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The debate over Scottish independence has reached fever pitch. It is also somewhat surreal. Interventions by politicians from beyond Scotland’s border have added to the air of surrealism. Last week, George Osborne ruled out a currency union in the event of independence and yesterday Jose Manuel Barroso made the process of Scottish membership of the EU sound like the Middle East peace process. It really is a debate that is detached from reality. An independent Scotland would in some fairly short amount of time be both a member of the EU (it has already met the conditions of membership of course!) and would have some sort of currency arrangement vis-à-vis the pound, potentially even a currency union.

Meanwhile, the Scottish electorate is most concerned with its economic well-being and welfare institutions. Scottish social attitudes show that independence would be the majority option if people believed it would make them £500 better off. This explains the interventions in the last week – the strategy is to present a vision of Scotland as an economic pariah. It remains to be seen whether this will work or will back-fire spectacularly.

More importantly, all this misses the crux of the argument. The debate is whether a new mix of institutions will serve Scotland’s national interests better than the current institutional arrangements. The Scottish National Party finds itself in the curious position of arguing that everything will change and everything will remain the same. They are not in the same position of America’s revolutionaries of wanting to cast off the chains of despotism. Without the personage of George III to channel discontent, the job is rather difficult. So we get a mixture of defensiveness and Scottish patriotism. In between lies the real argument for independence (or not) – the possible need for a new set of national institutional arrangements.

The anti-independents have the advantage of arguing a case for a set of institutional arrangements that, while not ideally aligned to Scotland’s needs, have not failed in any spectacular way. The Bank of England has come through the financial crisis, the monarchy has come through its crisis in the late 1990s, the army is seen as misused rather than incompetent, the EU may have its faults but Scotland isn’t ready to leave as yet. The major institutional gripe is with a Parliament whose political and territorial centre of gravity is a long way from the Scots. The question is whether a Scottish Parliament and Government is enough to mitigate this fact. This is why the SNP will be making the most out of the political capital granted to it by a Coalition with the Conservatives as a senior partner. It is why Alex Salmond continually insists that David Cameron debates him on Scottish independence.

So the debate is stuttering. No-one knows what the new institutional arrangements would be in an independent Scotland and even if they did it wouldn’t be possible to know how they would perform including on the economic front. All the existing calculations about the impact of independence assume the status quo as a starting point. An independent Scotland may pursue a radically different approach, however, such as Estonia or Ireland and may or may not succeed. There’s no way of telling. This explains the approach of the anti-independence campaign – to emphasise uncertainty.

If I were a Scottish voter, I’d tune out of the entire campaign as none of it addresses the key question: would a new set of national institutions better align itself to Scotland’s needs than the current arrangements? There is no real rational answer to that. You can’t test the as yet unborn against the living. Would I have faith in my fellow country-men to combine resources, ideas, and institution-building in a creative fashion that could lead to a better national economic, cultural, and social future? On the answer to that question, my vote would depend. Unless the SNP can induce an overwhelmingly confident spirit then it is likely that the independence argument will fail. The easy rationality of the present asserts itself stubbornly against the possible future.

In this sense, the Scottish independence debate is a particular instance of the painful process of institutional change. Where the devolution debate was one of the best examples of successful change - broad-based, civic and democratic - this time the debate feels under-nourished on both sides. Real change is hard and slow; politics is fast and kinetic. In the UK and beyond, the lessons of Scotland’s institutional development will be important. The coming decades will be about the degree to which we can all successfully cultivate new, beneficial institutions to capture important public benefits. As so often in matters of political economy, Scotland is providing the lead and exemplar. Where it turns next will be a lesson in successful institutional change or not – whatever the outcome of the referendum.

Anthony Painter is Director, Independent review of the Police Federation. His latest book is ‘Left without a future? Social Justice in Anxious Times’ .


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