The mood music in much of the Scottish press is that it’s all doom and gloom for the No campaign, and that “momentum” is building in favour of a Yes vote in September. Some of my Nationalist friends are making the basic political mistake of believing their own propaganda and are beginning to lose their heads. One even wrote to me last weekend suggesting that it was time I self-administered some Hemlock. Such a lovely thought, that even one’s friends wish upon their political opponents the curse of suicide.
Never has it been more important to remember that we Unionists will win this referendum campaign by being the reasonable ones. Let the petty Nationalists trade in poison. The one thing we won’t do is to win the argument by descending to their gutter level.
So … time for a cool, hard-headed and clear-eyed analysis of why it is that the media mood has turned up the heat on the No campaign. There are four reasons for it: the polls; the Labour party’s proposals for further devolution; reported tensions within the Better Together campaign; and the idiot rogue minister who told the Guardian that there could be a currency union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK, despite the concluded view to the contrary of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Shadow Chancellor, and the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury.
In this post I consider each of these in turn and I show that, on analysis, none is actually bad for the No camp and, moreover, that none will help Yes.
The polls and the media
For more than 18 months, from the launch of Yes Scotland and Better Together in the early summer of 2012 until the turn of the year, the polls were remarkably stubborn. For all the fire and brimstone, for all the bluff and bluster, and for all the claims and counter-claims, No was holding a comfortable lead and Yes was stuck in the 30s. This makes for lousy news. “Polls still not moving” is a rubbish headline. I did a lot of media in 2013, broadcast and print. I could see journalist after journalist pulling their hair out, desperate for a new angle. Old school news-hounds were struggling to make news out of hashtag indyref. And for good reason: nothing was happening. What did these reporters want to happen? For the polls to move. It didn’t matter which way: what mattered was that they moved at all. “No are soaring away, out of reach, over the finishing line with a year still to run.” There’s a story. Likewise “Yes are catching up, within touching distance, the outcome now too close to call”.
In 2014 the polls have moved. Not a lot. Just a little. But they have moved. Whereas in the last quarter of 2013 Yes were averaging at about 39% they are now averaging at about 42%. It’s no longer 60-something 30-something, but 50-something 40-something. If I was a Yes campaigner, I would not be jumping up and down about this: 58:42 behind means losing the referendum by some hundreds of thousands of votes. That’s not close. That’s not putting the result into the too-close-to-call category. That’s an unambiguous win for No. And that’s what the polls tell us we’re heading for.
Actually, that’s what some of the polls tell us we’re heading for. More accurately, it’s what the pollsters tell us. When actual votes are taken, the SNP do much worse than this. Schools up and down the country have held mock votes in which, routinely, No out-polls Yes not by three-to-two but by two-to-one or sometimes even three-to-one. Scotland’s newly enfranchised young voters are showing no enthusiasm for independence. And neither are older voters in any of the various council and Holyrood by-elections we’ve had in Scotland in the last couple of years. The picture, over and again, is of Unionist parties securing many times more votes than a declining SNP are able to muster.
None of this means that we should be complacent about the result. Yes will throw everything they’ve got at this campaign. This is their one chance. This is what the SNP have been waiting for for eighty years. And we should likewise throw everything we’ve got at ensuring that Scotland’s place in the Union, and indeed in the world, is not jeopardised by the folly of separation. How could we be complacent when there is so much at stake? But we should be confident. Confident that we have the arguments, that we will make them with clear heads and proud hearts, that fact will defeat fantasy, and that fearless questioning of the SNP’s foolishness will deliver for Scotland – and for Britain – the right result. A bit like this, perhaps.
More powers now!
