The Scottish independence debate hots up

Up until now, it has looked as though the pro union movement was never really going to get off the ground in Scotland. But that seems to be changing, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

If you don't live in Scotland, you might not have noticed the beginning of the fight back against Alex Salmond's plans for Scottish independence.

On Saturday, the Times kicked things off with a cover that claimed that independence would threaten university research cash. The UK hands out £3bn every year to universities for various types of scientific research, and there is no reason, says Professor Louise Richardson, the Principal of St Andrews University, to assume that Scotland would be able to "buy in" to that after independence, something that could be "catastrophic" for the universities.

The Saturday Mail had an even more compelling headline. Independence, it said, would be a "risk to your pension". Steve Webb, the UK pensions minister, told the paper that a good 40,000 people move both ways across our "porous" border at the moment. If National Insurance numbers and pension entitlements are stored in separate places it is going to get much, much harder to keep track of everything ("a pension here, a pension there, National Insurance records here, something else in Scotland").

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

The Mail also pointed to the pensions "timebomb" on the way for Scotland within 20 years, 30% of some rural communities will be in retirement.

Finally, for good measure, the paper noted that Scotland would have a "£4bn black hole" in its revenues if it allowed itself to be dependent on oil. Oil makes up 1-2% of the UK's tax revenues, but something like 10-20% of the total tax money raised in Scotland (averaging around £6bn).

This would make an independent Scotland's revenues incredibly volatile note that the amount raised from oil has been as little as £2bn in some years and as much as £12bn in others.

The Telegraph picked up the same story on Saturday, pointing out that oil revenues are currently on a "downwards trajectory", such that Scotland could be "billions of pounds worse off by Alex Salmond's preferred date for the breakup of Britain".

On Sunday, the Sunday Times joined in with a story about how the uncertainty surrounding independence is "scaring off" European property buyers in Scotland: one would-be German buyer pulled out saying that "I cannot see to invest in a region that may be separated from the UK".

Finally, on Sunday the Mail on Sunday went all out with the headline "Death of all that is British" and a list of all the things that might be lost to Scotland if the SNP breaks us up. Think "the Royal Mint, MI5, your car tax, the National Lottery, the Met Office, the Royal Mail, the Student Loans company etc".

It is quite an onslaught of media attention. But thank goodness for it. For some time now it has looked as though a pro union movement was never really going to get off the ground despite the fact that the majority of Scots poll as pro union.

That matters, because whatever you think is the right way to go on this one, the arguments have to made properly and openly. If the SNP wins the referendum, even by one vote, everything in Scotland will change. There will be no way back. If I were a member of the SNP I would, I hope, welcome this step up in the debate much better to go into the referendum with the arguments for and against independence made properly than not really made at all.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.