In for a penny, in for a pound

 

The SNP has come a long way since it was roundly defeated in its 2003 ‘Penny for Scotland’ campaign. Then leader of the party and present Finance Secretary (and future Scottish Chancellor?) John Swinney dared to suggest that Scotland could have better public services and a more social democratic society if the income tax band was raised by 1p. Despite Labour losing 6 seats, the SNP lost 8. The Scottish public decided that their change was better off in their pockets than used to finance improvement.

Fast forward eleven years through a comeback for Salmond in 2004, a minority administration from 2007 and then a remarkable majority victory in 2011, and the SNP has dispensed with the pennies and is gunning instead for the pound.

After numerous false dawns, this is the week where the independence debate truly came alive. George Osborne’s sermon on the mound was politically striking but ultimately vacuous. That his argument boils down to ‘look at Europe and Greece’ and involves a need to fiddle the figures is not good enough for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. George is widely regarded to be the most rampantly political of individuals within Cameron’s Cabinet and that naked politicking was horribly on show last week.

It remains to be seen whether his warnings around the pound will scare Scots into submission or anger them into the Yes camp. I am personally torn as to whether the public is more likely to bow to a supposedly superior knowledge or balk at the sight of a Tory telling Scotland what it can and can’t do. I await with baited breath the next political poll on the matter, although it is interesting to note that the only such poll taken in the immediate aftermath of Osborne’s speech found that 64% of Scots back the use of Sterling after independence with only 22% against. Not bad figures for the Yes camp. Not that the 64% will all be Yes voters, of course.

There is, needless to say, a Plan B. And dare I say a Plan C and a Plan D. Using Sterling behind rUK’s back is one option, as is a Scottish currency pegged to the £ and I personally wouldn’t balk at jumping into the Eurozone, though I accept I’m in a diminishing minority on that particular Ode to Joy.

A Scottish mint could be a breath of fresh air for the Scottish economy, a domestic currency that could flex alongside local Scottish markets to boost exports or imports as necessary would be the envy of many a European nation currently locked into the Euro, and it has demonstrably succeeded in Scandinavia and Switzerland where currencies are the strongest in the world. If that comes with the £100bn bonus of not having any debt due to the truculence of Osborne, Balls and Alexander then so much the better.

The SNP is, understandably, once bitten and twice shy though. If Scots wouldn’t vote for a Penny for Scotland in 2003, why would they vote for a Scottish Pound in 2014. Softly, softly. Easy does it.

At the end of the day, the vote in September is whether we back ourselves enough to decide these issues for ourselves, whatever the challenges present and future may be, and whether we feel confident enough to stare down the Osbornes and Barrosos of this world who see it as their role to metaphorically kick us back into line. rUK businesses would surely not want to have to mess with another currency amidst the huge volumes of trade across the border and the idea of Scotland slipping out of the EU while so many countries are going the other way is laughable to the point of absurdity.

Scotland, rUK and Europe are interdependent, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot be independent in the modern sense of the word. Let us throw our Yes votes over the wall of uncertainty and trust that a confident country will follow. The referendum debate is increasingly not for the faint-hearted but, you know what they say, in for a penny, in for a pound.

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Yes England

David Cameron will today urge the rest of the UK to send a clear message to Scotland that they want us to stay in the UK. Despite this campaign being apparently for Scotland to decide, of course. The speech will come from the Olympic Park in London and is presumably timed to coincide with the start of the Winter Olympics. However, it’s via another global sporting occasion this year that I believe Scotland can showcase its modern independence credentials.

The World Cup in 2010 had barely finished before I was longing for the next one to come around so referendums, Ryder Cups and Commonwealth Games to one side, 2014 was always going to be a good year.

The competition, of course, didn’t even start for Scotland in 2010 (and neither will it this year), it ended miserably for England and I can barely remember how my adopted-by-marriage Sweden faired. I do vividly recall watching Denmark play Japan however, and a Danish bar in London being chock full of Scandinavians cheering them on. That’s right, not just Danes but Scandinavians, primarily the neighbouring Swedes.

