After the hustle and bustle of Glasgow University Freshers Fair, I decided to take a look at the literature of the Better Together campaign. I will leave aside for a minute the irony of an "all party non-party campaign" having its literature disseminated through local Labour Clubs. I wanted to take a look at the substantive claims behind their leafleting campaign and to see what the "positive case" for the continuation of the Union between Scotland and the rest of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Their campaign leaflets pursue this idea that a strong Scotland inside the UK can have "the best of both worlds", offering the benefits of localised government without the risks of independence. Security in numbers, if you will. Their opening gambit is that Scotland could survive as an independent state (or as they call it "separate country"), but that being part of the UK "is the best possible choice for our future". This is a welcome statement and considerable progress on what many have said in the past.
And so to the substance. The leaflets provide 10 arguments in favour of the Union. I'll list them in turn:
"Scots are represented by over 270 embassies as part of the UK, the world's largest diplomatic network (Source Foreign and Commonwealth Office."
Yes. This is true. The UK has a lot of embassies in other countries. But I'm left wondering "so what"? Are they suggesting that Scotland could not maintain an effective embassy presence across the globe? Given our countries are so close and have a long-standing history of relative peace among each other, surely an independent Scotland could share or pool embassy support with the UK (and for that matter, other friendly EU countries) in instances where it would make no economic sense to set-up our own without fear of diplomatic spats undermining the protection and support these buildings offer to travelling citizens?
Besides, on independence it is completely feasible to ensure, as part of the settlement, that all Scots born persons/residents with UK citizenship can retain the citizenship of the old state, either automatically or by election. Their children could thus also acquire that citizenship and would also be protected. For, at a minimum, two generations of people, the entire populus of "Scots" could continue to enjoy all the diplomatic benefits of UK citizenship they currently enjoy. There is precedent for this with the terms of settlement in Ireland, and indeed those born in Northern Ireland continue to be eligible for citizenship of the Republic or the UK (some have dual citizenship). It is therefore hugely questionable that an independent Scotland means Scots will lose the protection offered by the UK diplomatic service (at least not in the medium-term). In the next 40 years or so, there is nothing to stop the Scots expanding their diplomatic presence across the globe; indeed being freed from the confines of UK foreign policy it may be the case that we can set up embassies in countries with more hostile attitudes to the UK in the Middle East and elsewhere, should we choose to do that.
"Scotland exports twice as much to England, Wales and Northern Ireland as to the rest of the world (Source Scottish Government)"
Yes. We do export a lot more to the rest of the UK than elsewhere. I'm glad that we have established that "trade is good". Why is this a point for the Union? Will people south of the border and across the Irish sea stop buying whisky from us if we become an independent country? Free trade is something that is enjoyed throughout the European Economic Area, all those signatory to the European Free Trade Agreement, and all those who are members of the European Union. Scotland can and will continue to trade a lot of stuff with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, if it becomes independent.
The only circumstances in which this is a legitimate point is if either Scotland or the Rest of the UK decides to withdraw completely from the EU, EEA and EFTA. Now I know there's more Euroscepticism down south than in Scotland, but at the very least, surely we can agree that total withdrawal from the single market is not a likely prospect for either prospective state. It is at least amusing to see Tories in the better together campaign articulate so effectively the benefits of free trade with our neighbours, something they so often overlook when talking about the European Union and related bodies. In any case, surely it is in Scotland's interests to diversify its export markets? It must be far healthier in the long run, surely, to sell more to developing economies like China, India, Brazil and Singapore than simply to constrain ourselves to modest exportation on the same set of islands. There is a massive untapped market out there crying out for stuff that we can and are making in Scotland. Irrespective of independence or otherwise, let's go get it.
"One in five workers in Scotland are employed by English, Welsh and Northern Irish firms. (Source HM Treasury)"
Good. Free movement of capital and workers is a great thing. Why is this an argument for the Union? English companies can operate in Scotland now, and they will still be able to on independence. Vice versa is also true. The laws governing companies and their operations is already distinct north and south of the border, with different rules applying. There is no clamour to alter radically company law in Scotland or the RUK, and English companies would face little, if any, problems continuing to operate and trade in Scotland, hiring Scottish people.
"31,000 workers in Scotland have jobs with the UK Government. (Source HMG Departmental Employment Statistics)"
Government work doesn't get abolished just because Scotland becomes an independent country. Those jobs are probably based in Scotland because they relate to administrative work relevant to Scotland (most likely operating out of the Scotland Office). With the transfer of competencies for things like foreign affairs, defence, taxation etc to Scotland itself, there would be a reduced demand for jobs in London (and by the way, a hugely disproportionate number of UK government jobs are in London), and that demand would instead fall in Scotland (admittedly mostly in Edinburgh, as the administrative capital and where the Scottish Parliament is). We'd need tax officers. We'd need a larger civil service to deal with our new competences (the cost of that being off-set by no longer funding the UK civil service). The work of government in Scotland would be more substantial to reflect the increased number and scope of decisions our state would have to take.
