For months now I've frequently agonised over the issue of the Scottish independence referendum without ever managing to form a particularly strong opinion on it either way; while I have been to Scotland a number of times and do have friends and family there it isn't really an issue that has been pressing for us down in Kent. But with less than a fortnight to go before Scotland goes to the polls it's now or never, so I thought I better pen an opinion on this potentially seismic event.
Firstly, and as has noted by other commentators elsewhere, this isn't just about Scotland, this is about the continuation or dissolution of the United Kingdom as a whole and that has ramifications which don't stop at the border. The United Kingdom is a major player on the world stage, holding a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, sporting the 6th biggest economy on the face of the earth and being recognised globally as one of the most prominent countries in the Western world. While England, Wales and Northern Ireland might decide to keep the United Kingdom as a name following a Scottish departure, it's unlikely that either we or they would be any of those things any longer. Scotland and the remaining United Kingdom would be relegated to comparative insignificance in the global sense; severely limiting our ability to project our values, the very same values we've spent generations nurturing and fighting for.
While it might be immodest to say it, it's true to say that Western parliamentary democracy, trial by jury, human rights and the international structures which help to make the world a more peaceful and hospitable place all owe a debt of gratitude to the United Kingdom. Whether it's England's Magna Carta or Scotland's military contribution to the World Wars, the modern world as we know it can be at least in part attributed to those who came out of this little group of islands in the North Atlantic. Even today the UK is at the forefront of standing up to Russian aggression in Ukraine and assisting the Iraqi government in holding at bay those forces who would gladly plunge the whole world back into the Dark Ages given the chance. The United Kingdom stands for something in the world, whether we realise it or not, and so long as there are those in the world who relish the chance to do away with individual rights, religious freedom and human dignity we can't afford to let inward-looking squabbling distract us from the bigger picture.
Neither Scotland nor the rest of the UK on its own would have the prestige and military capacity to be what we collectively are now. It's true to say that the United Kingdom as a whole is worth more than the sum of the nations which constitute it, and both we and the world at large we would be losing a great champion of liberty if the UK were allowed to be diminished and dismembered. I don't know about anyone else, but when I see pictures of the immense human suffering elsewhere in the world, including the recent example of Mount Sinjar in Iraq, I'm immensely glad that I live in a country that has the confidence and the capacity to act to alleviate that inhumanity, and it would be heart-breaking to be degraded to living in a country where we're simply spectators who can only watch the tragedy unfold from afar. While the remaining UK might just about be able to maintain a regionally significant military force, the SNP's plans for Scotland's defence would transform the country from a core part of one of the most formidable and prestigious military partnerships in the history of humanity into roughly the equivalent of one of the Baltic States who (despite their best efforts) are hostages to fortune and reliant on others to protect them when the chips are down. I don't believe for a second that is the aspiration of the majority of Scottish people, to have a proud military tradition of fighting tyranny both at home and abroad abruptly ended and be reduced simply to being a small fish in a big pond.
Similarly the economic arguments for Scotland breaking off from the rest of the UK are questionable at best. The idea that Scotland somehow subsidises the rest of the UK is purely fiction, as is the premise that Scotland could have an economy almost entirely based entirely on the finite North Sea oil. The oil industry has certainly brought prosperity to many of those living on the North Sea coast, but it isn't some miraculous panacea that's going to make the whole country awash with money overnight simply because Scotland is no longer in the UK. The North Sea oil industry as things stand primarily benefits Scotland in terms or providing employment and other financialbenefits, and while there may well be scope for that benefit increasing if further oil deposits are discovered that prospect is in no way diminished by staying in the UK, but it may well be diminished by an independent Scottish government lacking their financial clout to create infrastructure to support future developments.
Further to that, and staying on the topic of the economy, it's fair to say that as a nation Scotland supports a lot of public sector workers (over 20% of the population according to June 2013 ONS figures) and there's certainly no indication that there's an intention to reduce that after independence, and the economies of scale would suggest that the tax burden of sustaining that level of public expending is going to fall harder on the tax payers in Scotland if they choose to go it alone. But I don't want to fall into the trap of being overly negative here because the economy provides plenty to be positive about. The UK economy is still growing at one of the fastest rates in the developed world and the outlook remains good with indicators slowly reaching and exceeding the pre-recession levels. Those living in Scotland might say they haven't felt the benefits of growth yet, but unfortunately that's true of plenty of people across the whole of the UK; when you're emerging from the greatest economic disasters in a generation it does take a while for the benefits to filter down to the man on the street. Breaking away from the 6th biggest economy world, leaving the world's biggest trading bloc (the EU) in the process and taking up to £143 billion in debt with you is, objectively speaking, probably not likely to reap immediate rewards for those living in Scotland. The years since the recession, and for some even those before, haven't been easy for everyone by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly sticking with a rapidly growing and diverse national economy offers far better prospects than an economic policy that's so vague no one even knows what currency you'll have in the bank.
Finally, and appropriately given where I'm posting this, there's the issue that there are those in Scotland who state that they want independence because the Conservative-led government in London wasn't voted for by most of those in Scotland and they don't believe David Cameron represents them. Well guess what? There are huge swaths of England, Wales and Northern Ireland where there weren't any Labour MPs at all under Gordon Brown and who have nothing at all in common with a man from Fife, Does that mean that areas like Lincolnshire or the South East would have been justified in breaking off from the UK to avoid being represented by a Labour Prime Minister? Or perhaps those areas of Scotland who are represented by Conservatives in the Scottish parliament should join England in the event of independence? No, clearly that's a nonsense; you win some and you lose some, that's life and whatever happens there are always going to be those who are represented by those they didn't vote for and whom they dislike.
Alex Salmond is offering the people of Scotland a dream and nothing more and those who vote "yes" later this month are gambling the future of their nation on a lot of ifs and maybes, and once the damage is done there's no question in my mind that there's no going back. The United Kingdom is one of the leading economic, political and military powers in the world and while it certainly isn't perfect it has a glorious and remarkable past and an immensely promising future still to come, and Scotland has a leading role reserved for it in that future.
I'm not going to beg anyone to vote "no" in the up-coming referendum, nor am I going to attempt to bribe anyone with promises of more powers for the Scottish Parliament or the maintenance of the present funding allocation for devolved services in Scotland. To me the UK speaks for itself and those things which make England and Scotland the same are tangible and evident in every walk of life, while the future promised by the "Yes" campaign is based on a half-baked mix of romanticism, victim mentality and baseless fantasy.
If Scotland votes to leave the UK the world will carry on spinning but the curtain will have come down on one of the most successful political partnerships in human history. The show that is our complex and uncertain world will doubtlessly go on, but neither Scotland nor the remainder of the UK will be playing a starring role any longer if we've only got half a pantomime horse left to put on the stage.
Councillor Jeremy Bellamy is City Councillor for Barton Ward, Canterbury, and Chairman of North Thanet Conservative Future.