Scottish independence: Has Scotland's moment passed?

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Before Scotland voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom, SNP leader Alex Salmond described "No" voters as simply deferred "Yes" voters. But has the nationalist fervour passed? Should there be future attempts at secession, would they be less likely to succeed?

A lot of commentary has focused on the idea that the union - our 307-year-old joint enterprise - may be on the rocks because of the surprising success of the "Yes" campaign.

Yes, the nationalists lost, but a decent chunk of Scotland voted to end the union. And, certainly, the SNP campaign appears to have reached people who are new to mainstream politics.

But, in fact, it is possible that the nationalist moment may have passed and the union may already have survived its moment of peril. The plans for Scotland rushed out by the cross-UK parties - unnecessarily, some would say - may well prove to be surprisingly permanent.

'Structural shift'

The reason why is fairly simple. Back in 1974, the chief economist in the Scottish Office wrote a report that described the North Sea oil reserves, in short, as a Scottish tax bonanza that would make the country enormously rich, if it could secure all of its oil rights for itself.

Gavin McCrone's memo noted that these tax revenues made it no longer tenable to argue that an independent Scotland could not manage financially. The point was simple: "The country would tend to be in chronic surplus to a quite embarrassing degree." It would be rich, and its main problem would be a hyper-strong currency.

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The report remained confidential for decades, but the same sentiment - which others shared - powered the Scottish National Party. They campaigned on reclaiming the oil money.

But that memo was written 40 years ago. And Prof McCrone now thinks the economic headwinds are not with independence.

Since his first memo, a lot of the reserves have been extracted, sold and taxed. And that bounty has been spent. North Sea tax revenues are falling fast. In 2011, oil brought in £11.3bn for the exchequer - but the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) expects those receipts to fall to £3.5bn by 2018.

At the same time, Scotland is a grey place - its people are older than the rest of the UK. It is ageing faster, too, and has a larger benefits bill. That means that Scottish public spending - already higher than the rest of the UK - will naturally tend to drift upwards faster, too.

So, in the next few years, Scotland will make a structural shift from being a country which, when you include the oil, is a net contributor to the union to a net recipient. In fact, it may have already happened. And that switch will make the case for independence much harder to make.

Independence 'harder sell in future'

Imagine an independence referendum in, say, 10 years' time.

A nationalist Scottish government would have two choices. First, it could tighten up public spending - cutting spending or raising taxes - before a vote so that the country was lean and mean and ready to go it alone.

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Either that, or a vote for independence would mean a crash diet of fiscal tightening immediately afterwards. That would mean some combination of cuts to spending and tax rises.

Neither path is easy - especially when you ponder that one of the unifying forces for the "Yes" campaign was the promise of more public spending. The campaign left the impression of more money for the NHS, nurseries and science research, in particular.

So this lively, extraordinary campaign may well be a high watermark for the "Yes" vote. And the coalition that backed it might be a one-time thing.

Of course, there is more to life than public spending. The promise of independence is the right to do things your way. But it is striking that the successful independence movements in Western Europe, such as Catalonia, are in wealthy regions.

So independence is likely to be a harder sell in the future.

'Less appetite' for devo max

In fact, the same forces might even mean that so-called "devo max" - the devolving of all powers to Holyrood other than defence and foreign affairs - might drop off the more thoughtful nationalists' wish lists.

Devo max, at root, means that most cross-subsidy between nations is cut. Scotland would largely rely on its own taxes, so Scots would bear more pain from the decline in North Sea revenue and the country's ageing population.

And that's why Scots politicians might choose to stick with something more modest. The details are up for grabs, but they seem to be getting a deal whereby they get independence on how they spend money, but where there are still big cross-border transfers.

That would mean that Scots get to share a decent portion of the risk of the oil and age squeeze with everyone else. That looks like a good long-term deal for Scotland, given it is staying within the union.

A lot of "Yes" voters will be sad today. This musing - implying that the independence window has shut - won't have cheered them up.

So I hope they can console themselves that Scotland is in a rather good position within the union. In fact, a big question now may be whether the English will put up with it.

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