“The early years of an independent Scotland are timed to coincide with a massive North Sea oil boom.”
Those were the words of John Swinney, Nicola Sturgeon’s second-in-command, to the people of Scotland in 2014 at the last independence referendum. The whole economic case for independence, set out in the White Paper, was predicated on an oil price of $113 per barrel. Of course, when anyone questioned the SNP or pointed out the dangers of making the nation’s finances dependent on a resource as volatile as oil, we were accused of ‘scaremongering’.
Truth was denied and experts dismissed in the nationalists pursuit of independence. In more ways than one Scottish Nationalists wrote the blue print and set the tone for anti-EU campaigners in the referendum to follow.
There is however a harsh economic reality that is inescapable. The price of oil now hovers at around $50 per barrel. In fact, the latest OBR figures show that the SNP’s estimates for oil revenue in the first two years of an independent Scotland were out by as much as £21 billion. Those early years of independence which Swinney spoke of would have been painful, particularly for the poorest families in Scotland who would have suffered most.
Those of us who argued in favour of the United Kingdom take no pleasure in this because the downturn has caused a real crisis in Scotland today, with thousands of job losses in the oil industry in the north east wreaking havoc in the local economy. However the impact on an independent Scotland would have been catastrophic. In a parallel universe if Scotland had decided to leave the United Kingdom on 18 September 2014, we would now be faced with turbo-charged austerity – either public spending cut to the bone or massive tax hikes on a scale never seen before.
Without a coherent economic plan, it was not surprising that the people of Scotland rejected independence by a significant majority. We thought that this referendum had put to bed the constitutional question for a generation. It was now time to get on with the day job – improving the NHS, improving educational opportunities and growing the economy and jobs.
It didn’t take long for the SNP to seize on another excuse to pursue independence. This time it was Brexit. Please don’t be fooled. SNP members and activists have no love of Europe, they don’t believe in Brussels rule anymore than they believe in London rule. Brexit is simply an opportunity to engage in grievance with the rest of Britain and demand another referendum on independence.
The Scottish economy is fragile. Growth is down and is still being revised downwards. Employment is down and the number of economically inactive people has increased. We are lagging behind the rest of Britain across a number of key economic measures yet the SNP stick their heads in the sand lest they admit the weakness in Scotland’s economy. Indeed, their only response so far has been to cut the budget for Scottish Enterprise – the very agency that is in charge of economic development in Scotland – by 48 per cent in real terms since 2009.
Brexit will make that picture worse, but so too would independence. After all Scotland exports four times more to the rest of the U.K. than it does to Europe. The U.K. is by far and away our most important trading partner and our biggest single market. The last thing our economy needs is the distraction of another constitutional debate.
Businesses across Scotland constantly tell us that a key barrier to taking investment decisions and creating jobs, is uncertainty. The process of leaving the European Union has already caused enough confusion for businesses but Nicola Sturgeon wants to pile uncertainty on top of uncertainty by demanding that we leave the United Kingdom. There is no doubt that businesses regard even holding another referendum on independence as damaging for Scotland’s economy, and that’s before we actually get to independence itself.
The SNP government’s own figures show that Scotland’s deficit stood at £15 billion last year, in percentage terms, more than double that of the UK as a whole. That is more than the amount spent on the entire NHS in Scotland. Closing that gap would mean savage cuts to our public services under independence and we know that the poorest communities have the most to lose. The only thing the Nationalists have to offer Scotland is false hope because they know that by the time their supporters realise they can’t deliver, it will be too late.
Scottish Labour stands with the majority of Scots, including some who voted Yes, who believe that there are much more pressing issues facing our country right now. Just last week child poverty figures were published. The level had risen by 40,000, roughly a 20 per cent increase. That is a national scandal. But it got little mention from the SNP government, despite the parliament having the policy levers to do something about it. Instead we got a constitutional debate that is an excuse for the SNP doing little else. That’s why today Labour MSPs will vote against Nicola Sturgeon’s plan for another divisive referendum. She needs to get on with her day job of governing Scotland but on this issue, poll after poll tell us that the majority don’t want another referendum any time soon. On this, she and the SNP do not speak for Scotland.
Jackie Baillie is MSP for Dumbarton and Scottish Labour’s spokesperson on the economy