Robin McAlpine: The evidence that one-trick unionism simply isn't evolving

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine says kneejerk reactions from the unionist camp are to be expected every time the Scottish independence case strengthens

WHERE stands Scottish unionism? We're all used to commentary pieces on the state of the case for independence. What about the case for Britain?

I find myself reflecting on this in the aftermath of the publication last week of our paper on Scotland's finances (Beyond GERS) and the reaction from parts of the unionist community in Scotland.

My conclusion is that Scottish unionism is now a wholly negative proposition. As far as I can tell, the 'positive case for the union' (always tricky to disentangle from the wider Project Fear narrative) is now a distant memory. The only case left for Britain is that Scotland can't finance an independent state.

As far as I can tell, the 'positive case for the union' is now a distant memory. The only case left for Britain is that Scotland can't finance an independent state.

That is why any attempt to show that an independent Scotland is as fiscally viable as the UK is such a threat – if all you've got is 'you can't afford it' then you really, really need it not to be challenged.

I won't go over the whole argument in the report – you can read a quick summary by report author Craig Dalzell here. What we sought to do was produce a proper report with verifiable references which anyone is free to explore.

We made assumptions (as any report into the future must do) and we outlined those assumptions, not because we believe that makes them 'definitely true' but because assumptions should be openly stated precisely so they can be challenged.

And we proposed clear and understandable actions which could address the issue of the comparative fiscal situation in Scotland and England. You may very well not agree with them, but as always we wished to make it as clear as possible what they are so they can be debated.

That is why any attempt to show that an independent Scotland is as fiscally viable as the UK is such a threat – if all you've got is 'you can't afford it' then you really, really need it not to be challenged.

So as always we welcome that debate. It would just be nice if it was grounded in something a little more serious than the two blogs on which the whole unionist community seems to have relied for their response.

(That response includes well-known macroeconomist JK Rowling who in her very own post-truth bubble simply accused us of making things up. With her disdain for experts and conviction that popular and powerful figures should use their fame to trump rational debate, she should perhaps consider a new home in Ukip.)

The two blogs in question are here and here. Craig has addressed the multiple mistakes in them here, but I want to outline a few examples.

We propose that less should be spent on the military but that it should be spent in Scotland, defending Scotland. This means it is very easy to spend less overall but spend more in-country. Sure, we wouldn't be able to start wars all round the world, but a basic understanding of the profile of UK military expenditure in Scotland could have saved our blogger from missing the point.

The other blogger suggests that the UK could simply pass a law to remove pension entitlement from pensioners who retire in Scotland. At the moment anyone who has a track record of National Insurance Contributions has a right to a UK state pension, irrespective of where they retire. This applies to former citizens – such as pensioners in an independent Scotland who paid NICs their whole life.

As always we welcome the debate. It would just be nice if it was grounded in something a little more serious than the two blogs on which the whole unionist community seems to have relied for their response.

But either he is proposing removing the pensions from former British citizens all over the world (which is certainly subject to challenge and the Daily Mail will be delighted) or he's suggesting that Scotland alone of all the world's nations is the one to which people who paid NICs couldn't retire. California, Australia, South Africa – all fine, you'll keep getting your pension. But not Scotland.

I realise the UK is lukewarm on the whole human rights thing, but I feel that the Supreme Court might have something to say about selective targeting of people's legal entitlement for purely political purposes.

Then of course, if we're all allowed just to sign bits of legislation reneging on previous commitments, why would Scotland keep paying the UK for 'its share of debt' as unionists are convinced it has to? We're in a world where unionists think you can just sign away responsibilities with the wave of a magic pen, but only if you're not Scotland. This really is Hogwarts stuff.

In any case, the whole thing is predicated on a repeated unionist misunderstanding of successor and continuing state. I actually ploughed my way through the Vienna Conventions on the division of nation states and Craig did a survey of international precedent for our previous paper on debts and assets.

Basically, the rules are 'it's a share of everything or a share of nothing'. Either we both (Scotland and England) get proportionate access to everything (including institutions and currency) and are both considered successor states, or one country is designated as a new state and one the continuing state. In the latter case the new nation has no automatic right to out-of-country assets and institutions, but also no liability for debt.

