It's not exactly been a happy pre-anniversary for the Yes Scotland campaign. Looking at the deluge of one-year-to-go opinion polls, the only sensible conclusion is that very little has changed and independence is set to be rejected by a substantial majority. Yes, the number of don't knows has gone up and there is a degree of fluidity about the supporters of devolution max. But there is no sign of an early breakthrough. Even Alex Salmond's Aberdeenshire school students blew him a raspberry by voting against independence in mock elections by a margin of three to one.
The economic argument rages on to no particular purpose. All sides accept that Scotland could be a viable economy on its own, but the £500 question remains unanswered. An opinion poll by ICM last week suggested that 47% of Scots would vote Yes if they could be assured that independence would make them richer by this amount, while only 18% would vote for independence if they were made poorer. Nicola Sturgeon welcomed this poll and insisted that “on the basis of the current Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland report Scotland’s finances are stronger than the UK’s as a whole to the tune of £4.4 billion – which equates to £824 per person”. Whether this fiscal arithmetic is right or not, I find it rather demeaning for the question of Scotland's national renewal to be reduced to the cost of a minibreak in Benidorm.
Anyway, the Nationalists are always going to be on the defensive with these arguments because of the uncertainty factor. It is impossible to say whether Scotland would be better off after independence, and the hard fiscal reality is that a short period of post independence austerity is likely, even with the benefit of oil revenues. The Institute for Fiscal Studies claimed last week that Scottish public spending, which it says is 17% higher per head than in England, would be squeezed in a transition period as Scotland tried to grapple with the debts inherited from the UK.
Now, the Nationalists rightly say that this is hardly their fault, and that is true. They are also right to argue that with oil and renewable resources, Scotland could be a viable and very effective economy. But it is hard to argue with the IFS calculation that there would be significant spending constraints in the short term. The IFS is the gold standard of financial accounting and its assessments have to be taken seriously, unlike the UK Treasury, which has been frankly producing propaganda in the guise of economic analysis.
Now, in any normal independence situation, such transitional costs would be seen as a price worth paying for national freedom. You didn't find the Slovakia, the Lativa, or any of the other countries which won independence in 1990s worrying over such trivial sums. In Barcelona today, Catalonian nationalists don't march in their millions demanding 500 more euros – they demand an end to domination from Madrid, cultural liberation, control of their own affairs. Scottish independence is in danger of turning into a bean-counter convention, where people are arguing over the small change in the national accounts instead of creating a vision of a better society.