Why the prospect of UK break-up horrifies me

An opinion poll released by Channel Four News this weekend suggested that 51pc of Scots are planning to say “No” in the independence referendum on September 18. In other words, the vote looks extremely close. The “Better Together” camp, which is supposed to be campaigning to keep the UK in tact, is spinning that this display of “majority support” is good news. If only that were so. Just a year ago, the numbers wanting to stay in the UK were far higher – typically around 65pc of the Scottish electorate. And a few recent polls have even shown the share of Scots backing continued UK membership dipping below 50pc.

I’m against Scottish independence. In fact, I’m horrified at the prospect of our country breaking-up. While the Westminster village remains complacent, the ghastly reality is that over 300 years of history could be obliterated during the late summer of 2014. While the UK is four distinct countries, each with its own proud identity, we’re one coherent nation. Cobbled together, in a form that somehow works, our joint history of achievement and success is as rich as any on earth. And the spine of our unique and precious arrangement is the England-Scotland axis, enshrined in the 1707 Act of Union.

The Scottish National Party’s Yes-campaign is still slightly behind in the opinion polls. But the momentum is now most definitely with the pro-independence movement. Alex Salmond, the SNP’s canny leader, has a formidable track record of surging late to victory – as he did in the Scottish parliamentary elections of both 2007 and 2011. He could well pull it off again.

The No-campaign, meanwhile, is languishing, having yet to get into gear. The Conservatives can’t run it, because they’re largely hated in Scotland. “No more Tory governments, ever” is the SNP’s informal rallying call. Remember, also, that with Scotland excluded, the chances of a commanding Tory majority across the rest of the UK are far higher. So, while they’ll bemoan the “tragedy” of any Scottish succession, Conservatives know in their hearts there’s one belter of a consolation prize – and that’s got to cut the amount of sleep the party leadership is losing over the prospect of an SNP victory.

Labour’s Scottish big-hitters, meanwhile, only tend to be so because they’ve achieved national fame by making their careers in the South – the ultimate sin, as far as numerous Scots are concerned. Then there’s the danger that the more the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats put on a united front, telling Scotland to stay in the Union, the greater determination of some Caledonians to say no. As a Celt myself, I’m in no doubt of the power of this urge, hard-wired into us, to willfully defy.

Perhaps the biggest boost the No-camp has had lately was last week’s news that comedian Billy Connolly has stepped up to the plate, warning that now is not the time for the UK to “split apart”. Having previously pledged not to wade into the “morass” that is the independence debate, the hugely-popular and still splendidly long-haired entertainer insisted that “the more people stay together, the happier they’ll be”. Connolly joins Scottish pop legend Rod Stewart and Olympic cycling hero Chris Hoy, in calling for the Union to stay as one. So the No-Camp has a decent array of celebrity backing. Still, the campaign to keep Britain together could yet come badly unstuck.

My mentioning of celebrities and national identities is in no way meant to trivialize this debate. On the contrary, I believe that many Scots, perhaps the majority, will vote on emotion – and emotions can be swung by all kinds of random factors. While I don’t live in Scotland, so I don’t have a vote, I’m also emotionally against the dismantling of the UK. I find the prospect that my Scottish friends and I would no longer be compatriots disturbing. Ridiculous, in fact.

Having said that, the real nub of my opposition is economic and financial. For I happen to think that Scottish independence is dangerous. Of course, a country of 5m people, with a wealth of know-how, could survive and even thrive. The problem is, though, that the historic, commercial and financial ties between us bind too tightly to safely be cut.

The financial links between Scotland and the rest of the UK can obviously be severed symbolically. Scottish politicians can then big themselves up, employing yet more advisors and civil servants, plus all the other taxpayer-funded trappings of a fully-fledged state. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, though, and particularly the main players on global markets, we would remain one entity, a single state. Specifically, if the Scottish banking sector collapsed, London would have no choice but to bail it out.

Whatever pledges the Westminster government makes, whatever is written on the statues and press releases, it wouldn’t get close to unraveling, in the eyes of the world, over three centuries of shared history and collective responsibility. Edinburgh’s problem would be London’s problem – no question. Any other story and, under duress, amidst the fear and loathing of a serious financial crisis, the rest of the world wouldn’t buy it. Were we to see the financial barbarians at the Edinburgh gates, the message to London from the money-men would be “bail-out the Scots, or we’ll bring down your banking sector too”.

The respective economies of Scotland and the rest of the UK are obviously highly integrated. No less than 70pc of Scottish exports are destined for, and 74pc of imports into Scotland come from, the rest of the UK. The imposition of a national border, even one with minimal red-tape, could well hinder such mutually beneficial commerce.

The red-tape could be considerable, though, if an independent Scotland remains outside the European Union and the UK stays in. A newly-independent Scotland, forced to leave the EU, could only re-enter if all other members agree. Would Spain? I’m not sure, given that Basque and Catalan separatism would be further encourage by the precedent of a newly-independent Scotland quickly re-gaining access to the single market.

The real danger, though, is financial. The Yes camp made hay last week after the ratings agency Moody’s said that while Scotland would likely hold a lower credit score than the rest of the UK immediately after independence – an A-rating, the same as Poland and the Czech Republic – it could achieve an equivalent grade over time. It’s “unlikely”, Moody’s said, that independence would have “widespread material implications” for Scotland’s credit worthiness.

I’d put a lot more credence on a report published earlier in April from Moody’s rival, Standard & Poor’s, which generated rather less publicity. For S&P warned squarely that it would be “challenging” for an independent Scotland to bail-out its own banks.

The combined balance sheets of the UK’s banks amount to a massive five times annual GDP. We have the most bloated banking sector of any major economy, making our public finances extremely vulnerable in the event of another ruinously expensive bank bail-out.

An independent Scotland, though, as S&P highlighted, would be even more financially top-heavy, to a quite astonishing degree – with bank balance sheets totaling over 12 times national income. When Iceland’s banks crippled the entire country the equivalent figure was 7 times.

Would London really be able to stand idly by if Scotland’s banks imploded, given the complex web of cultural and financial links between the two countries, combined with international perceptions that we’re one nation? The risk to the rest of the UK’s financial markets and credit-rating would be simply too great. And that’s the real danger of Scottish independence – what an economically literate comedian might call a massive “Moral McHazard”.

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