Even so, I'd question why a large UK government bureaucracy is an argument for the Union. Perhaps Westminster has been hiring too many people in a civil service capacity, meaning that there is less money to go directly into the provision of public services. The cut and thrust of this, though, has to be "government doesn't stop just because Better Together say so."
"Scottish banks were bailed out with £470 billion from UK taxpayers (Source: Scottish Parliament Information Centre & National Audit Office)"
I'll take the figures as read. Again, though, I'm asking "so what"? Scottish taxpayers money was thrown at transnational corporations with bases in Scotland and for what? To safeguard deposits? No; there was already a government guarantee scheme on those up to £35k per person at the time of the crisis in 2008. For borrowers? No; their loans weren't repayable on demand. If those banks went bust their loan agreement would become an asset to whatever phoenix banks or new organisation took them on, and would continue to be paid under the terms of the agreement. It seems to me that the UK government bailed out the banks simply because it could; not because it was necessarily the best idea. Sometimes having the powers of an economy of scale makes you do things you should really think twice about. If government is going to be tempted to make bad decisions I don't want to give it the chance to make them.
Other small countries like Iceland adopted a different approach to their banks. They let them default, because their governments could not bail them out. That way the actual risk takers (the bond-holders and the investors, and the chief executives) were the ones that lost out; not the ordinary taxpayer and not the ordinary customer. Iceland has recovered pretty strongly from the financial crisis so far, considering some started to label it as a basket case. It is certainly true that countries like Ireland and Spain have had more problems with their domestic banks, but that can be attributed to the huge political and socio-economic imbalances within the Eurozone. I could be wrong, but I don't think Scottish independence supporters are seriously contemplating joining a monetary union with massively macroeconomic and fiscal divergence any time soon. A Sterling zone certainly wouldn't do that any time soon and I don't see any fully developed economy queueing up to join the Euro in its current state. Put simply bailing out the banks wasn't the be all and end all of Scottish prosperity and it wouldn't be in an independent Scotland.
"800,000 Scots live and work in England and Wales without the need for papers or passports (Source General Registrar Office for Scotland)"
That's wonderful. People can live and work in other countries without passports or work permits. If only someone had thought of that idea before. Oh wait. They did. It's called the *European Union*. Any citizen of a member state of the European Union can move about and work in other member states and be treated just as a domestic citizen would. The UK currently has a treaty with the Republic of Ireland which allows people to move between the two countries without showing their passports at the land border, and a similar agreement exists among many European countries called the "Schengen Agreement", which removes border checks there too. Perhaps Better Together would like to explain to us why it is that, in an independent Scotland, there would have to be border posts at Gretna.
It would be politically very stupid for either the Scottish or a rUK government to refuse to enter into such a treaty. Certainly my understanding of the Scottish Government's position is they'd want such a treaty to be put in place, in the same way as the UK government maturely dealt with the question with the Irish. The ball is firmly in Westminster's court on this one. Again, though, I'm delighted that the Tories are joining a campaign on a principle that is central to the European Union of breaking down borders and welcoming people from other countries to live and work here without limits.
"The UK has the World's 2nd biggest aid budget, delivered by life-saving Scots in East Kilbride. (Source Department for International Development)"
I'm not going to go for the easy target here. Though I might be thought of as a "deficit hawk" I completely agree with the principle and goals of the international aid budget and though it needs reformed I think it should be much higher. The question I'd simply ask is this: why can't this continue post independence? What is it about an independent Scotland and a rUK state that makes them less likely to maintain that level of international development aid together? What is to stop them channelling that aid together through a treaty that shares the same institutions? What is to stop them co-ordinating that aid together through NGOs? Put simply, why does independence mean the combined IDA budgets of the successor states will fall and/or be less effective? Answers on a postcard, Better Together.
As an aside, well done East Kilbride. I don't know what you actually *do* or why you do it, but well done.
"The UK means Scots get a seat at the top table at the UN alongside Russia, China and America (The UK is a permanent member of the UN Security Council)"
I have a lot of sympathy with this argument. The way the UN is structured does give considerable incumbency power to the permanent members of the Security Council. Whether that *should* be the case is another matter, but in international relations we work with what we have. The permanency of that position is mostly predicated on the notion that the UK is a nuclear power. In the long-term, I'd rather we weren't, but I am realistic enough to know that the bargaining and nature of disarmament talks ought to benefit from a moderated voice such as our own in dealings with the Chinese, Russians and US.
An independence settlement would obviously have to address the question of what happens to the UK's nuclear-armed submarines (currently based in Faslane in Scotland). There is strong talk of an independent Scotland refusing to continue to host those weapons. I don't think that will happen (at least not immediately; there may be a transitional lease agreement with the rUK) but if we accept that they will eventually be removed, I struggle to foresee a situation where the rUK would decide simply not to relocate or replace them at an alternative port (even if it isn't as strategically convenient a place).
