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Presumption and the Price of Independence

by Former Chancellor and Better Together Leader, Alistair Darling

We are now just 48 hours away from the launch of the White Paper which sets out the SNP’s manifesto for breaking up the United Kingdom. We are beginning to get hints from the nationalists as to what their case will look like on Tuesday. So far it looks like nothing has changed.

The newspapers this morning report that Alex Salmond has declared Independence Day -before a single vote has been cast. On a day when the latest opinion poll shows support for leaving the UK dropping sharply, this seems more than a little presumptuous. For our part, we will never take the votes of Scots for granted.

Leaving aside the decision to announce the date of the UK split, it does tell us something important. The nationalists expect to be able to negotiate all the big issues in just a year and a half.  It won’t just be about disentangling a 300 year old union between Scotland and the rest of the UK, we would have negotiations with 28 other EU nations, with NATO and all other international organisations. We are entitled to ask what sort of a deal we are likely to get on such a tight timetable and what the back-up plans are.

At the end of last week SNP Finance Minister John Swinney told us that that the things that are promised in the White Paper will be delivered because they are in the White Paper. To understand his logic, it is worth quoting him in full.

“The people of Scotland will be given the proposition that Sterling will be the currency of Scotland and the UK Government has signed up to respect the outcome of the referendum so we would expect them to respect the outcome of the referendum and therefore to respect the currency position that we have set out as part of that process.”

This is clearly nonsense. And it isn’t just us that are saying it. Former SNP deputy leader Margo MacDonald yesterday said “I would not expect the State that is going to be left by us to say ‘Aye, anything you say’.” If Scottish voters decide to break up the UK next September the only certainty is that we will leave the United Kingdom.  The terms of the break up will be subject to difficult negotiations.

The White Paper can set out what Alex Salmond would like to achieve in those negotiations but our vote cannot mandate the rest of the UK and the other countries we would have to negotiate with. The nationalists cannot do as they seem keen to do and  hide behind the Edinburgh Agreement. How can they possibly say that that agreement would mean that their White Paper should be accepted in full by the rest of the UK when it was signed months before the White Paper was even written?

Whatever the SNP promise in the White Paper, there are no guarantees. That is why on fundamentally important issues like the currency they must set out a plan B.

The nationalists know they cannot promise that we would keep the Pound. That is why, when pushed on the issue, they become so belligerent. This morning, under pressure on Sky’s Murnaghan Programme, Nicola Sturgeon again threatened to default on Scotland’s share of UK debt if the rest of the UK refused to create a currency union.

Just think what that means. Scotland would be a small country, presumably joining the Euro, which had just sent a message to international lenders that we could not be trusted to honour our debts. What would that mean for our interest rates and our mortgage costs?

As the nationalists prepare the White Paper, it is remarkable how little emphasis they are putting on the economic case for independence. They haven’t even tried to answer the analysis set out by the impartial experts at the IFS that predicted big cuts or big tax rises.  It seems they want to present independence without a price. If they claim that independence comes without any loss or any cost, it simply won’t be credible.

One thing will change after Tuesday’s White Paper. For months the nationalists have evaded every difficult question by telling us that we should wait until the White Paper for answers. In 48 hours there will be no way for Alex Salmond to escape the difficult questions.