Unicorn Square

When economics and emotions contrast with fantasies and kitsch

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DURING Andrew Marr’s verbal mauling of Nicola Sturgeon on Sunday morning, the First Minister claimed she didn’t know how Scotland’s finances would be affected by leaving the UK.

I suspect she’s well aware that secession would be an economic disaster. It takes time to put together figures dubious enough to disguise that reality and, once they’re published, you’re at the mercy of pesky cynics who want to scrutinise your sums. It is for that reason, Sturgeon insists the people of Scotland have to wait for a referendum campaign before the SNP reveals its projections.

This evasiveness isn’t surprising. Whenever separatists in the UK are asked about the economics of pulling our country apart, their answers are always as murky and mystical as the nationalism that drives their politics. In Northern Ireland, for example, nationalists have spent the past five years arguing that Brexit makes the province’s absorption by the Republic a virtual inevitability.

They claimed that leaving the European Union would involve too much disruption for businesses, so Northern Ireland must stay in the single market and customs union instead. Now it is the trade border that separates Ulster companies from their main market in Great Britain that is causing problems.

It was predictable and many people pointed out what would happen, but separatists and their pro-EU allies insisted that the province’s links to southern Ireland should be prioritised over its connection to the rest of the UK.

Now that their fantasies about an ‘all-Ireland economy’ have been exposed, they’re reduced to blaming unionists and the Conservative government for the outcome they engineered.

With no sense of irony, they claim the permanent solution to all Northern Ireland’s issues is still a 32-county Irish republic. Apparently, Brexit caused too much uncertainty and disruption, but creating a brand-new nation state against the wishes of a sizable section of society, with all the social and financial turmoil that entails, is a chance worth taking!

Northern Ireland is one of the UK’s poorer regions and in normal times, it receives about £10 billion per year more from Westminster than it raises in taxes. Thanks to the Barnett Formula, the Treasury’s largesse during the coronavirus crisis meant even more cash crossing the Irish Sea.

Yet, the best plan that Irish nationalists have to replace this money, without precipitating enormous and sudden hardship, is that London should keep paying for the province’s upkeep decades after Dublin takes control. Why the British government would accept this suggestion is anybody’s guess, but I suppose anything seems possible if your sense of entitlement and grievance is deep enough.

Plan B certainly isn’t too robust either. The separatist, left-wing journalist, Paul Gosling, wrote a paper called “The Economic Impact of an All-Island Economy” that proposed massively reducing public sector employment in Northern Ireland to make up the shortfall. For years, pro-business commentators have argued the province’s dependence on public spending should be reduced and the economy should be ‘rebalanced’ toward the private sector. They did not mean, though, that 50,000 people should be laid off in quick time. The University of Ulster economist, Dr Esmond Birnie, pointed out that Gosling’s scheme would be a ‘shattering blow’ both to businesses and the public sector.

It’s hard to imagine the hysterical shrieking that would ensue, particularly among nationalists, if a Tory government suggested anything half as sweeping.

Various other reports have been similarly flawed. They’ve based the projected success of a brand new, heavily disputed, all-Ireland state on the entirely dissimilar precedent of German reunification, or they’ve denied entirely that Northern Ireland has benefited from financial redistribution by Westminster, or they’ve vastly overstated the success of the Republic of Ireland’s economy. Sound familiar?

Whenever serious economists have a go, they predict a major fall in living standards south of the border, as well as in the north, if separatists get their way.

You need to spend just a little time looking at the figures to see that the overwhelming economic case for maintaining a strong, integrated United Kingdom is unlikely to disappear, however much Irish nationalists or Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish nationalists may wish it.

But, in any case, we know that British people get so much more out of the Union than comparative prosperity.

Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales are bound together by robust social, historical and cultural ties, that are at least as important as an integrated economy. Sometimes our shared allegiances are trickier to articulate than the romantic notions that power separatism, but they are no weaker or less compelling.

There aren’t too many tear-stained ballads celebrating the UK’s history, its great institutions of state, its royal family or its armed forces, for instance. But compare the understated power of the funeral of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, to the kitsch of Irish and Scottish nationalism, and decide which stirs the soul most deeply.

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