How to win over a No voter: it’s the economy, stupid

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I’M not a particularly nationalistic person, and I think I get less so every day. I’m not passionate about where I’m from. I’m content, but I’m not proud. Content to be Scottish, British and European. But not particularly proud about any of those identities. I’d be similarly content to come from Sweden or South Korea; Croatia or Canada. Everyone loves a Canadian, right?

It may be that living here, now, in our identity-dominated politics, repels me. It may be the low quality of our petty, patronising political discourse at Scottish, UK and EU level. Or it may be the cringe I feel when I hear that the NHS or the education system or whatever else is the “envy of the world”, with all available evidence suggesting the contrary.

Either way, I’m not exercised by national identity. My political decisions are made clinically. I am emotionally cold to political parties and to the sides of a referendum campaign. I cast my vote based purely on the perceived risk and reward for me and my family.

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All of this is to make clear that, whilst I may not win a Patriot of the Year award, I am not uncomfortable with the theory of living in an independent Scotland. But in 2014’s independence referendum my risk/reward matrix led me to vote No. In truth, it was not a difficult choice. I have never doubted the long-term viability of an independent Scotland, but in the short-term I saw a fiscal hole with a policy platform which would have made it bigger, not smaller. Too much risk, not enough reward.

My choice was not an unusual one; it is generally accepted through subsequent polling that uncertainty over the economic case was the central inhibitor to pushing the Yes campaign over the 50 per cent line.

The prospect of a second independence referendum is now real. The 2021 Scottish election is the most important in devolution’s short history. The campaign will be, as good as, single-issue: should there or should there not be another referendum? If the pro-independence parties return a Holyrood majority, based on a clear, unambiguous and identical manifesto pledge, then indyref 2 is in my view a democratic requirement. This is, effectively, the point acknowledged by both John McDonnell and David Mundell last week.

How could Yes win? First, it could double-down on the 2014-19 “campaign” – tack to the left, promote populist economics, arrange a big march, wave some Palestinian flags, Bairns Not Bombs, End London Rule and all the rest.

Perhaps we are in an era where this can work. The recent record of prevailing economic theory winning political arguments is murky. The Yes campaign in 2014 almost won despite the economic orthodoxy running contrary, as did Jeremy Corbyn in 2017, and in 2016, of course, the Leave campaign proved that relentless economic warnings can be ignored by a majority of the population.

However this – a win based on a socialist fairytale – is no way to create a new country. We can damn private enterprise, wealth creators and taxpayers, but without them we’ll find ourselves at the bottom of a social and economic pit in short order. This is student union politics, and high school economics. Even if they could win this way, they shouldn’t.

I spend most days with the Scottish business community. Their world is ruled by risk. And although, of course, this varies industry-to-industry, they generally see three primary political risks affecting their business. The first, and most concerning for them, is a Corbyn-led Labour government, the second is Scottish independence and the third is Brexit. Yes campaigners may wish that this order was radically altered, but that is the reality on the ground.

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Most people in business – generally Remainers, generally No voters – are miles away from voting Yes, and every time they see the marchers and their flags and their populism on a Saturday afternoon, they move still further. They want to see some adults in the room.

It is not as though the SNP doesn’t understand this. Andrew Wilson’s Growth Commission was an effort to reassure this key demographic. And it was a very good one, primarily, in my view, because it acknowledged the economic reality of a small country in a big world, and did not bow to populism (a point demonstrated by the consistent criticism Wilson has since received from the Yes left).

But the Wilson report is one of very few items on that side of the balancing scale, still sitting high in the air, weighed down by the cacophony of evidence that the economic argument has not evolved.

The SNP needs a long runway to prove that an independent Scotland can be an economic success story. There are a couple of obvious hurdles along the way. The first will come later this year, with the Scottish Government’s annual Budget. Since the 2016 election returned a minority government, the SNP has relied on Green support for three budgets in a row. Each one has involved further concessions; each one has pulled the SNP further left, particularly on tax. Not a lot; just a little each time. The 2019 budget will do the same.

With the backdrop of a Boris Johnson government which might lower personal taxes in England, an expanding gap between Scottish and English taxpayers will really start to bite. Scots don’t like paying taxes any more than anyone else; attempts to argue the contrary are delusional.

The second hurdle is, if anything, more difficult to tackle. Over the coming weeks, Westminster mathematics may present the SNP with an opportunity to replace Boris Johnson with Jeremy Corbyn in return for a second independence referendum. This will be tempting. Indeed, it will likely be impossible to resist, and I am not suggesting that it should be.

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However, this action would have a consequence. As the leaders of the past, current and future Yes campaign, the SNP is responsible for creating that sensible economic narrative. Where does putting Mr Corbyn into Downing Street fit into it?

The Yes campaign needs to build economic competence. From scratch. Partly because it will help it win. But primarily because if we’re going to be an independent country, then we need to be a grown-up country. We all need to live here, after all.

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