‘So would all Swedes support Denmark?’ I ventured. ‘Why wouldn’t they?’, came the bemused response.

It made me somewhat ashamed that a similar bout of neighbourly love would be a rare thing in Scotland for any highly-charged England game.

 

 

It is likely that a tension still remains within the Yes camp as to whether proponents of independence ‘should’ support England or not. People are free to do what they like of course but on the one hand there is the Andrew Wilson school of thought, who made the headlines as Economy Spokesperon when he said “I cannot wait for the day when we are so confident in ourselves as a nation that we can bring ourselves to support the so-called Auld Enemy”. On the other hand there is the Alex Salmond camp who rather churlishly supported Trinidad and Tobago simply because they had several players based in the Scottish leagues and that “that’s the nearest we’re getting to the World Cup”.

 

I don’t have to look too far among friends, family and work colleagues to find English people so why shouldn’t I support them as a British person, just as Scandinavians fall back on supporting neighbouring countries? I luckily outgrew the Anyone But England (ABE) mentality at a relatively early age. It is a shame that it is taking others a bit longer.

 

There’s nothing wrong with banter of course, or healthy rivalry even, but too often I perceive the ABE mentality to be due to a lack of Scottish confidence and an unease with our nearest neighbour. The dressed-up excuse that ‘the media would go on about it if England won’ is wearing pretty thin. Of course they would, and they should, as no doubt the media do in all other countries with teams good enough to win the world’s biggest sporting competition.

 

I have no such demons. I intend to vote Yes and I intend to support England all the way to World Cup victory. Far from seeing the two as contradictory, they are views that should belong together if we want to see a strong, self-satisfied independent Scotland, steady on its own two feet and comfortable with its place in the world. Let’s allow that chip on the shoulder to tumble free, we’ll feel better for it. And let’s be honest, it shouldn’t be difficult to support any team playing against Italy, Uruguay and…… hang on……  bear with me………  JUST GIVE ME A MOMENT OK!…. Costa Bloody Rica.

 

My best case hope is that a loose grouping may be formed called Yes England. A visible band of pro-independence supporters who will also be supporting England in the Summer, and are happy to display both endeavours during England games, in the pub most likely. A few drinks chatting about the independence campaign and wishing England well in their warm-up and World Cup games.

 

That, to me, is what modern nationalism is all about and I rather suspect that David Cameron’s words today will sound rather old-fashioned by comparison.

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There is nothing to fear from sharing Sterling

 

Mark Carney, the likeable Canadian Governor of the Bank of England, ventured north today to opine on the economics of currency union and provide some much needed intellectual rigour to the political hot potato that is Scotland retaining Sterling as its currency. It’s worth noting that many in Scotland would like to see a Scottish pound and others, myself included, would like to see the Euro being introduced, though I’d personally only like that to happen if rUK joined at the same time. The point is, Scotland is spoiled for choice when it comes to currency options and the SNP’s vision of holding onto Sterling is but one option that the public would ultimately decide at subsequent elections and/or referendums.

 

For Governor Carney, the scope of his speech was simply on the workability of Scotland and rUK sharing the pound. There was nothing in the speech that prospective Yes voters should fear, though the unionist opposition and media will likely say otherwise. I thought therefore that I would seek to shoot down a few currency union scare stories that may arise as a result of certain phrases that Carney used that could be misrepresented.

 

 

Ceding sovereignty

It is self-evident that even an independent Scotland will not hold 100% sovereignty in the event of a Yes vote. We would likely remain a member of the European Union after a relatively short negotation period and, subject to any future referendums on the matter, that ceding of sovereignty would be with the blessing of the Scottish public. We would still be as sovereign as Denmark or Austria, so this seemingly negative charge should be disregarded.

