Master Storytellers

Seamus Peter Johnstone Macleod

Image © Saul Gordillo

It is argued that Scottish nationalism under the stewardship of the SNP has come of age. Gone are invocations of the spirit of William Wallace or Robert the Bruce. Less frequent too are references to the barbarity of Margaret Thatcher’s rule without mandate. It is said that romanticism has been replaced with a clear-minded pragmatism. The dominant narrative north of the border is that Scotland’s prosperity would be ensured and increased if it were free to pursue its own economic and political goals, free of control from Westminster.

There is much that supports elements of this account.  The SNP succeeded in presenting a convincing case that a pro-Europe, foreign investment friendly, socially conscious, independent Scotland would constitute a cause for monetary celebration. And it’s not all bluster. Mr Salmond’s high profile publicity trips to the Middle East and China, ostensibly securing bilateral trade and investment ties, are backed up by solid figures that show that foreign money has been flowing into Scotland – at a relatively steady rate – since 2002. The SNP’s dream to follow Ireland’s example of prosperity through low corporation tax, a skilled workforce, and modern infrastructure attractive to multinational companies cannot be discounted merely due to the unfortunate end that met that arc of prosperity. SNP ministers are more likely to be found quoting economic statistics than Rabbie Burns these days.

Scott Hill has rightly pointed out that it is the unionist side that now appear to be the champions of sentimentality and myth. Claims that “we are stronger together” sound hollow and are mostly unsupported by the rationality that appears to colour the rhetoric of the SNP. Melanie Philips does her cause no favours by perpetuating the false notion that Scotland receives a sizeable windfall from taxpayers elsewhere in the UK. Though the truth of this matter depends on which year or years of data are considered and what proportion of North Sea oil is considered to be Scotland’s, it is not the case that Scottish citizens would lose significant funds through independence. Equally, the notion that Scotland would have been bankrupted by having to independently bail out RBS during the credit crunch are grounded more in fiction than in fact. Joint bailouts by groups of states did take place during 2008 and this would likely have happened in the case of RBS given its sizeable presence south of the border.

However, it is not true to say that the SNP have fully shed the garb of storytellers in favour of the trappings of statesmen. Two unforgiveable narrative flaws exist. The First Minister insists that Scotland would retain its EU membership if independence were realised but there appears to be little to support this beyond the assurances offered by the would be authors of Scotland’s “destiny.” When asked by Welsh MEP Eluned Morgan in 2004, the European Commission ruled that seceding regions would not be entitled to automatic EU membership. The Commission stated that:

… a newly independent region would, by fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the [European] Union and the treaties would, from the day of its independence, not apply anymore on its territory.

Do the SNP perhaps imagine that Scotland would receive special treatment in its application to rejoin the EU? It would have to. Whatever the division of the UK’s debts on independence, Scotland would certainly not be in the fiscally sound position that is demanded of new Member States. There is also the issue of opposition from existing major members. Despite sabre rattling south of the border, the UK is not likely to stand in the way. The same cannot be said of Spain. France and Italy also boast regions with secessionist ambitions and might side with Spain were Scotland to have to seek new membership.

Yet another grim reality of the SNP’s European ambitions is that new members are obliged to enter the euro. The UK’s relative financial security – in comparison to our neighbours on the continent – is almost entirely due to our independent monetary policy. If we are to believe that Ireland’s example is to be followed – excluding, of course, its disastrous conclusion – then it should be noted that Ireland suffered rebuke from eurozone authorities for running to high a budget surplus during its boom years. The crisis engulfing continental Europe is a stark lesson in the limitations of a shared monetary policy. It is a moral conspicuously lacking in the SNP’s partisan parable.

But what if we assume that the SNP narrative is sound? That EU membership will be offered, that major Member States will not block Scotland’s ascension, that the euro will not be forced upon the UK’s most northerly constituent part? What then? A monetary union with the rest of the United Kingdom is their answer. Another twist in the tale. Not as immediately alarming as the prospect of joining the euro as it teeters on the brink of a financial abyss but troubling nonetheless. It is true that the lack of convergence that spelt disaster for the EMU does not exist between Scotland and the rest of the UK. There are disparities between regions but they are no more stark than those between the South East and North East of England. That is until the advent of Salmond’s much vaunted lowering of corporation tax, influx of foreign investment, and expansion of social provision. If an independent Scotland is to remain economically compatible with the rest of the UK then one wonders what the point of independence is. If it is not then a shared monetary policy becomes extremely problematic. Furthermore there exists the issue of an independent Scotland – under the assumption that it continues to use Sterling – without a lender of last resort. Since 2008, the Bank of England has pumped £275bn into the UK economy. Would it do so for an independent Scotland? No one knows. No one within the SNP ranks appears to have asked. It’s not relevant to the story.

Modern advocates of Scottish independence may now be armed with vague fiscal dreams and largely sound but subjective statistics but they remain storytellers. They are not engaged in a serious and sober discussion of fact. They still use the word “destiny” with alarming regularity. The case against independence may be similarly sentimental but it is not just a story. The bonds between Scots and the rest of the UK have existed through 300 years of shared history. Together we discovered, conquered, and lost much of the known world. Together we shared in the spoils and sins of Empire. Together we raised living standards for every resident of these isles. Together we stood against fascism, though not as resolutely as we like to pretend. These events are past and remain only as stories but they were once real. They were once facts. Those listening to the platitudes of the SNP today should be aware that though they contain numbers and assertions they are stories just the same. I suppose my point is this: nations are nothing but stories. They are arbitrary divisions of lands and peoples. They come to mean more than this only through shared lives and experiences. Through shared stories. I, for one, will take past stories that were once real over stories of a future that may never be.

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