Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Scotch Mist - Occasional reflections on a referendum. No 4 - The futility of the "cash benefit" debate

The Scottish referendum on independence is now just four months away.  Somewhat overshadowed by the European and local council elections last week, the debate has hotted up with some conflicting claims about the monetary benefits of going it alone, or not.  Some say the Scots will all be worse by off some ludicrous figure - say £2,000 a head; others argue that independence will put an equivalent amount into each sporran.

To reduce the question of independence to a supposed monetary value is stupid. It is an insult to the intelligence of Scots voters, regardless of which way they intend to vote. If a nation truly believes that it is being suppressed or victimised by another and that independence will bring about redemption then the cost (or benefit) is irrelevant. The early settlers of Israel in the 1920s and 30s did not ask how much money they might get if they gave up their relatively settled lives in Europe to live on a kibbutz. I doubt if the Slovakians gave a second thought to breaking up the confederation with the Czechs, nor did the Bosnians and Croats and Slovenes pause to count their potential bank balances when fighting against a perceived dominance by Serbia. They may all be worse off than they would have been had things been difference; they may be doing much better. Who can tell? Who, looking back, could care less?

In any case all such calculations are futile. Economics is a "science" riddled by the need to make untested, and often untestable, assumptions about human behaviour. I should know - I have a degree in the blasted subject from one of the premier universities of this country. Economists may produce wonderfully elegant theories but they rarely produce useful predictions.

There are legitimate subjects for argument - Scotland's place in the European Union, the viability of a sterling currency union, the impact on future investment - but it is pointless to pretend that they can be given monetary values. Far more important is whether the UK can generate a safer and sounder environment for all of its citizens if Scotland remains in than if Scotland leaves. I believe it can, and that to lose the Scottish voice from the UK's privileged seat at the UN and other key institutions such as NATO and the G8 would weaken both parties to the Union. I think British ideas of justice, tolerance and fair play have been of enormous significance in the development of global culture and the Scots have made a massive contribution. And equally that contribution might have counted for little had it not been delivered as a part of the UK.

In the end if the Scots want independence because, well, they just really really want it, then none of the arguments will count for anything. It would just be a shame and a diminution of both parties.

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