 

Tight fiscal rules

This sounds like a blow for the Yes campaign until you realise that the precise same point was made in by the Scottish Government’s very own Fiscal Commission. The Yes Scotland campaign is not pretending that there won’t be constraints within a currency union in the same way that it isn’t promising that a post-Yes world will be a land of milk and honey. These tight fiscal rules would basically be a sensible working arrangement between the Chancellors and economic advisers of the respective Governments to ensure both countries share mutually beneficial policies.

 

Eurozone risks

The obvious comparison to be made with a British currency union is to the Eurozone. However, despite having a relatively strong economy, Scotland is no Germany and England is no Greece. Our large companies, particularly the banking giants of RBS and Lloyds, already span the British Isles so that market risk is already geographically spread. Our economies are interlinked and we shall fail or succeed together, irrespective of whether we vote Yes or No to independence.

 

Lender of last resort

Mark Carney made it very clear that within a currency union Scotland can rely on the Bank of England to be a “common fiscal backstop” in the unthinkable scenario that a large company goes bust and the Scottish Government cannot bail it out on its own. A clear process would be required to be set up to ensure controls are adequately in place, but the silver lining of the recent worldwide crash is that this is a scenario that is impossible to overlook.

 

 

It’s worth noting that Mark Carney didn’t need to venture north to share his view on the details of independence, and Scotland should be grateful that he did. Who knows, where the Governor of the Bank of England led, perhaps David Cameron shall one day follow and these same issues can be debated between the First Minister and the Prime Minister.

 

One can but hope but, for now, it’s good to see that there is nothing to be worried about in how sharing the pound may work after a Yes vote.

 

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Devo More. And more and more.

There is an interesting article in the Herald today that revolves around a Devo More concept, as advocated by the (excellent) devolution expert Alan Trench.

Devo More is perhaps the most likely outcome from this year’s referendum, in the event of a No vote. It falls short of Devo Max, and way short of full independence of course, but the gradualist wing of the Nationalist cause will be happy enough with the advances made and the (secret) independence sympathisers and genuine modernisers within the unionist parties will recognise the advantages that would flow from beefing up powers at Holyrood.

One section of the article struck me in particular: “While Scots ministers are in charge of levers which could help increase the number of homes such as planning laws, they do not control housing benefit. Other parts of the welfare bill, inlcuding tax credits, should be devolved for similar reasons, it argues.”.

If housing benefit is devolved because it is linked to housing, then surely social security at large is linked to housing benefit? And if a nation needs to decide whether to have a large welfare state or a large Defence budget, perhaps military spending has to come too? The point is, all levers are inter-connected, be they economic or social.

Put another way, surely the natural, eventual conclusion of the Devo More logic is full independence?

As a wise Welsh man once said – devolution is a process, not an event, and ‘Devo More’ would be a mere staging post on that process as the remaining reserved powers fall one by one sooner or later. It’s not difficult to imagine how.

– A push poll by Better Together recently showed that the majority of Scots want the Scottish Government to act now on improving childcare. This shouldn’t have garnered the headlines that it did as of course any voting public wants more from their Government, particularly on welfare policies. There is a good reason why the SNP can’t bring forward the radical plans to recruit tens of thousands of childcare staff to kickstart adequate subsidised nursery place. The tax income from this boost to employment would go down south rather than back into the Scottish economy, where it is needed to refund the policy.  The answer? Full fiscal autonomy. A fair settlement being Scotland spending the money it raises isn’t rocket science.

– Even today’s news that the Pentland Firth has the potential to power 50% of Scotland’s energy needs is relevant. One of the biggest obsctables to a Scottish renewables revolution is the way costly National Grid transmission charges work against investing in necessary renewables projects, due to the unavoidable far flung destinations of wave and wind ventures. There was a slight improvement in the charges last year, but with Ofgem ultimately controlled by a Government in favour of nuclear and fracking, it will never work as efficiently as it should do to fully power a Scottish renewables drive. The answer? A Scottish Ofgem, amidst a consolidation of regulatory bodies.

The feted Calman Commission has crashed and burned, Labour’s Constitution Commission hasn’t been able to get off the ground and Devo Max has already been watered down to Devo More. At what point do you just decide that, when it comes to Constitutional change, it’s only all or nothing that works?