We're in a world where unionists think you can just sign away responsibilities with the wave of a magic pen, but only if you're not Scotland. This really is Hogwarts stuff.

The debt is the UK Government's debt. I'm weary of explaining that this is the law, whether unionists like it or not. If you take a mortgage out in your name and you share the payment of the mortgage with a lodger, you can't phone the bank and transfer half the legal liability of the mortgage on to the lodger if he or she moves out. What counts is who signed the contract – and it wasn't Scotland.

One of our bloggers claims that financing Scottish debt would be expensive because our borrowing rate would be higher than the UK's. Except we know this and have allowed for it – and we'd still save money because the UK debt was largely accrued at a time when UK borrowing rates were much higher. You'd think he'd understand this basic point.

And as a flat-out rule, if you say you're going to attempt to close tax loopholes and someone claims this is the same as a rise in income tax, they're not being serious. Likewise, if you refuse to accept standard Treasury methodology for measuring the tax impact of moving civil servants to Scotland (which Craig used in the report) then it's pointless trying to engage.

The two blogs concerned are littered with this stuff from start to finish. There is plenty you might want to challenge in our report. For example, we accept that closing tax loopholes isn't as difficult as the UK pretends but still isn't easy (we're developing a paper on this to explore it more).

Yes, allocation of debt is a negotiation and accurately predicting outcomes is tricky. And yes, the Vienna Conventions haven't been ratified and the UK might refuse to accept international precedent (did I mention that this is a country with a declining interest in the rule of law?).

At Common Weal we're trying to do what we can to recognise previous flaws, put the hours into researching possible solutions, to produce them and test them.

The pensions outcome is right in numbers terms but in terms of policy you don't really want your pensioners dependent on the policy of another country (which isn't what we're proposing but would at least be a substantive argument).

But this is not the debate. Instead we get Trump stuff, the statement of opinion as fact without engaging with any counterfactual ideas, without looking at history, without doing proper research.

Now this is not simply a flaw on one side – I have always been critical of some of the assertions and bold but unfounded statements that have come from parts of the indy movement (mainly members of the public). But what else does unionism have these days other than certainty and swagger that it is fundamentally superior?

Is it that the UK is a great place we should want to be a part of? That pooling and sharing was the best thing that happened to Daniel Blake? That being in the EU is a primary concern? That Labour is close to victory and that's all we need? Or perhaps the real hope is that Tony Blair might return.

For the love of the wee man, Boris Johnston is foreign secretary and Nigel Farage is being tipped as our new ambassador to the US. As one of our intrepid bloggers put it, if that's a convincing case, email me because I want to sell you things.

Unionists’ lack of seriousness makes them weak. Their lack of debate about what they are for makes them vulnerable. So they cling to their one tool – a spreadsheet – for comfort.

I have hardly been uncritical of the state of the independence movement. We are two years past the referendum and barely a jot of work has been done to revise the case. We've been through three GERS reports and the official response looked quite a lot like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

Have I got everything right in the past? Nope. For example, we're soon going to publish a paper by a very well informed source on the stages needed to implement a new currency. There are aspects of this I simply didn't previously understand. So I'm working hard to learn, to fix parts of my thinking that may have been faulty.

But unionism? It seems to have understood nothing, learned nothing and refuses to pull its head out from under the duvet. It sits quietly as the borders are closed to foreigners, as human rights are abolished, as the poor are victimised, as the media turns on the judges.

At Common Weal we're trying to do what we can to recognise previous flaws, put the hours into researching possible solutions, to produce them and test them. I am a pluralist and welcome unionist critique and criticism, because it may well identify new flaws we need to work on.

But there should be two conditions. It should be serious in a way our bloggers aren't. And it should apply in both directions – unionists should be demonstrating a fleeting interest in their own flaws.

Their lack of seriousness makes them weak. Their lack of debate about what they are for makes them vulnerable. So they cling to their one tool – a spreadsheet – for comfort.

Just listen to them squeal if you try and take it from them.

Picture courtesy of Robin McAlpine

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