Political commentators are still spellbound by the amazing success of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the recent British election, when it took 56 of the country’s 59 Parliamentary seats. Suddenly, independence is back on the political agenda, and a second independence referendum is possible in the next couple of years. Whatever you may think about this prospect in the abstract, though, we can certainly agree on the simple fact that the current SNP leadership is utterly unqualified to lead such a venture. If independence were to be achieved in the next four or five years, the new state would soon come to envy more successful smaller European countries, such as Greece.
We can illustrate this from many points of view, but let us take one issue above all, namely the currency. The SNP has no idea what it is doing, or the risks it is running. Worse, nor does it seem to care.
During a debate in the referendum campaign last fall, then-SNP leader Alex Salmond was asked simply what currency an independent Scotland would have. That would be no problem, he said. We would carry on using the pound, together with the rest of the United Kingdom, and we would share control of a central bank. Absolutely not, said his unionist opponent. Every British political party has made it starkly clear that they would never accept such an outcome. By the way, that was last year, when the rest of Britain was feeling much less aggrieved than it is now by the SNP’s general demagoguery and hate campaigns.
So, given that the shared pound is not a starter, asked his critics, what was Salmond’s Plan B? Repeated questioning failed to shift Salmond at this point, demonstrating to all but his most unyielding supporters that there was no Plan B, and that the SNP had never even thought through the currency issue. That might have been the single moment at which the referendum campaign was lost. Salmond resigned as SNP leader after that debacle, but he has been very visible in recent days, repeating the familiar claims and boasts.
Fortunately, Scotland never had to confront the consequences of this insanity, but let us assume that, after the recent elections, they do become independent. What about the currency?
In the referendum debates, Salmond’s next option was a threat, something at which the SNP is expert. If the United Kingdom refused to share the pound, he said, then the new Scotland would refuse to pay its share of the national debt. The problem there is that an independent Scotland would begin its career as a nation in default, unable to raise credit even for its existing commitments, never mind covering the expense of the ever-expanding welfare state promised by Salmond’s party. The likely consequence would be social collapse and mass unemployment. Presumably English and European aid would prevent actual food riots.
There are indeed other options. Scotland could, if it wished, keep on using the pound without English consent, in the same way that countries like Panama use the U.S. dollar.
Sterlingization is possible, and England could not prevent it. But the only way to Sterlingize is to cut public spending enough to generate sufficient amounts of the master currency. Scotland, as I say, is a very generous welfare state, and has ambitions to become even more so. Thus, see my remarks earlier about the prospects for social collapse and civil disorder. And why Scotland would want to give control of its economy to a foreign central bank is a master of some mystery. Moreover, the fact that Scotland’s currency would not be under the control of any central bank of its own automatically closes the door on possible membership in the European Union.
Ah yes, the European Union. All SNP rhetoric is founded on the principle of a close and continuing link with Europe, and EU membership. In the referendum campaign, though, European officials made it clear that any breakup of the existing UK would preserve the continuing membership of the London government, while the new Scotland would be forced to apply for membership afresh. That opens multiple cans of worms. No solution for Scotland, whether political or economic, is possible without full and early EU membership. But the application process can take years or decades, and is only possible if no existing state raises difficulties. It is very much in the interests of some countries–Spain and Belgium, notably–to avoid giving the slightest encouragement to potential secessionists on their own territory, and they would likely oppose or delay Scottish aspirations. For several years, at least, Scotland would be outside all European trading blocs.
Even if Scotland did jump those complex hurdles, the EU is quite clear that any new member is strictly required to accept the Euro as its currency. That solves the currency issue neatly, but it also means that Scotland would be forced to accept all the EU’s stringent rules about public expenditure and debt. Hard though this may be for Scots to believe presently, the English would no longer be subsidizing their welfare systems with their present generosity. Again we see the fundamental dilemma that would suddenly become the central issue in Scottish politics, whether to accept huge social spending cuts, or national bankruptcy.
Scotland does have a serious alternative to all these nightmare scenarios. Accept independence outside Europe, and set up an autonomous currency under its own central bank–call it the Scottish Dollar. The currency would take years to establish, and when it did come fully into operation, it would be a very risky venture. Norway manages to stay outside the EU with its own currency, but it has immensely more oil reserves than the Scots could ever dream of. This policy would mean decades of penury for the new Scotland, but it would mean authentic independence. Why they would want that is a question of emotions and rhetoric, not economics.
Or maybe–just maybe–Scotland could enter a political and currency union with its large neighbor to the south, which is already a major European player, and which currently donates disproportionately to the Scottish economy! No, I’m sorry, that’s just too absurd to be contemplated.
Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels (Basic Books, forthcoming Fall 2015). He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.