Devolution is indeed a motorway to independence with no exit points, even if the journey is taking longer than some of us might like.

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If you don’t know, don’t vote No

The Yes Scotland campaign often attracts criticism for not doing enough to win round voters, that its strategy isn’t working and, occasionally, that heads must roll. Although the lowly poll ratings in favour of independence are frustrating, it is difficult to criticise the individuals that are flogging every hour of their day to increase the chances of victory, particularly as they are up against the perfect resistance.

It’s also difficult to ignore the notion that the Scottish public generally isn’t going out of its way to learn about the facts and details that will help to shape an informed view this side of September 18th. Scotland Tonight viewing figures can’t compete with Dancing on Ice, and newspaper circulations are dwindling faster than Iphone 5s are flying off the shelves. An uninspired and under-exercised electorate is unlikely to break one way or the other if people just want to be left alone to get on with their day.

This intransigence is aided and abetted by a Better Together campaign that is pulling any green shoots of intelligent debate into the mud and only postponing detail of further devolution until after the next election. Nine months to go and they’re already playing for a scoreless draw. An understandable approach, but a dastardly, short-sighted one nonetheless.

I am open to cogent, logical arguments as to why Scotland is better off in the UK, indeed I am desperate to hear some to soften the blow of a likely No result in Autumn, but other than romantic notions regarding a great Britain that no longer exists, I am yet to find a rationale any better than ‘it’s just not worth the bother’.

My fear therefore is that a No vote in September won’t really mean No, but Don’t Know. Or worse, Don’t Care.

The media is jointly and severally culpable in this intellectual torpor, seemingly picking and choosing stories and headlines that won’t rock the boat, rather than electrifying us with analysis and opinion pieces that the nation simply can’t ignore. A case in point of this selective approach is the story that wasn’t reported this week – the potentially game-changing study that Europe would have a lot to lose from allowing newly independent nations like Scotland to drop out the club. Against a backdrop of regular, front-page EU scare stories and a constant, lonely, Spanish refrain that Scotland’s not wanted, what other conclusion is one to reach regarding this omission other than that journalists turned a blind eye?

Don’t get me wrong, the SNP didn’t win the 2011 election with a majority because Scots were crying out for a referendum. They won it because Labour were a Subway-sheltering shambles. There’s a school of thought that even Salmond didn’t want this referendum at this time, but we are where we are and an important decision needs to be made, and for the right reasons.

Perhaps the answer then is for a third campaign to be launched, a drive to urge people to not vote if they feel they don’t know enough. The independence referendum is not a vote on Salmond’s popularity, it’s not a census on how confident or otherwise Scots feel and it’s certainly not an anti-English plebiscite.

If you don’t have a personal vision of what an independent Scotland could achieve as a fully fledged country then by all means don’t vote Yes, but if you are equally clueless on the future of the UK, be it unthinking on the future of devolution, blinded to whether the Tories will get back in in 2015 or ignorant of whether the UK might pull out of the EU in 2017, for pity’s sake don’t vote No either.

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Defence of the indefensible

I decided that for 2014 I would boil down my intention to vote Yes into one simple, single reason that, in my mind at least, is unassailable. That way I’d be ready for the increasing number of ad-hoc discussions on the referendum that will likely take place this year and, who knows, maybe I can convince a few floating voters to vote Yes with my pre-prepared killer argument.

 

For me, that single reason is spending decisions taken by Westminster and, specifically, the grossly inflated amount of money that we waste on Defence. This isn’t just about Trident and nuclear weapons, healthy reasons for voting Yes as they are, but it’s about the expensive delusion that the British Isles needs to be the 4th biggest military budget in the World (as a % of GDP).

 

The United Kingdom is (and an independent Scotland would be) a member of the United Nations, a member of the European Union and a member of NATO. We are adequately protected as the self-respecting countries making up these alliances are stronger together and weaker apart, to borrow a well-worn phrase.

