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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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