Why Covid furlough scheme may play a key role in Scottish independence debate – Scotsman comment

The UK government’s decision to extend the furlough scheme – paying up to 80 per cent of the wages of vast numbers of people unable to work because of the coronavirus lockdown – until March, means that its effects will be felt well into the Scottish Parliament election campaign.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak stressed the furlough scheme was one of the benefits of being in the United Kingdom (Picture: House of Commons/PA Wire)
Chancellor Rishi Sunak stressed the furlough scheme was one of the benefits of being in the United Kingdom (Picture: House of Commons/PA Wire)

Following some confusion, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who will review the extension in January, stressed that the scheme would apply to all four nations of the UK.

And, just in case anyone missed it, he rammed home a message that would have been music to Scottish unionists’ ears. “It is a demonstration of the Union, and an undeniable truth of this crisis [that] we have only been able to provide this level of support because we are a United Kingdom.”

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Just how much support an independent Scotland would be able to provide is almost impossible to gauge, but the fact that the UK is one of the richest countries in the world means it is able to borrow money at better rates than poorer countries with a shorter track record of fiscal probity.

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UK furlough scheme extended until the end of March

In the run-up to May’s Holyrood election, unionists will doubtless make the furlough cash a central part of the economic arguments for why voters should support parties opposed to independence. The challenge for the SNP will be to come up with economic arguments of their own.

While this is not the be-all and end-all of the debate – emotional ties, ideas about identity, and political ideology also play a role in the thinking of people on both sides – as a nation we must thoroughly examine the practical economic consequences of leaving the UK. Some nationalists may accept a degree of economic pain in return for what they believe will ultimately be a brighter future, but how much is too much?

Another aspect of the massive furlough spending is that the UK’s debts are rising dramatically, so an independent Scotland’s share would be significantly larger than expected before the Covid crisis began.

Despite all that, Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic seen as a factor in levels of support for independence that are now polling persistently above 50 per cent.

And this terrible virus may yet see further twists that swing the fortunes of unionists and nationalists one way or the other.

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