I WRITE as someone born in England over 75 years ago and who worked as an economist and senior civil servant for the UK Government’s Scottish Office in Edinburgh for some 30 years. These are all characteristics more associated with No voters – so perhaps I am well placed to convince doubters of the case for Scottish independence! What follows is deliberately an appeal more to reason rather than emotion.

It may seem surprising that a former economist believes that the main argument in favour of Scottish independence is not primarily to do with economics or future economic prosperity. The basic case is that Scotland has different values and political priorities compared with those of England or the UK as a whole; but will rarely be able to elect a UK Government which reflects these choices because of the relatively small size of the Scottish electorate. This is what is often referred to as the “democratic deficit”. Only an independent Scotland can guarantee that Scotland will always be able to elect a government which is in line with its own preferences.

I accept that the Scottish “democratic deficit” only becomes a pressing constitutional issue if one attaches importance to the Scottish (rather than UK) perspective; and that other relatively small areas within the UK might argue that they suffer from a similar problem. But this overlooks the fact that Scotland is a nation with an independent history prior to 1707 and has a special constitutional status within Great Britain with its own legal, education and religious institutions recognised and safeguarded in the Treaty of Union and subsequently. For the same reason, Scotland cannot be compared with Yorkshire or Kent!

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While not everyone in a country will share the same opinions, there is clear statistical evidence that Scottish residents in aggregate tend to have significantly different views on many social and political issues compared with those living in other nations of the UK. Scottish literature and culture have placed greater weight over many centuries on the importance of equality and social justice throughout society, irrespective of an individual’s wealth or class (“We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns”, “A man’s a man for a’ that”). More recent attitudinal surveys confirm that Scotland’s people generally put more emphasis on the values of inclusiveness and community solidarity and demonstrate a greater willingness to pay higher taxes to increase public expenditure to help others less fortunate than themselves. Scotland has proportionately higher levels of charitable donations and volunteering, and a more welcoming approach to refugees and other foreign immigrants.

These differences are reflected in a marked divergence in political voting patterns. In every General Election since the 1960s, the Scottish electorate has consistently preferred the Labour Party (or the SNP since 2015) over the Conservative Party. However, because of the electoral arithmetic within the UK, there have been Conservative governments for which Scotland did not vote for most of this time. The divergence has become increasingly evident since 1979, with UK Conservative governments holding power for well over two-thirds of the period despite support in Scotland averaging less than 25%. A further demonstration of Scotland’s lack of influence over UK-wide decisions was the outcome of the EU referendum in 2016 when 62% of Scottish votes (including a majority in every local authority area) favoured Remain but the overall result (mainly determined by the preference of voters in England) was for the UK to leave the EU.

I am not arguing here that Scottish values and political choices are necessarily superior on moral grounds. The point is that they are significantly different from those of other parts of the UK but are frequently outweighed under present constitutional arrangements by those of voters elsewhere. The advent of the devolved Scottish Parliament since 1999 has partially alleviated the problem, but certainly not overcome it – most economic powers, together with responsibility for foreign and defence policies (on all of which there are significant differences of view in Scotland), remain reserved to Westminster; while there is clear evidence that the current UK Government intends to intervene directly in devolved matters in defiance of the views of the Scottish Parliament. This will exacerbate the sheer inefficiency of the present division of powers, with the Scottish Government forced to use limited resources to mitigate the effect of Westminster decisions.

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Indeed, the prospect of populist post-Brexit UK Conservative governments continuing in power for many years, apparently inspired by the values of a buccaneering imperial past and reluctant to follow conventional codes of conduct or even the law, has also become a matter of concern to many traditional patriotic Scottish Conservatives. While this “democratic deficit” is the central plank in the case for Scottish independence, economic issues matter – not least because it is unlikely that most Scots will vote in favour unless they are confident that independence can at least sustain current levels of prosperity and living standards.

Despite many politically motivated “scare stories” to the contrary, and the “broad UK shoulders” narrative, most reputable economists accept that an independent Scotland is now well placed to prosper once inevitable transitional challenges have been resolved. In recent years, some of the best-performing economies have been those of small countries (such as Denmark, Finland and New Zealand) of a similar size to Scotland. Such nations enjoy many advantages over larger economies (for example, more responsive governments, high levels of trust and cohesion and the ability to react quickly to changing international conditions). Scotland is already a relatively wealthy country – in the top 25 global economies in terms of income per head. While its GDP growth rate has been rather lower than that of the UK in recent decades (mainly reflecting a smaller increase in population), Scotland is no longer handicapped by an adverse industrial structure – which led to higher unemployment and net emigration during much of the 20th century.

Indeed, it has huge strengths and potential in growth industries such as food and drink, renewable energy (including outstanding potential for tidal power and offshore wind), financial services, tourism, cultural development (including film-making), games technology, life sciences, advanced manufacturing and research and development in partnership with Scotland’s leading world-class universities. With the value of North Sea oil declining, Scottish economic policy is geared more to environmentally sustainable development, measures to increase wellbeing and the reduction of inequalities, rather than simply pursuing output growth.

