The right-wing case for Scottish independence

29 January 2014

12:07 PM

29 January 2014

12:07 PM

Chuckle not, it exists. Wealthy Nation, a new grouplet formed by the eminent historian Michael Fry, is making the case that Scotland can be an admirably prosperous little country after independence provided, that is, she casts off the soft-left Caledonian consensus that remains wearily orthodox thinking north of the Tweed and Solway.

Fry, whose new history of Scotland from Waterloo to Mons I commend to you without reservation, set out his case in The Scotsman earlier this month. If Scotland is to be free, she must be rich and she will not be rich unless her politics moves to the right. As he put it:

On blogs and websites I can read any number of bright ideas from the cybernats, ranging from universal benefits to universal nationalisation, a sort of endless shifting of the deckchairs on the Titanic. The key to future happiness lies not in the redistribution of wealth, which would quite likely make Scotland as a whole poorer by placing resources in the hands of people less likely to invest them productively. The key to future happiness lies in the creation of wealth.

In fact there seems to be little point to independence unless it is used to make Scotland a wealthier nation.

Otherwise we may as well just drift on as a depressed province of the UK, getting fobbed off with regional subsidies that perpetuate rather than solve the problems. If fact they are one of the best reasons for seceding from the UK.

[…] If Scotland is going to have higher economic growth, it can only come from the policies of the Right – it has certainly never come from the policies of the Left, here or anywhere else. So we need to deregulate, to lower taxes, to flatten taxes, to slim down government, to cut out public extravagance and waste.


All true. Moreover, the fiscal facts of life dictate that there is precious little room for higher taxes or higher public spending after independence. Alex Salmond’s suggestion he can borrow less, spend more and tax just the same is not the sort of thing that withstands much rigorous scrutiny. But, hey, it’s a campaign not a promise.

Still, the possibility this might be the case is one reason I’m relatively relaxed about the referendum’s result (dangerously or delusionally relaxed according to some of my uber-Unionist pals). Even so, it seems to me that Fry’s manifesto puts the cart before the horse in as much as it seems like a battle to be fought after independence rather than a compelling prospectus for independence.

Because how much reality will it take to persuade Labour and the SNP of the error of their ways? It’s a question I consider in my column for today’s Times. Vexingly, this is not online so to read the whole thing you will need to a) buy the paper and b) purchase your copy in Scotland. Still, this  is the gist of it:

“Let the laddie play with the knife. He’ll learn.” This bracing advice is taken from the pages of Bill Duncan’s “The Wee Book of Calvin” in which the author draws upon the dour and sardonic wisdom of the north-east of Scotland to create an antidote to the ghastly “you can do it” boosterism of most so-called “self-help” books. It is a perversely charming book packed with aphorisms – some ancient, others coined by the author – to warm a dark Scots heart on a dark winter’s night.

Sometimes I think independence would be like giving a toddler a blade. He’ll learn but there will be trouble and blood before the lesson is fully absorbed and committed to memory. I suspect I’m not alone in thinking this. That is, there is no reason to suppose that a well-governed Scotland could not be, in time, a viable and successful independent country.

But this is the problem. How likely is it that an independent Scotland would be well-governed? If devolution is the prospectus for independence then the outlook is grim. Indeed, one pro-independence argument seems to be that the Scottish parliament needs more powers because it has failed to make best use of the powers it already has. It’s like suggesting a man who drinks a bottle of whisky a day will be better off if he switches to two bottles of vodka.

For obvious reasons the case for independence has hitherto been dominated by the left. Few right-of-centre voices have been heard. This is, indeed, partly because most right-of-centre Scots fret about the consequences of independence. They see a Scotland dominated by an outdated attachment to tax-and-spend politics in which the government has been captured by public sector special interests. They shudder at the thought of what independence might bring. These are not foolish fears.

[…] Fry, of course, is correct to argue that the left-wing orthodoxy and consensus within Holyrood is a recipe for failure. (John Swinney, I fancy, knows this too.) But how many other Scots recognise that a high-tax, high-regulation, Scotland is the road to fresh impoverishment? Not enough. Far from setting the people free, a freshly-minted parliament in Edinburgh enjoying the full range of powers available to other independent countries is liable to bury Scotland’s entrepreneurial spirit in a tomb of legislative action and regulation.

