Alastair Cameron: Far too much at risk by ditching the Union Dividend

By Alastair Cameron, director of Scotland in Union (Published in the Herald Scotland - 03/09/2016)

A friend posed a reasonable question the other day: if it was shown one day in the future that Scotland would be economically better off as an independent country, would I support it?

With oil prices low, the Barnett Formula secure and the economy seemingly down the Holyrood priority list, this prospect seems pretty far off, if not impossible.

I couldn’t see myself supporting independence even in those circumstances. For me, the UK is about something deeper; it is about neighbouring nations working together in a common interest, solidarity with people beyond borders and a respect for the different layers of identity.

Many independence supporters also believe economics is not the be-all and end-all either, despite all of the economic data showing that we would be worse had we voted Yes in 2014. There are still some Scots who support breaking away, regardless of the financial damage.

As long as the Nationalists are honest about the consequences, I can only respect their reasons.

Yet, for most people, the economic question is all important. It was economics that grabbed the headlines and that's why, with the SNP still agitating for a re-run of the referendum, there continues to be so much scrutiny of the theoretical finances of an independent Scotland.

To that end, the release of the Scottish Government’s GERS figures was a disaster for the SNP. The headline figures are sobering for all but the most diehard Nationalists – a growing deficit of nearly £15 billion. Relative to the size of our economy, it means we have more than twice the deficit of the UK and a larger shortfall than Greece.

The GERS figures show the recklessness of basing an economy on a volatile commodity such as oil and demonstrates the value of being part of a larger, more diverse economy that can protect us from shocks like the slump in North Sea revenues.

Scotland in Union recently asked an expert economic consultancy, Europe Economics, to calculate the extra resources available as a result of our membership of the UK.

It found what we have termed the "Union dividend" to be worth some £8 billion – more than the cost of the entire Scottish education system.

Being part of the UK has given us considerable financial advantages as successive Holyrood administrations have spent that dividend in different ways. For example, public spending is 12 per cent higher than the rest of the UK. Broken down, this has allowed us to spend 17 per cent more on education, seven per cent more on health and 10 per cent more on capital projects. And we Scots have not had to pay extra for this recent additional spending; in fact local taxes are 15 per cent lower than the rest of the UK.

Scotland benefits enormously from being part of the UK and we stand to lose out financially from independence. I do not agree with those who see this as some sort of subsidy.

The dividend we receive can be seen as a "return on investment" on all that Scotland has contributed to the UK financially, culturally and politically over the long successful years of our Union.

This is the essence of our partnership with the UK: sharing risk and reward for our mutual benefit. Still, the SNP seems unwilling to accept that the economic argument for independence has been lost and, with it, the party's chance to win over the majority of Scots.

It leaves Scotland in a tricky position. We have a First Minister who owes her position as party leader to a membership that won’t accept No for an answer on the constitution. But what we need is a First Minister who accepts her responsibility to all of the country, not just SNP members. And in doing so, she must recognise that the majority of Scots voted No and don’t want another referendum.

Holyrood will be reconvening next week and the subject of independence is bound to feature as Nicola Sturgeon threatens to bring forward new referendum legislation in her programme for government.

Wouldn’t it be great if our Scottish Parliament could put constitutional wrangling to one side and instead debate how to best use the Union dividend Scotland has earned and voted for?

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