It’s been said many times, albeit not by very many people, that a key component of No’s winning strategy should be to make a compelling counter-offer. The SNP have set out their vision of Scotland’s future as an independent state. What is our rival vision of Scotland’s future within the Union? How should the Scottish Parliament be taken forward and develop? Where next for devolution? The longer the campaign runs the more the evidence mounts that this is an obsession of a small number of commentators and not a major factor on the doorstep. If most Scots have only a vague idea of what the Scottish Parliament does now, how can it be the settled will of the Scottish people, still less their informed opinion, that Holyrood should have “more powers now”? What Scots want, it seems to me, is a strong sense of Scottish autonomy within the Union. The truth is that we could have that now – and we could have had it for years – had the ample powers of the Scottish Parliament been used to nurture it. For the Scottish Parliament is already responsible for nearly two-thirds of public spending in Scotland. It runs our health service, our schools, universities and nurseries, our criminal and civil justice systems, our police force. It has extensive powers over arts and culture, transport and the environment, local government and planning, and much, much else besides. Yet still the inchoate demand for “more powers now” goes up.
What more powers? Beyond the SNP’s hard-core there is no appetite that Holyrood should take charge of foreign or defence policy, immigration, monetary policy or financial services regulation. Fuelled by largely ill-informed criticism of the “bedroom tax” (which is not, in fact, a tax at all) there is an emergent sense that some aspects of welfare, or social security as we used to call it, should be devolved. But when pollsters ask whether unemployment benefit should be any different in Scotland from the rest of the UK, or whether the state pension should be any different in Scotland, overwhelming majorities say No. If there is no desire to see these matters done differently north of the border, why devolve them? Should the state pension in Scotland be paid for from tax receipts drawn from all parts of the UK, or should it become the responsibility uniquely of Scottish taxpayers? Again the clear answer is that it should be the former. And when put like this, the oft-asserted clamour for “more powers now” crumbles.
This is not to say that there ought to be no further welfare devolution. If there are parts of the social security budget that are closely tied to substantive powers already devolved to Holyrood, then there is at least a powerful prima facie reason for considering their transfer to Edinburgh. Public housing is a devolved responsibility in Scotland, for example. So why not devolve housing benefit? Likewise, social care is a matter for which Scottish Ministers are responsible in Scotland. So why not devolve the attendance allowance? And so on.
But, seriously folks, does anyone really think that the independence referendum is going to be won or lost on the basis of whether or not housing benefit and the attendance allowance are to be devolved at some point in the future? Come on. What might have greater salience is a suggestion made by the IPPR’s recent report on welfare devolution, that there should be a general and unrestricted power of competence in the Scottish Parliament to add to the social security benefits legislated for by Westminster. On this model, the UK would set the floor, but not necessarily the ceiling. Scots would be entitled to at least the same welfare benefits as people in the rest of the UK but, if Holyrood legislated for it (and, of course, paid for it) they may have access to additional entitlements as well.
Even if I’m generally sceptical of the “more powers now” argument, however, I am absolutely committed to the reform of devolution. The Scottish Parliament is grossly imbalanced. Its budget is massive – approaching £36 billion – but its 129 members are responsible for raising only a fraction of the money they spend. What is needed, it seems to me, is not “more powers” so MSPs can spend even more of our money, but responsibilities to match the extensive powers which the Scottish Parliament already enjoys. Now, there is no federal or “multi-layer” system anywhere in the world where the “sub-state” legislature (to use the jargon) is responsible for raising the whole of its budget. The US states, the Canadian provinces, the German Länder: none have the power to raise through taxation or borrowing all of the money they spend. But the fiscal powers of the Scottish Parliament are weak in comparison with the US, Canada and Germany. Even after the new tax regime of the Scotland Act 2012 comes fully into force Holyrood will be responsible for raising less than one third of its budget – that is to say, less than one fifth of the public money spent in Scotland.
It is this gap between what the Scottish Parliament is responsible for spending and what it is responsible for raising that I would like to see closed. Why? For several reasons, not least because it is offensive in point of principle to have an elected Parliament that is responsible only for spending someone else’s money. Politicians should be required to face the voters whose money they are seeking to spend, to explain to us how and why they want to tax us. Unlike the prospective devolution of individual bits of the welfare budget, conferring on the Scottish Parliament serious fiscal powers (i.e., powers to tax us) is likely to transform the role of Scottish Ministers and the public perception of the Scottish Parliament. If what we crave is a strong sense of autonomy within the Union, what we need in order to realise this is a grown-up Parliament, responsible for making on our behalf the most difficult decisions about who, what and when to tax.
