The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. So Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond rejoiced this week as he stood beside counterpart Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign. Having fallen short of the mark in the first debate, the SNP man had the rare opportunity to recover lost ground. For 90 minutes the pair locked horns in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery, peddling two very different visions of Scotland; one separate from the United Kingdom after 300 years of political union, the other in a quasi-federal partnership with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. With election day edging ever closer, it was closing time at last chance saloon.
Not one to stand on ceremony, Alex Salmond immediately deviated from his rhetorical norm and flipped the fundamental question on its head: what are the risks of staying in the United Kingdom. To this end, he recapped 18 years of unpopular Conservative rule and drew upon issues ranging from the undue loss of oil revenues to a lack of control over NHS purse strings to build his case. He declared that failed Westminster reforms have been directly responsible for putting 100,000 extra children at risk of poverty.
But it was on the delicate subject of currency that Mr Salmond really changed tack – no longer was he suggesting that his audience pore over the SNP manifesto for an elusive ‘plan B’. Instead he offered ‘three Plan Bs for the price of one’ and a request for a mandate to negotiate use of the pound sterling. He reasoned that Westminster would be much more receptive to public pressure than the demands of one politician, and besides, why should Scotland shoulder £100 billion of the UK’s debt if it cannot benefit from monetary union? SNP lieutenants wasted no time in disseminating this message to the media. Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney even used a panel discussion to suggest that ‘if the UK is going to seize the assets then it is welcome to all the liabilities…we won’t be having any of them’.
Yet Westminster would be perfectly entitled to veto a monetary union. Mr Darling pointed out that such an agreement would be anathema in Westminster, and make the UK liable for bailing-out Scotland’s banks in a financial crisis. Doggedly pursing ‘sterlingisation’ would be a ‘huge risk’, especially when 133 companies have publicly stated that ‘the business case for independence has not been made’. The last thing Holyrood can afford is the mass exodus of commerce south of the border, particularly when ‘the United Kingdom gives business the strong platform [it] must have to invest in jobs and industry.’ The fact remains that the British pound is a symbol of corporate stability and must inevitably have mechanisms to protect it. Former Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell has made it clear that even a successful currency union would require Scotland to ‘forgo some sovereignty and allow a central body to vet [its] budgets’.
As the dust settled, Mr Salmond could comfortably claim victory; although his was not necessarily the strongest argument, it was more resonant and better delivered. However, with the ‘no’ campaign still ahead in the polls, the SNP faces a particularly galling home straight. At the very least, the question of independence has stimulated a healthy public debate on the nature of Scottish identity and the administrative demands of political union. Scotland has proved once again that it is founded upon a rich and illustrious culture worthy of further devolved powers, and these are now all but guaranteed.
Whether independence comes into fruition or not, the Scottish experience has potentially far reaching implications. From an English perspective, questions must surely be asked about participation in national politics and how parliament can better serve local communities, especially when Greater London with its own assembly dwarfs the rest of the country. Should regional government now look to an English parliament as part of a more federalised system? After all, England is the only constituent nation not to have an assembly and, owing to the nuances of the West Lothian question, is arguably underrepresented.
Lib Dem Councillor Richard Kemp, a 30-year veteran of Liverpool City Council, has asked why ‘if better Government is ensured by a transfer of powers from London to Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh…[it] would not be better ensured by transferring power over similar services to the English regions’. He gives the example of North-West England, which ‘would really flourish if [it] had political control [over] fiscal policy and the development of regional…services such as health, housing and education’. And to his naysayers he offers two ripostes: ‘The North-West…has a population and a GDP that is very similar to Scotland. The Liverpool City Region alone has a population and a GDP which is similar in size to Northern Ireland.’ The statistics are difficult to argue against.
Somewhere between the Coalition’s ‘Big Society’ and the apparent neglect of England’s northern cities can be found a delicious irony, but an English parliament could well address the imbalance. It is no secret that London is home to a disproportionately large segment of the British economy, and whilst HS2 portends to reverse the problem, it could just as well intensify traffic to the south. Perfect ammunition for Ed Miliband were his party not so passive. Perhaps this will be a key policy point for the next Minister for Communities and Local Government, whether Eric Pickles, Hilary Benn or someone else. In the meantime, Britain looks anxiously to September 18th, wondering what the future holds. Independence or not, constitutional reform is on the agenda.
He was formerly Head of Policy at the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). With degrees in history and economics from the Universities of Oxford and London, Jake is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a trustee of the European Association of Philanthropy and Giving and advises several governments on public policy. He also advises clients on CSR and philanthropy activities.
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