Those Scots who think handing the parliament these additional powers akin to giving a child a knife are not likely to be wrong. Independence might well prove the best tonic for right-of-centre politics in Scotland but, Fry’s best intentions notwithstanding, such a revival would surely come at a heavy price. Chiefly, that is, years of painful, expensive, left-wing government before the lesson was learned and the light seen. The fiscal facts of life may be conservative and Scotland might have less room for left-wing ambitions than commonly supposed but the left can still weigh its votes while the right must count theirs. The learning will be hard going.

Here, as elsewhere in our debates, all protagonists should be careful with their wishes lest they receive them. Indeed, one way or another, we might remember the lesson imparted by the woman in the fish-shop in Alastair Reid’s poem “Scotland” who, upon being told what a fine day it is, responds with “ancient misery” that “We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it”. And in more ways than one.

Perhaps this is too gloomy. It would certainly be a splendid irony if an independence campaign built on anti-Toryism eventually led us to a Scotland in which centre-right thinking revived and, even, emerged – eventually! – triumphant.

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Show comments
  • alycia

    How utterly patronising. I presume the authors Massie and Fry think the barometer for good government is what has been dispensed from Westminster in recent decades? Over £1 trillion in debt, worst child well-being rate in Europe, 4th most unequal country in OECD, worst pensions in OECD. Thanks but no thanks. I’ll take my chances with an independent Scotland, which will enshrine education and health care in its written constitution. No one here has a problem with wealth or successful business, we strive for a bit of dignity for the less fortunate in one of the richest countries in the world. Have you closed your eyes to basic humanity? Are you so scared for yourselves that you are praising the Emperor’s New Clothes of the British state in hope that your social group won’t be the one to get hit next? There is another way. We might get things wrong- but we’ll get some things right, too. Before long, you’ll be looking north for guidance!

  • Slicer

    Does The Spectator have a big readership in Scotland?

    • terregles2

      Maybe not big but it does have a presence. Everyone has come across it somewhere.

  • Malcolm McCandless

    Alex your fence is leaning heavily to the right, so are you now a decidedly undecided unionist or an undecidedly decided Tory, perhaps it’s both?

  • sfin

    The right wing case for Scottish independence is to argue from the English point of view that Scotland would be too small a nation as is.

    My solution would be to offer Scotland independence, without a referendum, provided they take Liverpool and most of the industrial North East.

    They could rename themselves “Whineland” or “The Tribal Lands”.

  • FF42

    Personally I would regret Scotland leaving the Union, but if that’s the way the vote goes, let’s try to make a success of independence.

    There are no business advantages to independence while there are some potentially significant dampners on trade, regulation and movement of people. If the right wing tend to be the party of business it’s not surprising that they support the status quo. OTOH business is used to dealing with situations as it finds them. which repeats my first point.

  • classieview

    Michael Fry provides a bogus dry economic fig-leaf for what is a movement now dominated by left radicals who would not be out of place in Venezuela or Vietnam.
    He and his ragbag of Scottish ‘wealth creators’ have precursors in those handful of business people who were prepared to act as frontmen for communist regimes.

    The ex-SNP minister Jim Mather who was an exponent of the free-market a decade ago today extols the very left Commonweal movement,one of a number of SNP fronts set up to capture the unwary in this referendum year.

    As befits the diminishing conservative intellectuals of Edinburgh, the Frys and the Massies have always looked out for each other: I suspect if, at the logical end-point of his political journey, Michael dons a Mao-suit and drops Bollinger for Carlberg heavy brew, his Massie chums will still find a kind word for him.

    • Jambo25

      Fry, Massie, Torrance et al. Indeed anyone on the Scottish right with half a brain is slowly but surely coming round to the realisation of the correctness of the proposition I posted earlier that a right revival, in Scotland, can only take place after independence or a drastic weakening of the present Union. It certainly cannot take place while the main centre-right party, in Scotland, is the Conservative Party.
      That organisation started on a long, slow process of self immolation, in Scotland, 40 odd years ago when it abandoned ‘one nation toryism’ and became the party of the Home Counties golf club set under the vile Heath. Since then it’s major personnel haven’t simply not looked or sounded like the people of Scotland but have seemed utterly alien to them and frankly didn’t appear to give a toss about what happened to the Scottish people. A mixture of patronisation and callousness seemed to be the chosen Tory style as far as Scotland was concerned.
      Scottish Tories are as bad, in many cases, with characters like Davidson and Carlaw appearing like characters out of a cheap reality television freak show. The present Scottish Tory Party is all there. No policies of any appeal, tied to an English party which most Scots despise and with the air of a colonial implant hanging over it. To quote Fraser, from ‘Dad’s Army’. “Doomed”.

