Nationalist ‘Project Unclear’ provides no remedies that business can stomach

When the late, great Groucho Marx once famously quipped, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies”, he could easily have been describing the attitude of SNP and Green ministers embarking on yet another tedious campaign to break up the United Kingdom.  

This week that campaign launched in earnest with the publication of a lengthy treatise detailing why the Scottish Government thinks that every piece of trouble that Scotland faces is the UK’s fault. Unsurprisingly the catch-all remedy for them, as far as Scottish ministers are concerned, is to turn our back on the Union altogether.  

Their hope seems to be that if we do that, then we’ll be able to look at the things other countries do that the SNP likes and adopt the same practices here. Not enough economic growth? Copy the Germans. Tired of inequality? Maybe be more like the French. Want better paid workers? Easy, go Dutch or better still, Danish. In this way, policy success for the SNP/Green coalition has become like an all-you-can-eat buffet of ideas: appetising in theory but dangerous to your health if over-indulged. Still, with the only price of admission being a quick referendum win for the nationalists next year, what’s the harm?  

The answer is plenty. For starters, the government’s paper is merely a cherry-picked distraction from the most obvious question. Why, following 15 years of SNP government, is Scotland not wealthier, happier and fairer?  Under devolution we have the necessary powers to raise tax, make the NHS work for patients, improve educational attainment for children and sort out our transport links. Yet instead, all of these essential services, which the SNP have the responsibility to run sustainably, are in a crisis or decline.  

That decline will only accelerate if the Scottish Government proceeds to cut businesses off from their main market outside Scotland. And let’s be clear, now that the First Minister has finally admitted that there would indeed have to be a hard border between Scotland and the rest of the UK in the event of ‘Scexit’, this is what companies would face.  

We do 60 per cent of our trade with the rest of the UK, much more than the business we conduct with the rest of the world combined. A hard border with England would require tariffs, regulatory controls, hold-ups for transport and bureaucracy, devastating businesses used to the frictionless status quo. The knock-on effect would be less trade done, less tax for Scotland’s public purse and therefore less money to spend on reversing public service decline.  

The usual refrain from Nicola Sturgeon is simply to criticise Boris Johnson for the crisis over the Irish border and then argue that Scotland will be better off back in the EU. Yet she must realise that a border with England would be many times worse and that even increased trade with Europe won’t make up the shortfall. And if Scotland did decide to apply to get back into the EU’s single market, we still don’t know how many years this might take.  

We belong to the most successful single market in the world. Empty pledges and platitudes from our First Minister are no basis for breaking up a 315-year-old union. Nor is blaming Boris Johnson for holding parties in No.10 a good reason for breaking up the UK.  

In fact, this week’s announcements bring us no further forward in terms of justifying a referendum or separation than we were when the SNP lost the 2014 referendum. Back then unionists were accused by the SNP of running ‘Project Fear’ to dissuade voters from choosing ‘yes’ on the ballot. Eight years later the First Minister is presiding over her very own ‘Project Unclear’, which is far worse in my mind because it takes voters for fools.  

Nicola Sturgeon made no mention of how we are to achieve the creation of a wealthier, happier or fairer society though independence. She has had eight years since the last referendum to think about answers to the currency question, the creation of a central bank,  and Scotland's share of the UK national debt - estimated to be £180 billion on day one of independence.  

What about fiscal transfers, currently standing at £36.3 billion per year according to the Scottish Government’s own GERS figures? How will we cover the difference between taxes raised and public expenditure going forward? Where would that money come from if not the pooling and sharing of resources that the UK affords? There would have to be savage cuts in public spending or drastic reductions in services like the NHS and education, none of which the SNP will come close to admitting in its forthcoming campaign.  

Moreover, the SNP plans for ‘sterlingisation’ - keeping the pound for a few years after independence - would mean accepting the controls of the Bank of England without having any say in their use, totally negating the point of independence.  Scotland would have to then set up its own central bank and borrow on the international markets at very high interest rates levied on a new central bank with no history of security and international standing like the UK’s central bank. Only then could we join the EU and the Eurozone, confronting business and industry in Scotland with as many as three currency changes over a period of only ten years. That would be wholly unsustainable for business.  

What’s also unsustainable for business is having the looming shadow of yet another unwanted referendum acting as a drag on the Scottish economy and deterrent to investment. Time and again the SNP tell anyone who disagrees with them politically that they are simply “talking down Scotland”. Yet ironically this new campaign seems entirely predicated on talking down the UK in a bid to convince Scots we’d be better to sunder the formal political and economic links we have with England, Wales and Northern Ireland rather than seek to make them stronger.  

This will inevitably have an economic effect, whether the First Minister ultimately gets her referendum or not. Businesses will fear being shouted down and slandered for saying what most think – that Nicola Sturgeon should focus on what matters most to the people of Scotland and to business and industry and that is dealing with the post pandemic economic recovery, the cost-of-living crisis, the spiralling energy cost crisis and the fallout from the war in Ukraine. Some may choose to suffer in silence as investors, worried about a decade or more of economic sustainability, put plans to create wealth in Scotland quietly on hold until the government comes to its senses.  

They shouldn’t have to worry like this. The key issues that businesses want our government to focus on are problems in the here-and-now, of which there are so many. We need government’s attention to be on practical solutions to these. Instead, we get a Scottish Government that’s throwing £20 million of taxpayers’ money and thousands of hours of civil servants’ time at a referendum that nobody asked for – all to salve the egos of Scottish ministers who, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, are desperately “looking for trouble” to distract from the charlatan remedy of taking Scotland out of the UK.