One of the most telling phrases in modern politics, “It’s the economy, stupid”, was coined by a strategist within Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign office to keep party activists on message.
The more that I listen to proponents for and against a Yes vote, the more I find myself wanting to pan away from economics. Everyone accepts that an independent Scotland would be viable; we now need to move on to why we should become independent.
Or to quote Alastair Darling:
We are being asked to make the choice for Scotland’s future in the most uncertain of economic times. But it has to be about more than just economics.
This is a referendum not an election. That’s why we need to develop an ever sharper focus on the real issue in hand: democracy.
We’ve found out a lot in recent weeks about issues that are likely to affect Scotland’s finances. Whether in the form of a timid Scottish Government report or a note from Ernest & Young, it seems that, whatever is going on with the constitution, it isn’t affecting investment.
On the other hand the sustained onslaught against everything that Yes Scotland stands for often makes its measured tones sound insipid, especially on issues like currency or revenue vs spending. For when it comes to economics, nobody can make any promises and everything is hypothetical.
Though received wisdom and the polls tell us that economics is the be all and end all of the referendum debate, we need to be cautious about the implications of placing too much weight on such a flimsy foundation. The point that is forgotten with ever more regularity is the democratic imperative that has brought us to this pass. It is that and nothing else that we will vote on next year.
In a large part because finance has dominated news coverage, the debate itself risks becoming as arcane and futile as such subject matter. The old and distinctly illiberal forces of the free market do not offer hope, and seldom have.
The importance of the “economics of independence” takes in everything from macro-economic policy to an individual’s chances of finding a job. In the UK the connection between these two extremes has all but perished. The gap between the abstraction of the markets and the reality of their impact has never been greater.
At the same time individualism engendered by focusing on economics (what will happen to my pension, my house, my career?) is mirrored at a vast and global level. If the wealthiest organisations on the planet do not have to chip in why should we expect voters to have a more altruistic outlook? A Yes vote simply cannot be achieved based on our collective selfishness, chatter about £500 here or there only occurs to cheapen a debate that is, ultimately, of far great significance.
I’m not seeking to tar all economists with the same brush: just those most at home in today’s crisis. Adam Smith, for example, would have been appalled at the attitude of Amazon, Google and Apple, who have done so much to portray taxpaying as a relic of the last century. The Kirkaldy born economist famously stated:
Every tax, however, is to the person who pays it a badge, not of slavery but of liberty.
The City of London consensus and all of its narcotic little false economies has destroyed countless lives since 2008 and is inadequate on many levels. It is especially so when seeking a decent framework for a debate about the future. Framing the debate around the possibility of natural disasters would probably involve similar language.
We should emphasise that Scotland has, against the odds, become an interesting example. Its current government supports universalism and scorns the austerity punted by all the unionist parties. The importance of greater income equality, as gestured to by its Fiscal Commission, needs to be taken up with force.
The nature of the world that we live in is one in which the power of states is increasingly eroded in favour of extra-territorial forces. No one can guarantee whether any multinational will choose to base operations in Scotland. For such decisions will be taken by organisations with no stake in the Scottish economy. In some cases, as with Amazon, we have to pay for the privilege of having this fact demonstrated.
That’s why endless talk about lowering corporation tax by three per cent on the one hand, or the tenuous concept of “shared risk” on the other, misses the point entirely.
I’d hazard that the desire for decent homes, decent jobs, and decent communities are at the crux of what most people want from politicians and economists. Instead the millions pray for these basic necessities at the altar of the terrible deity that is free market economics; only a few high priests dare claim to know the mind of God.
For behind all economics, is politics; the promise of something; of change or reconfiguration. Take, for example, the roots of today’s orthodoxy, monetarism, which can be found in the deeply politicized writings of Friedrich Hayek.
If politicians are to be more than mere managers of the market cult, they need to be earthed by local needs and popular sovereignty. That is what 2014 will about.
Each individual will take his or her picture of the future that they want to see into the voting booth with them: a noble exercise, regardless of what outcome you wish to see.
This is why, instead of platitudes to the free market, Yes Scotland need to emphasise that, given the current divisive politics of the UK, independence is increasingly likely to forge more social cohesion in Scotland. For whatever her liabilities, Scotland already has this asset – the principle that no one who lives here is set before anyone else. On such a foundation the possibilities are limitless.
At the same time the global forecast – in terms of population, climate and equality, is bleak. It demands profound change at all levels. If we’re to have a conversation premised solely on a “new” Scotland drunk on oil and the glut of an inflated financial sector, we will have wasted our time. We need to equip a new Scotland with a new and better understanding of what wealth is.
If we do not use independence as a precious opportunity to enlighten the rest of the world, with our own example, it will have been wasted. On the face of it this may sound ambitious. Our past tells us otherwise.