      • classieview

        I’ve no brief for recent or current Scottish Toryism; a centre-right alternative, as canvassed by Murdo Fraser, two years ago, is badly required. What I can’t understand is this touching faith of yours in the likelihood that the fulfillment of the SNP project will prompt a political renaissance, leading to multiple political choices being available.

        Rather more likely is a large left party springing from the SNP, advocating policies bewilderingly similar to Labour’s right now. There is sure to be a smaller radical left party drawn from those prominent in the ‘Yes for Scotland’ campaign; and yes, a centre-right party, offering a timid alternative to the ‘Big State’ formula.

        Guess which one of these Nicola or Derek is likely to seek out as a coalition partner.

        • Jambo25

          You seem to be assuming that Scots are, uniquely, programmed to vote left and only left. We are not. We simply haven’t had a realistic centre-right alternative for the past 40 years or so.
          That’s been the case for a variety of reasons. 1) The knee jerk Tory opposition to devolution plus their overwhelmingly English suburban persona pretty much forfeited any claim they had to popular patriotism. 2) It also meant that they really couldn’t, at Scottish level, put themselves forward as a prudent, tax-cutting party as they didn’t really want tax and spend powers up here anyway. 3) The rather slavish Tory cult of loyalty (Certainly up until the time of Major.) meant that Scottish Tories simply accepted and still accept policies which are anathema to many Scots and actively harmful to their interests in some cases. It was obvious to any observer that there were major ructions between Scottish Secretaries such as Younger and Rifkind and Number 10, during the Thatcher period, but rather than admit this and reap some Scottish reward it was generally denied. So Scottish Tories shackled themselves to a leader who was pretty much loathed in Scotland. 4) The previous 3 things developed into a very non-virtuous cycle with Tory membership simply evaporating and the party being left with a smaller and smaller pool to pick candidates and officials from. I don’t wish to be unpleasant but what you are left with is a freak show. I can imagine having a good night out with a fair number of SNP people; a few SLABites and even a couple of Lib Dems but Tories. Naah, they’re simply too weird.
          One last point. Drive over the border at Berwick and continue up the A1 and you drive through mile after mile of rich farmland; past picturesque little towns and villages until you reach some of the more opulent Edinburgh suburbs. The people living in those areas would be natural centre-right voters down south. They are up here as well, it’s just that they have nobody credible to vote for.

          • classieview

            I happen to agree with you about the slow-motion hari-kiri of the Scottish Tories after Heath’s Declaration of Perth and the failure of he and his successors to act on it (though I’m not sure if David Torrance would).

            There are other swathes of Scotland that could provide very supportive terrain for a centre-right formation. But the direction of travel, for the rest of my lifetime and probably beyond, is firmly left. I just wonder what will be the fate of the places you mention in a high taxation, independence regime with urban priorities and the kind of foreign policy that chases away investment from the Anglopshere?

            Anyway, I take my hat off to you for ploughing a conservative furrow in the nationalist camp. Some of your other posts would suggest that (unlike some others I could name) you are doing this for quite principled reasons.

            • Jambo25

              The future of travel will be mildly leftish if there isn’t a move to much greater power being passed to Edinburgh and if we go on with the Tories being the only centre-right party in Scotland. Why, though, do you think that Scots, uniquely, will vote for higher and higher taxes unlike virtually any other electorate on earth?
              The dirty little secret about Scottish society is that the vast majority of us are really rather well off. From my visits down South and abroad I’d reckon that Scottish living standards are comparable to the better part of the European average. In UK terms think the South of England not the North. Nor is Scotland particularly left-wing in European terms. I think most Scots are either rightish Social Democrat or leftish Christian Democrat. In other words: the soggy middle. Certainly, most of my friends, whether they vote SNP, SLAB or Tory (Nobody admits to voting Lib Dem now.) fit into this category.

