Philipp Requat: The Great Escape


For those who take their cues from the No Campaign, the spectre of economic catastrophe haunts Scotland in the run-up to this week’s independence referendum. Unionists argue that the risks of secession are simply too great to merit separation and that any attempts to affect change must thus be made within what they consider to be the “safe” confines of the United Kingdom. In their own view, it is above all an enlightened common sense that inspires the defendants of the union, while the case for a Yes vote relies primarily on emotion. British politicians have found rare agreement when it comes to this notion and tirelessly remind Scots of the economic inadequacy that would strangle their independent nation. The premise of such appeals to Scottish reason is, of course, that Edinburgh and London really are “better together”. Upon closer examination however, a Yes vote is more confidently characterised as an escape from socioeconomic decay than a foolhardy stumble into uncertainty. Whatever dangers independence entails are negligible compared to the downsides of UK membership.

Opponents of Scottish independence chastise the Yes Campaign for being naively optimistic about an independent Scotland’s prospects for growth. By doing so, they imply that remaining in the UK inherently guarantees economic stability, free from any fiscal woes or contingent currency risks. In such debate, the pound is often paraded as the single thread from which Scottish wealth hangs. British tabloids perpetuate this narrative with fervour, constantly warning their readers of the perils faced by Eurozone countries. The dirty little secret that lurks behind this analysis is that such arguments are at best incomplete and at worst dishonest. Across a number of crucial socioeconomic indicators, Britain compares poorly to other EU and Eurozone countries. The UK suffers from the 4th highest inequality in the OECD, amongst whose members it is only surpassed by Mexico, the United States and Chile. It has recently overtaken Nigeria on the same count, while London’s inequality has returned to Victorian levels – both achievements serve as worrying indicators of the country’s current trajectory. The UK has suffered a substantially worse slump in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis than several euro-wielding countries such as Finland, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria. The supposed strength of the British economy and its currency could not protect the country from a double-dip recession and aggressive austerity programmes. This circumstance is also reflected in markedly higher unemployment rates than witnessed in EU leaders Austria and the Netherlands.

There is a category where Britain tops the table- it boasts the largest financial industry in proportion to its GDP in Europe. The dominance of the City of London compared to the rest of the British economy is even more pronounced than was the case in the US before the housing bubble burst in 2007/8. Aside from Scotland, rUK runs a persistent current account deficit and has higher combined private and public debt to GDP ratios than Greece, Spain or Portugal. Europe’s largest housing bubble is concentrated and growing in the South of England. Several of these factors and structural imbalances were present in the US at the outset of the financial crisis which plunged the world into the ongoing Great Recession. Compared to the wealth-destroying potential of another meltdown in the still unregulated City of London, the economic risk of independence is a mere shadow.

Ever since a deep crisis of Western self-confidence in the 1970s allowed Thatcher to drag Britain onto the far-right of the economic policy spectrum, UK governments have devoutly followed the trajectory chartered by their American cousins across the pond. Inspired chiefly by Reaganite ideology, this trend has been characterised by an ill-fated combination of trickle-down/ laissez-faire economics and loyal participation in U.S. military engagements across the globe. Yet even as “self-regulating” neo-liberalism has been intellectually discredited in the wake of financial crisis, and the ongoing fiasco of Iraq and Afghanistan has seen criticism of military adventurism reach deafening levels, Westminster chooses to stand its shaky ground.
The UK was the only EU country to complain before the European Court of Justice about stricter financial regulation and the stifling of bankers’ bonuses. PM Cameron has publicly decried the enormous scope of international tax evasion and money laundering, yet never mentions that British isles in the Caribbean and English Channel, and above all London, are at the very heart of such corrupt practices. The army of foreign oligarchs who have made the UK’s capital their home did not do so for the weather or the food. Rather than introducing meaningful regulation to prevent periodic financial crises and cracking down on the dirty underbelly of London’s banking industry to retrieve billions in lost public revenue, the British government opts for cuts to social spending. Since the UK’s ballooning debt is closely related to the banking meltdown of 2008, the weakest in society are literally made to bail out the strongest.

Downing Street adds insult to injury with the stubborn maintenance of its aggressive and costly stance in foreign policy. Preaching permanent austerity, PM Cameron is still happy to splash out funds for nuclear submarines and a new aircraft carrier. The UK is currently unable to afford planes to station on the latter, perhaps to ensure that the taxpayer’s money which the project devours will continue to be spent anywhere but on the public. The prioritisation of military expenditure over average citizens’ livelihoods aligns well with the war-mongering image which Westminster has acquired in diplomatic circles. From Syria to Ukraine, observers can always be certain to spot PM Cameron in the “war party”.

This list of ailments does not even begin to address the questions surrounding EU membership. As shown by Dr. Kenealy of the University of Edinburgh’s Europa Institute, it is by no means a forgone conclusion that a Yes vote would lead to Scotland’s automatic exclusion from EU membership. There is no precedent for revoking EU citizenship which all Scots now possess, and even if this were to occur it would be hard to imagine Scotland not being readmitted into the European community. Media coverage across the EU suggests a welcoming sentiment towards an independent Scotland. Compared to the obstacles that Britain frequently poses to EU reform, Scotland is seen by many as a constructive potential partner. This scenario contrasts with the looming prospect of a voluntary British exit from the EU. The growing momentum of UKIP and hard-line conservatives has put Britain on a concerning course towards isolationism. Those who confidently assess Britain can go it alone often refer to Norway as their model. The reference is surprising, considering that the oil-rich Scandinavian’s government has published a report which concluded that the benefits of Norwegian exclusion from the EU are outweighed by its disadvantages. Scotland’s chances of remaining in the EU can barely be seen as secure in the face of a UK referendum, as the decision would inevitably be made by Britain’s larger and more Euro-sceptic population in Southern England.

While it is not inevitable that Britain will stick to its contemporary politics, those who plan to vote No on September 18th should be clear that Scottish residents of the Union will have no tangible influence over such matters. The demographic structure of the UK contains a sobering reality for Scottish democracy, the neglect of which is hardly less delusional than the notion that independence resembles a fast-track to utopia. In particular, London’s outsized political influence has long been to the detriment of Scotland and other UK regions. This circumstance is showcased by the fact that Britain ranks highest for regional inequality in Europe. Although independence might entail navigating some stormy waters, it is certainly better than hiding in the haul of a sinking ship. Over the past 30 years, several European borders have been redrawn without major incidents. Few Eastern Germans bemoan the consequences of reunification. Czechs as well as Slovaks have prospered since the disassembly of Czechoslovakia. A Yes vote would enable Scotland to take full control of local governance and retain the option to join in the deeper European integration of political and socioeconomic responsibilities that mandate cooperation. Aside from leaving behind the troubled UK, the benefits of independence would extend beyond the borders of Scotland. From South Tyrol to Catalonia, a positive outcome of the referendum would serve as an inspirational example of peaceful self-determination to other peoples seeking political representation that befits their identity.

Philipp Requat
National Collective