The Economist’s inflammatory cover feature comparing an independent Scotland with Greece has revived the debate over breaking away from the UK
Not since The Sun asked: ‘Would the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’ if Neil Kinnock won the 1992 general election has there been such a row over a front page, at least in Scotland.
The recent Economist cover depicting Scotland as ‘Skintland’, with cities renamed ‘Edinborrow’ and ‘Glasgone’, generated an astonishing row.
First Minister Alex Salmond said the magazine would ‘rue the day’ it ran the story, accusing it of ‘sneering’ and ‘insulting every community in Scotland’. The former Labour first minister, Henry McLeish, said it was ‘patronising and eccentric’, while the twitterati fizzed with indignation at the magazine’s ‘racism’ and ‘lies’.
The Economist warned that if Scotland voted for independence in 2014, it would become ‘one of Europe’s vulnerable marginal economies’ and would likely suffer a sovereign debt crisis of Greek proportions. Now it’s hardly new for a London weekly magazine to criticise the economics of independence – the Spectator and even the New Statesman do it all the time. But somehow this ‘Skintland’ joke hit a raw nerve. Why so?
You might think that the best way to respond to the banter would have been to hand it right back to them. After all, it’s a bit rich for the London financial elite to poke fun at Scotland’s debts when the UK itself is running a deficit of £126bn. You might have turned the map around and dubbed it ‘Great Bankruptland’. The Scottish chattering classes seem to be living in thin-skinned land.
Timing, of course, is everything in politics, and the Scottish media had been looking for an opportunity to revisit the controversy over the referendum. Not much has happened since UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit in February, when he challenged the Scottish National Party government to bring forward the date of the ballot.
The feature also gave the SNP an opportunity to ramp up its rhetoric and remind Scots that, in fact, an independent Scotland would be among the top six developed countries in terms of gross domestic product per head. SNP ministers hit the airwaves insisting that there was still a lot of oil yet to be extracted from the North Sea; that Scotland had 25% of Europe’s wind and tidal energy plus five universities in the world’s top 200.
Economics aside, the nationalists believe that around 20% of Scottish unionists could be persuaded to vote for independence. This is largely because Labour and the Conservatives seem determined to deny an option on the ballot offering Devolution Max or more powers for the Scottish Parliament. The SNP believes that these floaters might, in frustration, vote yes to independence to get a better devolution deal. This is about the only way the SNP could get near to winning the referendum since only around a third of Scots say they want to leave the UK.
The SNP wants these voters to believe that they are being taken for a ride by Labour and Tory politicians – that the Economist’s portrayal of Scotland as a grumpy parochial backwater is what Westminster really thinks. And it has to be said, from my own experience, a large number of Tory and Labour MPs do privately believe that the Scots are doing rather too well out of ‘English subsidies’ and should jolly well stop complaining. Some would not be too unhappy if Skintland were left to its own devices.
The Economist had a good laugh at the furious reaction in Scotland, but serious unionists like Fraser Nelson in the Spectator think it has made their job a lot harder. It might not seem quite so funny if Scotland calls London’s bluff in 2014.
This article first appeared in the May edition of Public Finance