              • classieview

                The pluralism of outlook which you detect within the Scottish electorate is not reflected in the make- up of the Scottish parliament. Cross-party backing for micro-managing the lives of everyday folk leaves plenty of folk ‘scunnered’ but is resolutely backed by the elites which comprise Scotland’s corporate state.
                If you agree that such a gulf exists why do you think it will be narrowed come independence (even on an issue like taxation)?

                • Jambo25

                  Managing peoples’ lives is not exactly limited to the Scottish elites. It is one of the besetting sins of UK politics generally as a glance at the control freak tendency in Britain since Thatcher shows. I doubt that Scotland would be any worse than it or the UK, generally, is at present.
                  With a chance to restart a new centre right party (The Scottish Democratic Party has a nice ring to it.) based on some form of social conservatism mixed with Rhenish rather than London casino capitalism the future could be quite bright for a centre-right populist party.

                • Jambo25

                  The need for a new centre-right party with at least some tenuous grasp of modern Scottish reality was given further backing, yesterday, by Ian Lang’s ludicrous vapourings in the HoL debate. Until the Tories cut their links with gruesome Thatcherite has-beens like Lang and Forsyth they’re going nowhere.

  • Paul Bethune

    Alex how did you get away with getting on the BBC big debate as an “undecided”? Or are you just cynical and deluded with all aspects of your conscience?

    • Angus McIonnach

      I never watched it, but Alex claimed to be ‘persuadable’ not ‘undecided’. I’m sensing that chance is receding with time though.

      • Paul Bethune

        Alex was introduced along with Sanjeev Kohli as “undecided” voters. And having followed his musings on an independent Scotland for quite some time now, I am of the opinion he has no affection for independence and does not wish to see the break up of the union. He was careful with his sentences on that panel show though not to appear too unionist. However, I don’t see that as any personal triumph for him, just an acceptance of charlatan behaviour. Alex Massie is most definitely not on the fence.

        • Angus McIonnach

          I actually quite like to get the perspective of someone who is in all probability going to vote No, but doesn’t base it on the usual nonsense.

          • Paul Bethune

            I like finding out everything I can about what the no perspective is too, After 2 years now, I don’t believe Alex gives it any more credence though. Same old stories rehashed for a 21st century Scotland. There are no big/great ideas for a 21st century United Kingdom, so attack attack attack.

        • Alex Massie

          As I say above, I am pretty “relaxed” about the outcome of the referendum. I wouldn’t mind seeing some better arguments, however. From both sides.

          • Jambo25

            My take on Scottish independence is that you will not get a sensible centre-right party or centre-right revival in Scotland until we have either full independence or such major Devo-max that we are, essentially, members of a very weak confederation. Until then, we are lumbered with a totally useless shower of Scottish Tories who cannot relate to modern Scotland and wouldn’t have a clue what to do with it if they ever, by chance, gained power.

  • GAM

    In many ways the creeping, Stalinist land ‘reform’ policies so treasured by the Nats and Scottish Labour are emblematic of the problem with independence: it will be too late before people realise the damage that such policies have caused. I understand why the topic is generally ignored in the centre-right press, but any journalist who seeks to uphold the principle of ‘property rights’ should give it more attention (not mentioning any names, Mr Massie).

    • MichtyMe

      What are these Stalinist land reform policies, please explain and how would you compare as to the Conservative English Leasehold reform 1993 Act, enabling leaseholders the right to aquire the freehold and what did that do to “property rights” But I suppose Mayfair leaseholders are different to highland crofters.

  • Jupiter

    An independent Scotland would at first be a hideous combination of Greek style economics & East German secret police.

    Sure, people would have to face up to reality eventually, but imagine the damage that would be done before that.

  • Andrew Parke

    While my patriotic, unionist heart would see Scottish independence as a tragedy, part of me is curious as to how a pseudo-Marxist SNP dominated independent Scotland would turn out.

    Personally I would predict an utter economic mess 20 years in, and a return to the union in exchange for the payment of Scottish debts à la 1707.

    • dougthedug

      When you say “patriotic” which country are you referring to?

      It probably isn’t Scotland as you want it to fail.

      • tastemylogos

        Far from it. Ingenious people, sadly led by donkeys.

        Don’t want it to happen. Just think it will.

    • Spammo Twatbury

      So, independence is a no-lose gamble? Result! Let’s give it a shot!

