IN the end, independence is a binary choice. Either Scotland stays in the UK or it becomes an independent country. The problem is that so much of the debate about independence barely deserves that name. And the binary Yes or No choice ends up being reflected in simplistic assertions about why independence is a bad or a good idea.

Yet how Scotland relates to the rest of the UK after independence, the economy, whether it joins the EU and NATO, and all the other big issues are complex and multi-dimensional. But much of the debate fails to reflect this.

So the unionist side assert that an independent Scotland would struggle to even establish a functioning currency or that its deficit would be so large it couldn’t possibly join the EU (while somehow still asserting that an independent Scotland would have to join the Euro).

The independence side point out that many other countries have gone independent and established their own currency, and that plenty of countries have joined the EU. The unionist side say an independent Scotland will be less well off and won’t be able to pay decent pensions. Pensions will be better under independence is the retort, look at Finland and Sweden and Denmark, they’re all better off than us.

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It’s perhaps not surprising that neither side in a slow-moving, quasi-campaign wants to admit that there are both costs and benefits to independence. But, in the end, all the real questions about establishing an independent Scotland are about how to get to a desired end-point whether that’s rejoining the EU or having higher but greener national income, about how long it will take and how uncertain or feasible it may be. It’s about a series of transitions and what they look like.

The SNP’s recent pamphlet, A Referendum for Recovery, authored by SNP president Mike Russell, sets out in a table how much better off countries like Finland, Sweden, Germany and France are compared to the UK (answer a lot in the case of Luxembourg or Denmark, only a bit in the case of France).

But, of course, there are also plenty of European countries that have lower income per head than the UK from Portugal and Greece to Poland and Lithuania.

It’s entirely reasonable to argue a preference for an independent Scotland to emulate its Nordic neighbours. But then you have to set out the full range of strategies and policies that could realistically get you there – while recognising, if it was so simple to imitate successful countries and economies, why have others not done so.

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Of course, some of the detailed Scottish Government work that was being done on the economy and on rejoining the EU was paused when the Covid pandemic hit. But now Scotland has moved beyond level zero to removing most, though not all, restrictions, surely it’s time for civil servants to be given the go-ahead to pick up their detailed work again – and then to make that analysis public across all the big questions in the independence debate.

There are many moving parts here. Scotland needs to play its part, and up its game, in tackling climate change – and that won’t wait for independence. Likewise, the economic recovery from Covid is an issue for now and the coming years. But independence arguments need to be set out clearly here too: what will change on climate or recovery policies after independence, how will the path Scotland takes differ.

Kate Forbes, cabinet secretary for economy and finance, has set up an advisory group to help with a 10-year strategy on Covid recovery and getting to net zero, due to report later this autumn. What is less clear is whether this report will only major on what is possible in the devolved context. After all, Nicola Sturgeon gave an indicative date of 2023 for another independence referendum, with Scotland potentially becoming independent at the start of 2026. So surely there needs to be two plans here: a 10-year plan with and without independence, pointing out what would be the same in either scenario and what will change.

There’s also a question of where, if at all, the mounting negative impacts of Brexit fit into this 10-year strategy. The Scottish Government is offering some support to sectors hit by Brexit but the strategy for helping businesses and a whole range of activities cope with Brexit will surely vary if Scotland rejoins the EU in the next ten years than if it doesn’t.

If Scotland became independent in 2026, it could fairly swiftly negotiate a temporary trade and association agreement with the EU leading to a progressive removal of barriers to the EU’s single market. So if sectors hard-hit by Brexit were to regain better access to EU markets in five years' time, then a strategy to support them will be different to one based on the presumption of being permanently outside the EU. Likewise, a harder border to the rest of the UK, in five or more years’ time, will also need a different strategy to staying within the UK.

A year ago, in the midst of handling the first months of the pandemic, Nicola Sturgeon suggested it was better to ‘show not tell’ voters – the sight of effective government meant to encourage support for more autonomy and so independence. But while a string of opinion polls giving a majority for Yes in the second half of 2020 suggested she was right, that changed in 2021, with opinion back to 50:50 or tilting towards a No.

There seems to be an unnecessary nervousness in the SNP that setting out a strong, detailed strategy now – rather than just at the start of a referendum campaign – might open the independence case up to too much or too fierce criticism. But actually establishing the arguments for the multiple paths to independence – to a currency, to the EU, to a more equal, green economy and so on – is surely necessary to convince voters.

And for both sides of the independence debate to have to grapple with the real challenges of change and transition, not just utter simplistic soundbites on currency or the benefits of being a Nordic nation, would surely move the independence debate on to a much-needed, more serious and deeper level.

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