The National: Wind turbines, a source of renewable energy, on the Langford wind farm, Bedfordshire

Independence will certainly bring transitional challenges but there is no reason to think that, with the right policies, any short-term difficulties cannot be managed and overcome. Much attention has been given by Unionists and the media to the estimated “public sector deficit” which an independent Scottish Government seems likely to inherit. However, the narrative that this will inevitably require tax rises or public spending cuts has been exposed as misleading and simplistic by the response of governments throughout the world to the Covid crisis – including in the UK where the public sector deficit has risen to unprecedented levels, funded largely by the creation of new money by the Bank of England through so-called “Quantitative Easing” (QE) which does not require external borrowing.

The key point is that this mechanism is only available to governments with their own currency. It strengthens the case for an independent Scotland to establish its own currency and Central Reserve Bank at an early stage. QE is not without constraints, for example the possibility of inflation if continuous monetary expansion results in the real economy approaching its capacity to meet demand. But such risks can be monitored and mitigated, for example by measures to grow the labour force through a more appropriate immigration policy, skills training and investment in infrastructure to increase productivity. The issue is no longer “where will the money come from?” but rather “how can we best increase the capacity of the economy to meet the needs of society through public expenditure?”

While the UK-wide vote in the 2016 referendum to leave the EU (against the wishes of the Scottish electorate) strengthened the case for independence by illustrating the “democratic deficit”, it has also raised new issues concerning the Scotland/England border should an independent Scotland rejoin the EU as is the present policy of the SNP. The problem has been exacerbated by the UK Government’s determination to leave the European Single Market and Customs Area, ignoring representations by the Scottish Government for a “softer” form of Brexit. This will inevitably result in some friction in relation to trade across the border, although efforts will no doubt be made (certainly by an independent Scottish Government) to mitigate and minimise any disruption and to retain free movement of people through the Common Travel Area.

Details will need to be negotiated, taking account of lessons learned from the Northern Ireland protocol agreed between the EU and UK. In the longer term, there will likely be an increase in trade and transport links between Scotland and the larger EU market, and possible trading and other economic advantages for Scotland as a convenient “bridge” between Britain and the EU. Another option might be for Scotland to join EFTA, at least initially, which would give access to the European Single Market while allowing an independent Scotland to negotiate its own trade deal with the UK.

These choices highlight the fact that many important decisions after independence will ultimately be for the people of Scotland and the governments they elect. The SNP are unlikely to continue in power indefinitely. Therefore, issues such as economic policy, the relationship with Europe, the monarchy, the climate emergency, defence policy and nuclear weapons will depend on the majority view in Scotland. But no-one should doubt that the country has the natural and human resources to survive and indeed prosper, like many other small European nations. Since devolution, Scottish governments of different complexions have delivered many ground-breaking improvements for Scottish society, while responding to the unprecedented challenges of the recent Covid crisis with courage, sensitivity and careful judgement.

The National: The study found Brexit had resulted in a 10.8% decline in trade for Scotland

Of course, not all opponents of independence will be persuaded to change their opinions. Some, particularly in older generations, have a fundamental attachment to the Union, perhaps because of shared wartime memories, nostalgia for the British Empire, support for the role of the Royal Family or solidarity with colleagues, relatives or friends in other parts of the UK. I understand and completely respect these views, as I would hope they would respect those who believe in Scotland’s right to self-determination.

All I would say is that I suspect those for whom breaking up the Union is unthinkable may be on the wrong side of history. The younger generations in Scotland identify less with Britain and its traditional institutions and tend to see Scotland’s and their own futures much more in a European if not world context.

I doubt that these feelings will decline; indeed, I think they are likely to grow further as the years go by with generational change. Given this, I suggest that Unionists who fear that the independence debate will be a never-ending divisive distraction might be well advised to accept the inevitable and put their energies into helping to make independence work, just as those opposed to Scottish devolution prior to 1999 have largely done. Civic nationalism in Scotland is an inclusive movement which seeks consensus, tolerance and respect wherever possible.

Others, again often in the older age groups, may oppose independence because they believe their personal interests will be threatened. Many such fears are unwarranted and need to be addressed. For example, commitments can be given that it is intended that existing state or public sector pension entitlements accrued within the UK will continue to be paid, just as they are currently paid to UK citizens living abroad; and that those who wish to retain UK citizenship or bank accounts in sterling will be able to do so.

Of course, no absolute certainty about all future policies is possible, whether under Scottish or UK governments. Change by its nature harms some personal interests while benefitting others. What can be guaranteed is that future governments after independence will democratically reflect the wishes of Scottish voters and will provide an opportunity for the future of the country to be shaped by majority opinion in Scotland in a way that is not possible today. I believe that recent voting patterns and political trends strongly suggest that Scottish values of greater equality, social justice, diversity, inclusiveness, tolerance and international co-operation are more likely to be realised in an independent Scotland than within the wider UK.

In my view, the advantages of independence will even transcend democracy. It offers the prospect of greater national self-respect by taking responsibility for our own decisions and ending what is widely seen as a dependency culture. Scotland will no longer be treated with disdain as a grievance-mongering supplicant by an arrogant UK Government betraying a sense of entitlement and exceptionalism. An independent Scotland will undoubtedly face challenges and make mistakes, but I believe responsibility will bring greater maturity and confidence. Once short-term problems are overcome, we will reap the benefits of making integrated decisions with the opportunity, as we recover from Covid, to build a better society reflecting Scotland’s own values and priorities.

John Randall was an economist in the Scottish Office from 1970 to 1985, and a senior civil servant from 1985 to 2003. His last job before retirement was as Registrar General for Scotland (1999-2003).

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