      (PS Which phrase other than “utter economic mess” would you use to describe the current UK situation?)

      • David Kay

        the phrase i would use to desribe it is “The thanks to a Scottish Chancellor Gordon Brown and then Worst PM Ever wrecking Englands Finances and selling our gold off cheap with typical Scottish incompetence he should be hanged for treason the tw@t utter economic mess”

    • In2minds

      20 years on, economic mess…. just like James Turner Street!

      • mctruck

        The only reason ‘Benefits Street’ wasn’t filmed in Govan is that it would have required subtitles.
        Look to the beam in thine own eye, pal 🙂

        • tastemylogos


        • scotcanadien

          Benefits Street needed sub-titles for most of us as well.

    • Angus McIonnach

      “Pseudo-Marxist SNP” – lay off the LSD mate.

    • ChuckieStane

      Andrew, why do you insist in repeating this guff about Scotland being a one-party state post-indy? The indy ref is a vote for independence not an election. It is a (the?) main tactic of the No campaign to personalise the debate around Salmond. You seem to have accepted it hook, line and sinker.
      The truth is an iScotland would be a multiparty democracy like all her European neighbours. We just don’t know what those parties will be yet.
      We know parties cannot operate simultaneously in different countries so the electorate need to know what the Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems would do. Will they simply split into Scottish clones of the former UK parties or will they disband and re-emerge in new realigned and reinvigorated groupings? Will the individual Westminster MPs and Peers commit to putting themselves to the electorate to serve Scotland post 2016?
      The illogical demands for definitive answers on the democratic choices of future Scottish electors give the appearance that unionist politicians are planning to exit political life and leave Scotland to perpetual SNP rule. While this may be a useful political ploy, by failing to give the electorate vision of the potential political landscape post referendum they do a great disservice to the people they claim to represent.
      In this article, Mr. Massie is acknowledging the reality of a future multiparty democracy. The more this is talked about then the more the debate can rise about infantile “marxist, one-party state” nonsense.

      • allymax bruce

        ‘multiparty democracy’? ‘Truth is’, Labour, Conservatives, &
        Lib-Dems have wasted nigh-on 5 years arguing against the impending Scottish Independence that will come this year, and they have negated, (typical!), to operate a ‘multi-disciplined’ perspective to Scotland, Scottish Politics, or ‘representing’ the Scottish people! And your Labour Party are the worst culprits! Labour are staring down the barrell of their inimitable demise because they ‘herald’, and will continue to maintain, their Westminster-Led, Republican ‘Marxist’ corporate conglomerate ‘ignore-the-people’ harmful policies! Labour are on-record as saying they would have done EVERYTHING the same as Osborne’s Tories; bedroom tax, Austerity, (this isn’t a recession, it’s a robbery/Mark), benefit cuts, widening the Class-separate society to pay for Labour’s super-rich Lord levy bankster pals! Labour are bad for scotland. Just look at the face of any Labour/Unionist politician in Holyrood; all are cringing, sneering, lying, disingenuous, insincere, hate-inciting ugly-politics
        hypocrites; all they do is scrunch-up their faces, don a hateful scowl, and screech hateful accusations, scaremongering lies,
        disingenuous remarks, and this is the credibility the Former UK
        (post-dissolution), politicians have in Scotland; ZERO! Ruth Davidson tells Lord Lang that she ‘deplores any intemperate
        language’, but she, Ruth Davidson, the highly intemperate &
        controversial Leader of the Scotch Conservatives, has herself been ordered to ‘withdraw’ many deplorable & intemperate remarks against Scotland’s Democratically elected First Minister! Ruth Davidson, along with all her Unionist cringers, are
        intemperate & deplorable Westminster-Led politicians, doing Scotland real harm. Why would Scots & Scotland want to ‘further’ these Labour troughers, Tory troughers, Lib-Dem cretins? You see politics through the lense of your Marxist Red-Labour commie radical Labour policies; of which, have been rejected by Scots & Scotland at the ballot box time & again!New Political Party’s wanted; old Unionist Party’s defunct.
        Please apply within!

  • dougthedug

    Sometimes I think independence would be like giving a toddler a blade.

    Ahh. The old, “Too small, too poor, too stupid”, meme surfaces.

    • tastemylogos

      go to the guardian for that kind of talk, fella.