Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of starting a new “Project Fear” independence campaign after urging voters to “resist” warnings that Brexit has made Scotland even more dependent on the UK.
The First Minister attacked the UK Government for exploiting the economic “damage” caused by leaving the EU to bolster the case for the Union, arguing: “By making us poorer, they’ll say we can’t afford to be independent.”
In her speech to the SNP conference, she said the Tories would similarly argue that a sharp reduction in EU trade and migrants means “we are too dependent on the rest of the UK” to risk leaving.
The Scottish Conservatives accused her of inventing a “wild conspiracy theory” that Westminster is trying to make Scotland poorer to try and stop independence.
They said “only the most fanatical SNP supporters” would believe this was true “when the Scottish budget is at a record high, the UK furlough scheme has saved a million Scottish jobs, and the UK vaccine scheme has protected the health of millions of Scots.”
However, Ms Sturgeon said the UK Government wanted Scots to “believe we are powerless in the face of the disastrous decisions they have taken for us” and “to look inwards, not outwards”.
She said this was because they were “terrified by the prospect” that Scots would focus on the prosperity of small independent countries in the north west of Europe, such as Denmark.
Rehashing Alex Salmond’s 2006 claim that a separate Scotland could be part of northern Europe’s “arc of prosperity”, she argued: “For countries of Scotland’s size, independence works. Our neighbours in north-west Europe are wealthier than the UK. All of them.”
However, Boris Johnson again dismissed her demand to be handed the powers for another independence referendum, with his official spokesman stating that “now is simply not the time” and all governments’ focus should be on recovering from the pandemic.
Scotland had by far the highest national deficit in Europe even before Covid, a figure that surged to an astonishing £36 billion last year, while more than 60 per cent of exports went to the rest of the UK prior to Brexit.
One of Ms Sturgeon’s hand-picked economic advisers recently poured scorn on nationalist claims a separate Scotland would be like Denmark, attacking the “complete lack of specificity”.
Mark Blyth, professor of international economics at the Watson Institute of Brown University in Rhode Island, said: “What we’ve got is ‘Denmark is awesome. We should be like Denmark. If we were independent, we would be Denmark’. No, you wouldn’t be Denmark. Denmark took 600 years to become Denmark.”
Ms Sturgeon told the virtual conference that “Brexit will make us poorer, year after year” compared to being an EU member state, with the working age population and trade with Europe both likely to decline.
“But there’s a double whammy that Scotland must be alert to, and resist with all we’ve got. Westminster will use all that damage that they have inflicted as an argument for yet more Westminster control,” she told delegates.
“By cutting our trade with the EU, they’ll say we are too dependent on the rest of the UK. By causing our working population to fall, they’ll say the country is ageing too fast.
“They know, and are terrified by the prospect, that when we look outwards, we see all around us the evidence right there in front of our eyes: the evidence that independence works.”
Ms Sturgeon said countries such as Denmark, the Republic of Ireland, Austria, Norway and Finland have lower poverty levels, higher economic productivity and better living standards than the UK.
She argued that they recovered better from the financial crash of 2008, which saw Westminster step in to rescue the Royal Bank of Scotland and Bank of Scotland, and have stronger public finances.
“No one is saying there won’t be challenges to overcome. We will set those out openly and honestly,” she continued.
“Nothing will fall into our laps. But, like all countries, we face challenges whatever path we take.”
Prof Blyth has warned that independence would be “Brexit times 10” thanks to the much deeper economic ties between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
‘No new ideas to help Scots’
Ms Sturgeon said May’s Holyrood election had led to a “clear and substantial majority” in favour of independence and reiterated she wanted another referendum by the end of 2023, “Covid permitting”.
However, Donald Cameron, the Scottish Tories’ shadow constitution secretary, said: “Instead of focusing on the NHS crisis and protecting jobs, Nicola Sturgeon has invented her own nationalist Project Fear. To distract from the SNP’s domestic failings, she’s ramping up division.
“The SNP leader also dusted off the infamous ‘Arc of Prosperity’ to try and drum up some kind of economic case for separating Scotland in the middle of a crisis, when we need the strength and security of the United Kingdom more than ever.”
Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, said: “Nicola Sturgeon’s spin does nothing to tackle the levels of child poverty on our streets, the numbers waiting for treatment in our hospitals, and the depth of the economic crisis facing Scotland. There were no new ideas to help Scots, just the same old rhetoric, slogans, and platitudes.”
Downing Street refused to back a recent claim by Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, that a referendum could be held if support for staging one was consistently running at 60 per cent.
A spokesman said: “We haven’t said any sort of target. Our view, as set out, is that now is simply not the time to be dealing with this. The public are looking to governments and leaders across the UK to focus on dealing with this ongoing pandemic and recovering the economy.”