Thursday, August 28, 2014

Scottish Secession: The Final Countdown Begins

When I first started writing on this topic, I collected enough information to write a post about the secession debate once every other month or so. As the referendum quickly approaches, the news stories are presenting themselves rather frequently.

As I've noted on many occasions, the lynchpin of the SNP's economic case for secession is Scotland's oil wealth. The question of whether this is the United Kingdom's oil wealth, Scotland's oil wealth, or Shetland's oil wealth. The BBC has carried a number of articles on this question recently. In one, they analyzed how much oil is left; they subsequently noted that a commission of the Scottish government seriously questioned the continued viability of Scotland's energy industry. The commission was answering a figured from the industry body Oil and Gas UK published in the SNP's independence white paper. These figures were subsequently defended by two academics at Aberdeen's Robert Gordon University. (I personally question the objectivity of Oil and Gas UK, and I also question the quality of the scholarship at Aberdeen's second best (of two) university, but you can draw your own conclusions.) The debate calls the viability of Scotland's social welfare state into question, but that didn't stop SNP Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon from unilaterally predicting a new oil boom for Shetland during her recent visit to the Northern Isles. Comments from Sir Ian Wood - Scotland's leading North Sea energy expert - are, in my opinion, more compelling than Ms. Sturgeon's optimism.

Ancillary to the direct question of oil and its role in financing a notionally independent Scotland, the question of whether independence would benefit or handicap Scottish businesses has been a prominent one. A number of prominent businesses have either raised a variety of pressing, unanswered questions, or flatly endorsed the Union, claiming that secession would harm Scottish industries. A few months ago, I noted in one particular post that CitiGroup had publicly announced that First Minister Salmond's proposed currency union with the remainder of the United Kingdom was unlikely, and I also posted a graphic from Better Together that I considered a "narrative win for Better Together". The proposed currency union has become a prominent campaign issue, as Salmond has flatly refused to outline what his "Plan B" for a Scottish currency might be (assuming, as most appear to, that the proposed currency union doesn't happen). Better Together have reused the prior format to outline the number of organizations that disagree with First Minister Salmond's pronouncements, and his response:

Another element of the debate has been whether Scotland is subsidized, or subsidizes the rest of the United Kingdom. The BBC has a great article on the topic, and it concludes that for all intents and purposes, the answer is that Scotland receives more than it pays in; however, it admits that there are ways to spin the hard numbers in which you could draw the opposite conclusion, and that spin is what First Minister Salmon relies upon.

The aforementioned issue of Shetland's proximity to the North Sea oil is an interesting one. The Northern and Western Isles have long been cool to the idea of independence, in large part because they feel that the SNP has consolidated social and infrastructure spending into the Central Belt for the benefit of the significant voting blocs in Edinburgh and Glasgow. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, Orcadians and Shetlanders maintain a sort of spiritual connection to Scandinavia, as opposed to Edinburgh. (Norway and Sweden maintain consulates in Kirkwall, and there's a Centre for Narrative Studies right next to the Northlink Ferries office.) The Northern and Western Isles will almost certainly vote to stay a part of the United Kingdom; as one Yes(!) voter told me while I was living in Kirkwall, "most Orcadians are Tories in Liberal Democrats' clothing".

I've already discussed the Our Islands, Our Future campaign. In April, a petition was introduced at the Scottish Parliament that would have allowed Orkney, Shetland, and the Western Isles to vote in a referendum one week after the upcoming national referendum on whether to remain a part of Scotland, or to become independent in their own right. To some degree, this is canny political maneuvering on the part of the Northern and Western Isles' politicians, but it reflects an ambivalence toward the SNP that I witnessed quite frequently while living in Orkney, and which stems from years of being treated as an afterthought by the SNP-controlled Scottish government. The Telegraph notes that this might serve as a precursor to remaining affiliated with the United Kingdom.

