Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

A go-it-alone Scotland won't undermine our place in the UK

Forget the scaremongers: Scottish independence would have no effect on Northern Ireland's constitutional position. It might even produce some unexpected benefits

A Scottish saltire is waved in front of Big Ben in central London as the groundswell of support for Scottish independence gains at the rate of one percentage point per month
A Scottish saltire is waved in front of Big Ben in central London as the groundswell of support for Scottish independence gains at the rate of one percentage point per month

With five months to go until the Scottish independence referendum on September 18, the campaign has finally caught fire. For the two years until the end of 2013, opinion polls seemed frozen, with the No camp well in the lead.

But since the publication last November of the SNP government's white paper, outlining how an independent Scotland would function, the Yes vote has been gaining around one percentage point per month. The poll taken most recently shows the Yes vote at 44%, when Don't Knows are excluded.

It requires a modest six-point swing to end the Union.

Crucially, only half of Scotland's four million eligible voters have made up their minds irrevocably. The other half lie anywhere between having no idea how they will cast their ballots, to semi-committed, yet open to changing their minds. That's a lot of people agnostic about being British.

Here lies the growing unease in the pro-UK Better Together campaign. To date, their strategy has been overwhelmingly negative in tone, while Alex Salmond, Scotland's charismatic First Minister, is a political master at selling a positive vision.

Hard-headed Scottish voters remain unmoved by predictions of doom from visiting Tory Cabinet ministers, including (I jest not) the loss of Doctor Who from the nation's television screens.

A recent rant from Lord Robertson, former head of Nato, that a Yes vote "would be cataclysmic" for the entire Western world was greeted with derision in Scotland (and embarassment in the No camp).

The Yes case is not about identity, it's about the economy.

Being run from London has not proven a success for post-war Scotland – or elsewhere outside the Home Counties.

In spite of North Sea oil, Scottish economic growth has under-performed the UK average for 30 years and is much lower than comparable small European economies.

Why? Because UK economic policy favours the banks and the City of London over manufacturing industry. Result: the Crash of 2008.

Salmond argues Scotland needs to be independent, so it can take the decisions needed to re-build its economy. He also maintains that independence will be good for Northern Ireland, Wales and the hinterland of England, which are equally ignored by the London elite. In reality, Salmond is offering a new British confederation in everything but name.

In this partnership of equals, the individual nations of the British Isles would have their own sovereign parliaments and domestic tax arrangements, but share the Queen, a common currency, free trade and a common approach to security matters.

A majority of men in Scotland now say they will vote Yes (once Don't Knows are excluded), compared to only a third of women. The SNP government has been making overtures to attract female support for independence, including free childcare.

At the SNP's April conference, Salmond promoted two more women to his cabinet, which is now 40% female. That compares to 26% female membership in the Northern Ireland Executive and a pathetic 14% in David Cameron's Cabinet.

If Scotland votes Yes, it could be construed as a psychological blow to traditional Ulster unionism. In reality, Scottish independence is not going to make any material change to Northern Ireland's constitutional status – and might produce unexpected benefits.

The UK Treasury is holding fire on granting the Northern Ireland Assembly power to set corporation tax, lest Alex Salmond demand similar treatment. With Scotland gone and London anxious to reassure the remaining Celtic fringes of its benign interest, expect control over corporate taxes to come quickly.

Ian Paisley Jr worries that Scottish independence might serve as a justification for further acts of violence by dissident republicans. But the dissidents have never required an excuse. Besides, the peaceful Scottish referendum debate is the best answer to those who still believe violence wins political arguments.

A Scottish Yes might conceivably encourage demands for another border poll on Irish unity, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. But in the current economic climate, no one seriously expects such a poll to lead to a change in Northern Ireland's constitutional position, any more than in 1973, when the last border referendum took place.

There is a lingering belief in Northern Ireland that a special relationship exists with Scotland that might be fractured by a Yes vote. But family ties will still remain (including my own) and young people from the north will still attend Scottish universities.

It is London politicians who are threatening this social union by trying to veto a common currency and suggesting border controls might be imposed.

Yet, to be frank, modern, secular Scotland has done its best to ignore Northern Ireland since 1969, anxious that any sectarian troubles did not spread. So any political intervention in the referendum by Northern politicians is counter-productive and unwelcome, especially by the No camp.

There is a strong likelihood that next month the Conservatives will announce a plan to devolve income tax powers completely to Edinburgh, as a carrot to stop the No vote collapsing.

Peter Robinson says he won't oppose additional powers for Scotland unless it undermines the Union. But a No vote will undoubtedly lead to 'devo max', or fiscal autonomy for Edinburgh.

In such a scenario, Mr Robinson might be better to join with Edinburgh in shaping devo-max, rather than sitting on the sidelines and letting London dictate events.

George Kerevan writes for The Scotsman. He is co-author (with Alan Cochrane) of Scottish Independence: Yes or No (The History Press, £7.99)

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