 

So, to compare what the UK spends on Defence against, say, what the Scandinvavian countries spend is maddening as money that should be being spent on more important areas is being frittered away on tanks, guns and artillery that we simply don’t need.

 

Let’s look at the numbers (figures taken from latest available tables on Wikipedia):

 

The UK spends $61bn a year on Defence (2.5% of GDP)

 

Sweden spends $6.2bn a year on Defence, (1.2% of GDP)

Denmark spends $4.4bn a year on Defence, (1.4% of GDP)

Norway spends $7.0bn a year on Defence, (1.4% of GDP)

Finland spends $3.7bn a year on Defence, (1.5% of GDP)

 

Clearly there is a significant difference between what the UK (and, by extension, Scotland) spends on Defence and what the Scandinavian countries spend.

 

 

Let’s look at spending as a %age of GDP on education:

 

United Kingdom – 5.5%

 

Sweden – 6.6%

Denmark – 7.8%

Norway – 6.8%

Finland – 5.9%

 

So Scandinavian pupils have better-paid teachers and better-resourced schools to learn in.

 

 

Let’s look at spending as a %age of GDP on research and development:

 

United Kingdom – 1.7%

 

Sweden – 3.3%

Denmark – 2.4%

Norway – 4.2%

Finland – 3.1%

 

We live in a competitive world and, combined with our lower education spend, we are way off the pace in developing the skills and future technology that will put us at the front of the pack.

 

 

Let’s look at spending as a %age of GDP on welfare:

 

United Kingdom – 25.9%

 

Sweden – 38.2%

Denmark – 37.9%

Norway – 33.2%

Finland – 32.3%

 

So while Scandinavians can afford appropriate parental leave, comfortable nursery subsidies and generous unemployment/disability benefit, we are scrimping by. Note also that George Osborne is due to cut welfare by a further £12bn in the near future.

 

 

Let’s look at probably the most important rating for any Western democracy, poverty rates (per Unicef):

United Kingdom – 19.8%

 

Sweden – 2.6%

Denmark – 5.1%

Norway – 3.9%

Finland – 4.3%

 

This is simply embarrassing and needs no further comment.

 

 

I’m not making these numbers up, nor am I being selective in what categories I choose here. It is clear that we are putting ourselves at a disadvantage on considerably more important spending areas partially as a result of our bloated Defence budget and, if recent history and voter priorities in the rest of the UK is any guide, that is not going to change irrespective of whether Labour or the Tories are in charge at Westminster.

 

If Scotland makes up 10% of the $61bn Defence spending total then we are spending $6.1bn a year. Reducing that to Swedish levels of Defence spending would save us over $3bn, or about £2bn. Just think how far a Government of any hue at Holyrood could make an extra £2bn a year go.

 

The independence referendum in my eyes is a choice between more needless spending on Defence or more spending on education, research and development, the welfare state and, crucially, less Scottish kids in poverty.

 

It really is a no-brainer.

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What next for Yes Scotland?

As we step somewhat unbelievably into 2014, time relentlessly and unforgivably marching forwards, what seemed like a long referendum campaign suddenly sees the referendum date looming larger in our calendars. The polls have barely shifted of course since the September 18th date was announced back in March, so one would think that the deflated ball remains unwhacked in the Yes Scotland court, the clock still ticking on from the nine short months there is left. No room for pregnant pauses now or the dreams of independence will be stillborn. The question is, what next for Yes Scotland? What should the strategy be for the short time that is left?

I asked this question to a learned, non-aligned friend recently and, as a committed Yes voter, I despaired that his entirely sensible answer began with ‘well, two things I wouldn’t have done are….’ as opposed to ‘what they should do is…’.Past tense. Nightmare! Surely it isn’t too late already? Surely a route to Yes still exists for the SNP’s mythical electoral machine and Yes Scotland’s big tent alliance? Of course it does, and nothing much needs to change to stay on it too.