If they did seek to disarm, I would hope that they would do so in the wider context of disarmament discussions internationally, and that they'd seek assurances of their place on the Security Council, at least for long enough that a proper discussion about its governing structures could take place. The threat to having a moderated "European" or "British" voice on the UN Security Council is, though, both indirect and modest in the event of Scottish independence.
There is a legitimate question, in any case, as to what the Scottish people actually see as their role in the world. Institutions like the UN and NATO have clearly done some good, but they have also been seen as quite aggressive uses of military and diplomatic power by large states on those less able to defend themselves. You don't hear Australia, New Zealand and Canada asking to become part of the UK again to have their voice heard at the table of the Security Council. Independence gives states more freedom to decide which conflicts and international agreements they want to involve themselves in. You have to ask yourself, to what extent do the views of ordinary Scots (or for that matter, ordinary Brits) are reflected in the actions of the UK as their "representative" political actor in international politics. I suspect not a lot. If the UK is making good decisions in international forums, I suspect an independent Scotland would support them. Independence doesn't mean completely divorcing ourselves from international political consensus; on the contrary it gives us greater flexibility as to when we want a part in it.
"Scots save billions on the cost of mortgages due to the UK's AAA credit rating. (Source HMT Analysis)"
First of all, I want to know what the assumptions are here. Billions saved as opposed to what? The *UK* having a poorer credit rating? Scotland itself having a poorer credit rating? Are they implying that an independent Scotland would not be able to sustain a AAA credit rating? What are the economic assumptions for that? How are you linking the government's credit rating to the solvency and liquidity of banks (and thus by extension, the security and cost of ordinary citizens' mortgage agreements)? To what extent do the nominal credit ratings and central bank interest rates of the UK actually correlate to real-world commercial lending? What is it specifically about an independent Scotland that would change that? We need an explanation before we can meaningfully assess what the actual comparator is here, and how likely it is.
Further, I want to know *how many* billions are being saved here. There were, as of 2010, 2,357,424 dwellings in Scotland. (Estimates of Households and Dwellings in Scotland, 2010: Table 1). If we assume that all of them had mortgages (which they don't), a saving of £1 billion over all of the mortgages would be the equivalent of about £424. Because they haven't substantiated this claim, we can't say exactly how many billions (thus how many times we'd have to multiply that £424 figure) or whether this is annually or over the course of the entire mortgage. If it is annually, that does look like a reasonable saving. For many that will be the equivalent to an extra two months' repayments every year. If, however it's over the course of the entire mortgage, that's a saving of less than 0.5% of the value of the median house price in Scotland. That's minute. Most would barely notice that difference over a 25 year period.
This claim can accurately be summed up as weasel words and blank assertion. It provides no analysis as to whether credit ratings are actually particularly accurate reflections of underlying economic performance, it provides no analysis of why UK institutions are specifically stronger than would be Scottish ones, and it provides no analysis as to why a minor change in Scotland's credit rating would significantly affect the cost of a mortgage to your average Scottish home-buyer.
"The pensions of 1 million Scots are guaranteed by the UK welfare system. (Source Department for Work and Pensions)"
It's official. According to Better Together, the UK Government is the only government capable of raising funds for, and paying funds out for, the pensions of old people and those formerly employed by the state. There is no analysis here at all about why these pensions cannot or will not be protected in an independent Scotland. They have not explained why this is an argument for the Union. This is like saying "the trees in Scotland are green with it as part of the UK. This is an excellent argument for why Scotland and the UK are better together".
And that's just the point
To me, these claims, with the honourable exception of realpolitik with the UN on foreign policy, represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the debate by Better Together. It's not enough simply to say "there's lots of nice stuff in the UK". You have to explain, rather than simply state, why these nice things cannot, or are less likely to be able to be, achieved in an independent Scotland working in partnership with the rest of the UK and Europe. You have to explain specifically why it is that these things are only made possible with a UK. You have to explain why Scotland won't still work closely with the UK on issues like trade, international development aid, foreign policy.
You also have to explain why the UK is best placed to deliver more in decentralised and effective democratic government than an independent Scotland. You need to show the Scottish people that you're serious about proper federalism or significant transfers of taxation and legislative powers to the Scottish Government, rather than piecemeal changes like the new Scotland Act. You have to show Scotland why the social union between our countries cannot survive without the political institutions of Westminster and its relatives. You have to show us why those political institutions represent a better way of doing things (either as they are now, or with specific and prioritised reforms) than to transfer those powers to Holyrood and to let Scotland remould its own institutions with its own new Constitutional Convention in the run up to establishing a new independent country.
|Yes Scotland: you'll have to do better than|
social democracy milk and honey too
But as I have indicated, I don't see answers coming from BetterTogether. None. None at all. There has to be a stronger case for the Union than that. If there isn't, then I cannot for the life of me understand why YesScotland aren't miles ahead in the polls. This debate has to get a lot smarter on both sides and it has to do it soon. Independence is not about speculation about which constitutional settlement gives you the most stuff; it's about being the country we want to be, with the institutions we want to have, and regaining control of our society and moulding it into what we want it to be.