Independence is the biggest gamble of the lot - John McLellan

You gotta know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em.

Thursday, 1st April 2021, 7:00 am
There was much squabbling but few answers in this week's leaders debate

"Alex Salmond is a gambler,” said First Minister Nicola Sturgeon summoning up her inner Kenny Rogers to describe her former mentor at the weekend.

“It is what he enjoys doing. But this is not the time to gamble with the future of the country," she said.

I had to read that again, because gambling with the country’s future is precisely what Unionists have been saying about the whole independence prospectus for as long as anyone can remember.

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All politics is a gamble because it’s about making policies fit for a future which can’t be seen, but like the gee-gees, of which Mr Salmond is a well-known aficionado, there are form books and information sources on which tips are based. Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon produced one in 2014, Scotland’s Future, which relied heavily on a punt on future oil prices which was over-optimistic at the time and catastrophically wrong in the event.

“An independent Scotland can invest our oil wealth for future generations,” it said. “By value there is estimated to be as much North Sea oil still to come as has already been extracted.” When Scotland’s Future was published, oil was around £80 a barrel and by the time of the 2014 referendum it had fallen to £70. After a low of £11 last year it now sits at around £47.

“I know Alex Salmond very well,” said Ms Sturgeon. last weekend: “He makes big claims which often don't stand up to scrutiny." We knew then there was no bigger claim than an independent Scotland could base its finances on taxing North Sea oil, but Ms Sturgeon wasn’t telling us then it was a punt or he was a chancer.

The most up-to-date pin-stickers’ guide is the Growth Commission’s 2018 report which is an even bigger gamble, asking voters to invest their faith in an adventure which at best promises that things might improve in the long term, and although it obviously couldn’t predict the events of 2020, its assumptions were based on economic predicts for 2021-22 which we now know are irrelevant.

As racing punters want to know about the trainer, the jockey, the form, the ground conditions and the odds, voters need to know what money will we be using, what taxes they will pay, what services can be afforded, what happens to trade with England. Mug punters might accept assurances that all will be well, because how couldn’t it, but that independence is not in itself a gamble is surely beyond the doubt of even the most fervent supporter.

Both Scotland’s Future and the Growth Commission failed to provide adequate answers for the fundamental questions of how a new Scotland could maintain its finances in the face of a £15bn public spending shortfall, an acceptance of debt share, ruinously expensive borrowing costs without a credible bank of last resort and the choice between continuing with a currency over which there would be no government control, or a new currency which the public would mistrust.

Nothing in all the squabbling in Tuesday night’s leaders’ debate got close to answering why the public should support a party with a track record of failure and whose central goal is one spin with everyone’s livelihoods.

The First Minister learnt from a gambler, she just didn’t learn to walk away.