I agreed with the two criticising points that my friend raised incidentally, but they also offered a glimpse as to how a subtle shift in tone and message could reap dividends for the Yes campaign and propel a polling shift from No to Don’t Know and Don’t Know to Yes that is necessary to achieve victory. To paraphrase and summarise his full answer: ‘well, two things I wouldn’t have done are not got bogged down in debates about currency and the EU’. He is, of course, quite right, but there’s no reason why the Yes campaign should stay stuck in the mud on these scores for too much longer.

The question of membership of the European Union has thus far focussed on the relatively tiny period between Scotland going from being a member via the UK to being a member in its own right. Self-confessed lovers of political minutiae such as David Torrance are still poring over the pre-membership period, (presumably wilfully) blinkered to the wider and considerably more important post-membership picture. This period may be the “seamless” transition of 18 months per the SNP’s take on the issue, or it may be several years of tough negotiating as per Better Together, but even several years of waiting to rejoin the EU in the context of the future lifetime of an independent Scotland is a mere blip, a blink of an eye.

It certainly doesn’t deserve the undue focus that it is receiving and, what’s more, look at the direction of travel – rUK is heading inexorably towards the European exit door while an independent Scotland would be heading the other way, an eager, equal partner at Europe’s top table with wind, wave, oil, trade, food and education to share, more MEPs to represent it and a rotating presidency to look forward to.

For the currency question, I remain confused why the SNP doesn’t commit itself to a referendum on a Scottish pound, keeping the Sterling or adopting the Euro, possibly in the second term of government. Continuously having to argue that Scotland will keep Sterling is a rather odd argument for independence, and typically a clear sign that Yes Scotland is on the backfoot. The promise of a referendum on the matter, again within the infancy of an independent Scotland’s lifetime, would, at a stroke, undermine Better Together’s headline-grabbing, somewhat shallow objections and also serve as a useful reminder that the type of Scotland we shall have is for the people to decide, not the politicians.

Linked to the solutions for these two issues, and in many ways the embodiment of them, is the trump card that Yes Scotland still has at its disposal but has not yet played to its full advantage. It is a trump card that is pivotal largely because Better Together enjoys no such option. A long-term roadmap for Scotland, an opportunity to be truly radical, the offer of a spine-tingling vision that can reach beyond our collective cynicism and stir a country into being. The unionist parties can’t agree on what Scotland will look like post-No, particularly with a 2015 General Election that takes priority, which leaves the field open for the Yes parties to sell a vision that will make Scotland be a nation again.

It’s too late for policies on the hoof of course – I’d have liked to have seen the promise of a Scandinavian tax system to match a Scandinanvian welfare state, the promise of a Scottish pound that could strengthen or devalue to suit the Scottish economy, the promise of a more protectionist mentality where Scots are not ashamed to back Scottish businesses (as is the case in the rest of Europe, to the UK’s disadvantage), the promise of a crackdown on amateur property magnates, the promise of fully transparent tax returns for both companies and individuals alike, but even these are all small fry against a distinctly Scottish dream that can still be packaged and sold. Scotland has a long, rich history and it is its long, rich future that should be the focus of this campaign, not shallow promises around the Bedroom Tax, not who gets to debate whom and not concerns around how smug Salmond might appear on September 19th if we dare to vote Yes, as if this vote is a personal pet project of the First Minister. This decision is much bigger than any one of us, Salmond included, and it should feel that way more and more as this year progresses.

The SNP showed positivity and vision in the run up to the 2011 Holyrood election, a strategy that won them an unlikely majority. Yes Scotland doesn’t need to raise its game so much as raise its sights over the next nine months. Through looking beyond the petty squabbling of the first few years of independence and the humdrum politics of today, and resisting the urge to pen the snarky press releases that stain our national newspapers, it can build an unbeatable argument for voting Yes, capture the imagination of the Scottish people and find the momentum needed to achieve victory later this year.

The polls changed drastically in the SNP’s favour in the final few weeks of campaigning in 2011, there’s no reason why they won’t do the same again in Autumn 2014 if they hold to the same strategy.

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