Scottish Independence plenty of questions but few answers…

Image © The Laird of Oldham

James Withnail-Woolf

The progressive case for and against Scottish Independence was made on May 13 by Gordon Brown and Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. Both speeches encapsulate the divisions on the left over the future of the Union.

According to Gordon Brown the British Isles are stronger when resources are combined; economic strength allows equitable distribution and social justice for all. Brown has explored these issues recently which explains why his ad lib lines are well rehearsed. He paid deference to the Scottish Parliament, and then placed his case against independence firmly within Labours hinterland. Although, Tony Blair could not have made such a speech, one doubts if he is aware of John Wheatley or James Maxton. Brown has been acknowledging the heroes of the Scottish left since the 1970s when he edited the Red Paper on Scotland.

Brown`s speech hinted at a Scottish socialist inheritance, whilst extolling the virtues of democratic centralism. Listening to this speech it`s difficult to believe Brown played a leading role in the government which introduced devolution. After all, it`s this policy which finally released the constitutional genie from the bottle. Brown has always been a strong advocate of Scottish devolution his first speech to the Labour Party Conference in 1976 outlined his commitment to the policy and the Red Paper on Scotland had a devolutionary flavour. Ironic that he has now become the spokesperson for Unionism.

Brown employed a clever technique during his May 13 speech, taking us on a journey through Scotland as he sign posted key Scottish and Labour figures from the past. They had all contributed to important Scottish institutions, whilst promoting the need for a British Labour Party, trade union movement and Welfare State. This excursion through Scotland did not include Lossiemouth but Brown`s general point was well made – after all its a technique he has been using for a very long time.

When we fail to pool resources within the UK Brown argued, we face a race to the bottom. An independent Scotland for example, would introduce its own minimum wage which could be undercut by competing nations within Britain. He highlighted Corporation Tax which provides £3 Billion per year to the UK exchequer. The SNP, according to Brown, plan to reduce this in line with the Irish Republic. With a loss of £1:5 billion – forcing other nations in Britain to follow Scotland`s example. Less Corporation Tax means reductions in health and education.

Brown pointed out that since 1908 Scotland has received a greater share of the pension dividend than any other part of the UK. One pound in every six, despite the fact that Scotland has only a twelfth of the population. Brown then explained that Scotland`s ageing population is increasing, a cohort who rightly expect to receive a UK pension. Brown suggested with reference to a leaked SNP document, that on the day after Scottish Independence, a working party would be set up to look into the affordability of Pensions. The inference is clear, that when the pension burden is carried throughout the UK, pensions are less vulnerable. But pensions are at risk if Scotland goes it alone.

Brown claimed the `dogma of separation` dominated SNP thinking. The SNP recognised an independent Scotland would remain part of the UK currency system, whilst interest rates would be set in London. This would provide an independent Scotland with no democratic controls over a range of economic measures, such as the setting of mortgage payments. Gordon Brown mainly focused on economic and social arguments but pointed out that in 1707 only 2% of Scots had English relatives. Today that figure is 50%, such close bonds may not stop the union breaking up.

Nicola Sturgeon`s speech began slowly as she described the referendum campaign. This is understandable; the existence of this plebiscite is a huge victory for the SNP, and a by-product of electoral success. In her initial comment Nicola Sturgeon pointed out that regardless of the referendum result, Scotland had firmly established it was an identifiable nation in its own right. Scotland was an equal partner, a reality she said enshrined in the Act of Union 1707 although the `No Campaign` disparaged this notion, caricaturing Scotland as the poor relation.

Sturgeon stated that Scotland was economically strong and more than capable of running its own affairs. Scotland she said had over the last 30 years paid more in taxation than any other area of the UK. And that Pensions and Health could be provided in an independent Scotland. She condemned the `No campaign` for indulging in the politics of fear. The UK, she argued, would not work against its own interest if the people of Scotland voted `Yes`.

Sturgeon didn’t address the issue of the democratic deficit, linked to the setting of interest rates in London. However, she did highlight another discrepancy, where a Scottish electorate consistently vote for progressive policies only to find they are governed by a reactionary Westminster government. For example the recent austerity programme has not been mandated by the Scottish electorate.

Sturgeon pointed out that the `No Campaign` has issued 500 questions to those who are campaigning for independence. She didn’t attempt to answer these but asked some questions of her own: 

  • Will the UK still be a member of the European Union in 2020?
  • How much more means testing will be introduced in the benefits system by 2020?
  • What will the UK retirement age be in 2020?
  • How many children in Scotland will still be living in poverty in 2020?
  • What will happen to the Scottish NHS via the Barnett formula as the English NHS is increasingly privatised?
  • Will there be a bedroom tax in 2020?
  • How many billions of pounds will be spent by Scottish tax payers to keep Trident on the Clyde?
  • Will the UK still have a HRA in 2020 and if not what will the implications be for Scotland`s distinctive legal system?
  • Will the UK still be the fourth most unequal country in the developed world in 2020?
  • Will Scotland`s long term economic growth rate still lag behind competitors in 2020?
  • Is there any guarantee that Scotland will have voted for the government that is power in 2020? Or will it be yet again another government elected against the wishes of the people?
  • Will the Scottish Parliament have any more additional powers beyond those in the Scotland Act – and if so precisely what will they be?

An independent Scotland could become a haven of progressive measures; a template for others to follow but an independent Scotland doesn’t necessarily guarantee progressive measures and that is something the left in Scotland need to consider.

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