As a Wikipedia article citing the Washington Post, Reuters and The Guardian notes:
If the Scottish vote "yes" on their upcoming referendum, it has been suggested that the Northern Isles could pursue a campaign for independence or to remain part of the United Kingdom as a British Overseas Territory. The same also applies to the Outer Hebrides (or Western Isles). Some have called for the referendum to be held on 25 September 2014, one week after the Scottish independence referendum. This could also include other Scottish isles such as Arran (North Ayrshire), who are noted as being Unionist.
This poses a significant challenge for the SNP. The case for an independent Scotland is built on two fundamental principles: the right to self determination, which the SNP is essentially denying the Northern and Western Isles by denying their petition for a local referendum; and the promise of North Sea oil wealth - Shetland's oil wealth - that they need in order to provide the welfare state necessary to sell most Scots on the idea. While I suspect that most mainland Scots aren't paying much attention, others certainly are.

As I've noted before, one of my biggest criticisms of the Yes(!) campaign and the SNP's white paper is that it basically ignores defense. Last November, I cited a (now defunct) article that boiled some of First Minister Salmond's comments down to reveal that the SNP's defense posture would scarcely allow them to defend Inverness. Last month, I noted that the SNP's plan for an intelligence agency (that some commentators dubbed "McMI5") was lambasted as nonsense.

War on the Rocks ran a really good article that further discusses the shortfalls of the SNP's defense planning. One common critique has been that while First Minister Salmond and his allies claim (without any actual evidence) that the SNP will enjoy abbreviated accession into NATO, an alliance that is nuclear by its very nature, the SNP itself is avowedly anti-nuclear. A central tenet of the SNP's case for independence is that they could evict the British nuclear deterrent from the Faslane naval base and recognize a nebulous savings through uninvolvement with the pending replacement of the Vanguard class submarines. This alleged savings could then be funneled into - say it with me now - more social welfare programs.

One of Better Together's effective criticisms of Salmond is that his promises for what the notional savings could finance far outstrips the relatively modest annual investment in Trident that Scotland actually makes. As the graphic notes, "We all know you can't spend the same money twice."

The Royal United Services Institute, the United Kingdom's most prominent defense think tank, throws more cold water on Salmond's claims about Trident. You can read their white paper on the topic here. Meanwhile, both the current and former Secretaries General of NATO have deflated the SNP's case for a quick accession to NATO in the event of a "yes" vote. According to the current NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen:
"In the case that Scotland voted in favor of independence, then Scotland would have to apply for membership of NATO as a new, independent state. Some aspiring countries have waited for many years[...] A decision on accession would have to be taken by unanimity, by concensus, as always in NATO."
Meanwhile, a bunch of my ignorant countrymen, whose "Scottish heritage" is likely little more than a vague notion and who likely have never even been to Scotland, overwhelmingly favor Scottish independence. Given that the BBC was interviewing Californians, I suspect they've merely seen Braveheart a few too many times.

I saw two additional items of interest. First, polling (albeit polling advertised by Better Together) suggests that sixty-five percent of voters over fifty plan to vote "no" - significant because I suspect that, even with people aged as young as sixteen being eligible to vote in the referendum, I suspect that more of the older Scots will vote (as do older Americans), and that they probably represent a larger demographic due to recent social trends in the United Kingdom and Europe at large. I also found it interesting that many local councils have banned both campaigns from most Scottish schools. There have been a variety of debates on the topic, as one would expect. As I write this, Shetland has just held a debate, and Orkney will be holding another debate next Thursday focused on the referendum's impact on farmers. I posted another Orkney-based debate in my last Scottish Secession post. In mid-August, Better Together lead Alistair Carmichael debated First Minister Salmond, and was widely seen to have presented a more compelling argument for Union. Earlier this week, they were rematched and despite Salmond's boorish behavior, snap polls declared him the winner of that particular exchange; however, Salmond is known to be mercurial in his demeanor, and the personality he displayed in the debate in question is said to alienate constituents, so it's questionable whether this week's performance helped or hindered the Yes(!) campaign. There apparently isn't a video available as there was with the previous STV debate, but a less prominent debate in Inverurie (near Aberdeen) can be viewed here.

First Minister Salmond and his associates have less than a month to convince the Scottish voters that they have a legitimate plan to govern. I remain convinced that Salmond and the SNP have no credible plan, that they don't even actually believe most of the words that proceed from their own mouths, and that the Yes(!) campaign is built on a shoddy foundation of emotion, in lieu of any hard facts. I suspect that Salmond and his team will be able to provide little to dissuade me - or the majority of Scottish voters - in the next three and a half weeks.

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