Yes” side ahead for the first time in the looming Scottish referendum, was a panicky one. Even more powers were announced for the autonomous Scottish Parliament. On Wednesday, normal political business at Westminster was abandoned and the main political leaders headed north to act as persuaders for the Union. David Cameron gave a moving speech in Edinburgh. But there was more than a whiff of a cornered Bourbon monarch frantically improvising in a bid to head off an inflamed mob.
It is now hard to recall that just one month ago, the dreams of glory of Scotland’s ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) appeared to be in shreds. In the first of two debates with his chief pro-Union rival Alistair Darling, the normally formidable SNP leader Alex Salmond gave a halting performance. As a separatist, he sounded bizarre when he insisted that “We will take the pound as it belongs to Scotland as much as England, it's our pound!” For Salmond, the British currency was an asset, rather than a means of exchange. He insisted on clinging to it, even though it meant ceding control of financial policy to the state that he was desperate to break away from. In polls and pronouncements, the British people and leaders of all the main parties had declared outright opposition. Yet, Salmond insisted on plowing ahead. He threatened (and still threatens) to renege on Scotland’s share of Britain’s national debt, unless his opponents embrace his quixotic financial union. This would freeze Scotland out of capital markets with stark consequences for the personal finances of probably most of its citizens.
Salmond was generally judged to have lost badly in the August 5 debate. His side was thirteen percentage points behind pro–status quo “Better Together.” But instead of collapsing, his poll figures rose and they went through the roof following the second debate held on August 25 when Salmond offered a performance of undistilled populism. Before a heavily partisan audience and brushing aside an inept moderator, he virtually took charge of the debate. He insisted that the state health service was in danger of being privatized even though his own government controlled every aspect of it under the 1999 settlement, which had transferred a whole range of powers to the Edinburgh parliament formed in that year. Darling, along with numerous viewers was clearly horrified that the BBC had mismanaged such a crucial encounter. The questioning from the audience was overwhelmingly hostile, and he clung grimly to his speakers lectern as Salmond strode the debating stage as if he owned it.
Salmond’s great feat in these decisive weeks has been to neutralize the fear factor. To business chiefs with investments in Scotland and apprehensive national leaders from as far away as Australia and Canada, he appears to be a lord of misrule. His vision of a state-dominated economy in a country currently dependent on an economic lifeline from the rest of the UK, is unappealing. The fact that he doesn’t appear to care that the currency his new state will have is still very much a mystery, is even more unsettling.
Yet, polls showed that a growing number of Scots were at ease with Salmond’s Panglossian optimism. In large numbers and for many months, evangelical campaigners have been systematically working Scotland’s streets, spreading a message of relentless optimism—the people of Scotland are capable of meeting and confronting any challenge that is thrown at them because of the strength of their capabilities.
Britain is depicted as an obsolete and failing country. But currently, the British economy, one with which Scotland is totally intertwined, ranks sixth in the world GDP league. Presuming that a 300-year union could be smoothly unpicked and that there would be no serious investment flight, an independent Scotland would be 42nd in world GDP rankings. One of the world’ s most extensive public sectors would need to be financed from a tax base of under 4 million people instead of the present 52 million.
In Salmond’s virtual reality, the rest of the world will fall into line and smooth Scotland’s path to statehood. There is no inkling that leaders who fear the eruption of a eurozone-style financial crisis in Britain due to a run on assets and deposits in Scotland might instead seek to deter or even punish a Scotland seen to be in a grip of destructive hubris at a time when the world economy is still in intensive care.
It is not an analogy that the pro-Palestinian Salmond might enjoy, but probably not since the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 has such positivity gripped the architects of a would-be new state. Israel was taking shape in the wake of peculiarly terrible circumstances for the Jewish people. Scots, by contrast, have been part of one of the most successful economic and political unions in modern history. It has usually been marked by peace and prosperity. At hardly any other time have Scottish living standards been as high as they are now.