LESSONS FROM CANADA
Nicola Sturgeon’s rise to superstar status was spectacular. When she inherited the role of First Minister from Alex Salmond in 2014 the nationalist masses swooned in adoration. Her barn-storming trips to America, China and countless European capitals transformed her into a chat-show celebrity. Her ascendancy to superstardom achieved its zenith in 2016, when Forbes Magazine listed her as the 50th most powerful woman in the world, second only to the Queen in UK-rankings.
But scholars of international separatist movements may find some interesting parallels in Canada. Pauline Marois, leader of the left-wing nationalist Parti Québécois (PQ), was Prime Minister of Quebec from 2012-2014. Like Nicola Sturgeon, she led a minority government. She was praised and feted by an army of passionate believers right up until her political movement imploded. The 2014 general election in Quebec saw her Parti Québécois swept from power. Pauline Marois was defeated in her own constituency and announced her resignation as party leader. It was a powerful lesson in how the electorate should never be taken for granted.
Although they have enjoyed a recent slight resurgence in support, Parti Québécois now occupy only 9 seats in the 125 seat Québec National Assembly, where François Legault and his populist (conservative with a small ‘c’) Coalition Avenir Québec (Coalition for the Future of Québec), roared into the lead in the 2018 general election, seizing an outright majority with 74 seats. The ‘conservatives’ argued that the two successive referendums demanded by the nationalists and their obsession with independence, had stymied Québec’s economic and political progression. The separatists’ attempts to break up Canada’s 153-year-old union crumbled. With its public finances in better order and the extent of its public debt now reduced, Québec can look towards a better future of economic growth and prosperity. Reducing the high tax legacy left behind by the nationalists is a key focus for the populist government.
The echoes of Canada’s separatist movement can certainly be heard here in Scotland, where the SNP government’s policy of high taxation, poor quality health and education, decaying infrastructure and constant preoccupation with independence, has served to destroy incentives, discourage innovation and sap the talent of Scottish citizens, by robbing them of opportunities. The constant refrain from disgraced former Finance Minister Derek Mackay was that Scotland had the fairest and most progressive tax system in the UK. In fact, following their most recent budget, anyone earning more than £50,000 will pay around £1,500 more than people South of the border, while those earning £45,000 a year will pay £500 more. Even people who earn over £26,000, an estimated 370,000 Scots, will pay £149 more. There is nothing fair or progressive about that.
The SNP’s tax policies have served to put a brake on the economy, forcing Scottish GDP growth to nosedive below that of the UK. So even with massive handouts from the London Treasury amounting to over £12 billion per year under the Barnett Formula, Scotland is still underperforming. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP leader at Westminster Ian Blackford, both blame Brexit. Cranking up the SNP’s grievance machine into top gear, Ian Blackford told the House of Commons that Boris Johnson was “blindly hurtling towards the cliff-edge” with his “deeply damaging” Brexit plans, arguing it will leave people poorer. Nicola Sturgeon topped that by claiming that Brexit could cost the Scottish economy £16 billion a year.
The nationalists’ solution to this frightening forecast is, you guessed it…..independence! In the strangely convoluted logic of the SNP, the difficulties Scotland will face after the UK withdraws from its 47-year union with the EU can be solved by pulling Scotland out of its 300-year-old union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, where we do 60% of our trade. Scotland’s trade with the rest of the UK is four times greater than our trade with the EU and the Scottish Government’s own figures imply that independence would be at least eight times as costly as the worst-case Brexit situation. Independence would be a lose-lose scenario for Scottish business.
Oblivious to warnings from leading economists that the difficulties of Brexit are nothing compared to the problems that Scotland’s exit from the UK would entail, the SNP charges ahead with demands for INDYREF2. Already grappling with the impacts of Brexit and now a potential independence referendum within the next two years, Scotland’s businesses are being side-tracked from their important role as wealth and job creators in the Scottish economy. Nevertheless, the First Minister’s continued focus remains on appeasing the yes-supporting constituency, rather than seeking to do what’s best for our economy.
The Scotland continues to enjoy a net gain by remaining part of the UK, so why should we do anything that could jeopardise that position? We can boast a business heritage of innovation and technological revolution that has led the world and it is that economic development that builds the jobs, brings in the work and secures international investment. The ongoing arguments and division over INDYREF2 have created a tangible hiatus in economic development, with investors turning to more stable political landscapes to support their business growth. It has been acutely felt here, with many sectors witnessing examples where investment has been considered for Scotland but due to the uncertain political landscape, has opted for some other part of the UK or beyond instead. Businesses know that Scotland’s economy will be suffocated by the process on independence. Before we hear any more talk of timetables for a second independence referendum, with Brexit as a flimsy pretext, Scottish voters are owed a full and convincing explanation of how adding future chaos to the present confusion can be anything more than a political gamble that our economy can’t afford the First Minister to take.
There are exciting times ahead for Scotland if we can remove the dead-hand of nationalism from the tiller. The ‘Boris Bonus’ of Barnett Formula spin-offs from the billions which will be spent on infrastructure projects in the ‘Red Wall’ Labour constituencies of Northern England, will mark the end of the years of austerity caused by the profligacy of Britain’s last Labour Government. Scotland must seize these new opportunities and concentrate our resources on the bread and butter issues like job creation, educating our children and sustaining the NHS, rather than squandering our time on fruitless constitutional arguments.
As Boris Johnson sets out to achieve a Canada-style trade agreement with the EU, maybe voters in Scotland should look towards a Canada-style solution to the SNP.