Why I’m against independence. Election day special. This is where I embarrass myself by making predictions on how things might turn out.
I give predictions in “bits” on a logarithmic scale: 1 bit is about even odds. -2 bits means one in four chance for the thing to happen. +7 bits means more than 99% certain. -10 bits means 1/1000 or less chance to happen. There’s no point trying to call a 1-bit (or 50/50 event) but might be worth differentiating a -2 bit (25%) from a -5 bit (under 5%) risk. So here we go:
+2 bits: Turnout will be at least 60%
+1 bit: The SNP alone wins a majority of seats
+3 bits: The SNP, Greens and Alba together win a majority of seats
I think turnout will be good on both sides as this election is seen as a mandate for independence. Sturgeon’s campaign of stirring up sentiments and appearing on TV every day to read statistics seems to have convinced people that England is a basket case and Scotland is well managed (in fact outcomes are about the same). Opposition is weak. The unusually good conservative leader Ruth Davidson is stepping down and the new leader is uninspiring. Labour has the opposite problem, Anas Sarwar is a good leader but the party is kind of irrelevant, after becoming a Guardian echo chamber and losing the north of England over Brexit. George Galloway may get elected in The Borders and be a thorn on the SNP’s side, but he did not manage to create much of an alliance for unity.
+2 bits: The SNP call a referendum during this parliament term
+2 bits: Referendum terms agreed with UK government
-4 bits: The SNP goes ahead with a hostile Catalonia-style referendum
The SNP practically made the referendum an election promise, but there’s a couple of reasons it might not happen this term. It’s obviously risky to separate while we’re still in a pandemic and economic support, as well as vaccines, are provided by the UK government. Support for independence hovers around 50% according to recent polls. Since a “Yes” vote is not a sure bet, and either way would take the wind out of the SNP’s sails, they might choose to campaign some more and use the independence issue to secure another term in 2025.
Initially I expect Johnson’s government to refuse a referendum arguing that it’s too soon, an already stated position. Eventually though I think London and Edinburgh will agree some terms and a referendum will likely go ahead. If Johnson refuses to grant a referendum there’s a chance Sturgeon might go ahead with a hostile vote, not backed by London, like Catalonia in 2017. However I think that’s unlikely because it’ll seriously rattle domestic support as well as damage the prospects of being admitted in the EU.
+2 bits: The UK government sets terms that are “harsh but fair”
+2 bits: The campaign is based on ideology, not facts
-7 bits: Significant incidents of political violence in Scotland
I think the UK government can and should give Scotland terms that are harsh but fair. That means two or more of the following: No dual citizenship or freedom of movement. Papers and customs at the border, like with France. At least 5% share of UK debt denominated in GBP. Scottish banks move to London or lose their Bank of England license. Since the referendum is kind of hostile at best, the UK ought to say OK, you’re on your own. The reason to be kinder than that would be to avoid galvanizing support for independence or alienating voters in England.
Based on the current conduct of the SNP and their organ “The National” I expect the campaign to be all propaganda and no facts. I’d be amazed if we see a white paper anywhere near the quality and thoroughness of the one Salmond’s team produced in 2014, since placing the full facts on the table would make independence look bad. Instead I expect Sturgeon’s team to wave flags and dodge questions on currency, border, debt etc. Sorry I don’t know how to formally score this prediction.
I think there’s a small but not negligible chance that rioting or political violence may erupt related to independence, and I would condemn that regardless of side.
+1 bit: Independence wins the referendum
If it passes:
+2 bits: Austerity, meaning 4% or more drop in public spending
+3 bits: GDP shrinks 2% or trade drops 10% for a year
If it fails:
+1 bit: The SNP fades and the main UK parties rebound
+1 bit: A new party landscape emerges in Scotland
So the referendum happens and, as mentioned, it’s hard to call the result. If independence loses the issue is dead for many years but I’m not sure what will happen with the parties. The SNP could remodel as a center-left party, or if they keep drumming up nationalism they’ll lose their base. We might go back to the Conservative, Labour, LibDem split or another party landscape might emerge, perhaps the successor to the SNP vs. Alba. I think that would be a good development or healthier than the current situation.
If independence passes there will be a couple of years quiet transition period but eventually the change would have to come and that’ll almost certainly bring short-term economic pain. I think we’ll see austerity as Scotland loses UK fiscal transfers and has to balance its budget. Estimates differ as to how much. Trade and GDP would drop due to border bureaucracy, negative sentiment, uncertainty, or other reasons. Most likely short term pain will turn into long term mild disappointment. I think in economic terms independence is about as bad a decision as Brexit, although the UK got hit by Brexit and Coronavirus at the same time and Scotland might fare better.
And no, independence doesn’t cancel Brexit. It’s just a bad economic decision followed by another.
-2 bits: Scotland’s economy outperforms Ireland by 2030
-3 bits: Scotland negotiates a seamless transition from UK to EU
-4 bits: Scotland finds its joie de vivre and becomes as fun-loving as Ireland
I’ve been pessimistic throughout so let’s consider what might go really well after independence. I think it’s very unlikely, but possible, that independence will drag Scotland out of decades of self-loathing and victimhood, people will feel they’re masters of their own destiny, everyone will roll up their sleeves, confidence will rebound, and so on. That’s what independence supporters probably think will happen. I think it’s pretty unlikely, but who knows.
There’s more ways to succeed economically than socially. It’s a tall order but if Scotland plays its cards right it could negotiate a transition directly from the UK to the EU and from the Pound to the Euro. That would be quite the coup. Scotland does have tech and resources and exports, so if it chooses to be a hard-nosed businesslike place it can do pretty well. It’ll have to be neoliberal and kind of ruthless, exploit property and assets to the full, sell out here or there, but it’s possible. A number of people who are less employable, ironically in places like Glasgow and Dundee that are pro-independence may be left behind, but Scotland as a whole may prosper. People point to Denmark or Finland as models. These are relatively conservative country club places. Scotland can do this, at the cost of throwing away the “socialist” vision that now powers independence. Maybe that painful path to a better future is a white lie that the SNP is selling to the people.
Perhaps in the best possible world Scotland will lose its dour Presbyterian morality and become a much freer fun loving place like Ireland is today. That would make independence worth it. I don’t think it’s likely at all, but hey, you can hope.