Sadly, the Scottish Labour party does not agree. Its proposals for further devolution fall painfully short. They recognise that “the tax system is at the centre of the state and its relationship with citizens, households and commercial organisations” but they want to keep the Scottish Parliament at arm’s length from that relationship, whereas it should be at its heart. Under Labour’s proposals setting the basic rate of income tax for Scottish taxpayers would be split between the UK Government and Scottish Ministers, such that one quarter of that rate would be set in Westminster and three-quarters in Holyrood. In addition, Holyrood would be given the power to increase, but not to decrease, the higher rates of income tax (currently 40% and 45%). Labour calculate that these powers would mean that the Scottish Parliament would be responsible for raising another £2 billion of its budget. Whilst it is true that these proposals would help close the fiscal gap to some degree, they are far too limited and constrained to generate the full sense of fiscal responsibility that the Scottish Parliament needs if it is truly to develop.
Labour’s plans were met with derision – especially among those commentators who have long been signed-up members of the “more powers now” school. Labour’s plans are grudging, ill-thought through, and obviously the product of a badly divided party, which does not know what to do with the devolved institutions it created fifteen years ago. The proposals are a compromise of an already compromised party. Worse, they are nakedly partisan. To propose that Holyrood should have the power to increase rates of income tax on the wealthier members of society but not to decrease the rates of income tax for anyone is so one-sided that it is nothing less than constitutional gerrymandering. It’s also completely incoherent. Done in the name of avoiding a “race to the bottom” by means of tax competition, it actually facilitates tax competition, albeit only a one-way competition in which income tax can go up and up and up but never down. In truth it’s got nothing whatever to do with tax competition: the real rationale for Labour’s cock-eyed proposals is their fear of the West Lothian Question. If Holyrood had the core of the power over income tax for Scottish taxpayers, why would we still need 59 Scottish MPs in the House of Commons on Budget Day? The more responsible the Scottish Parliament becomes for policy (including fiscal policy) north of the border, the more urgently we require to address Scotland’s over-representation in the Commons. The West Lothian Question has been parked for too long. It’s time for a West Lothian Answer. With enhanced fiscal devolution for Scotland, fairness to the other nations of the United Kingdom demands that Scots’ over-representation in the Commons comes to an end.
No doubt that’s part of the reason why Labour’s devolution proposals were so underwhelming. But regardless of the reasons for it, underwhelming they were. Does this matter much in terms of the independence referendum campaign? My judgment is that it really does not. What matters is that all the Unionist parties are committed to further devolution for Scotland. The detail of precisely what further devolution grabs the attention of only the tiniest number of voters. It may matter to the commentariat, to the handful of academics (like me) who write about these things. But in the real world? I don’t think so.
I think Labour know this. Certainly there was evidence in their spring conference that they had grasped it. The proposals published by the Devolution Commission were not the highlight of the conference. Far from it. Much more important was an altogether different document. The report of the Devolution Commission is 297 pages long. Its main text comprises 659 paragraphs. My guess is that it will be read by fewer than 659 people, and probably by fewer than 297. (I’ve read it, so that’s one.) Altogether shorter, and much better written, was a glossy little number launched at the conference by Anas Sarwar MP, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader. This is a hugely upbeat document, which loudly celebrates what Labour consider to be their achievements and sets out an unambiguously positive message about what Scottish Labour wants to do in the future.
Together We Can is crammed with Labour positives. It’s all about transforming lives, a common purpose, a fairer Scotland, big challenges and radical policies, solidarity, equality and social justice. It’s full of great Labour lines – believing in something bigger than independence – pooling and sharing resources – sharing power for the benefit of all the people in the United Kingdom. It’s got some real passion in it. It’s a hugely important document, because it is in this “Red Paper” (red is everywhere in it) that the Scottish Labour party has finally found its voice again. You may say that it’s empty rhetoric, that it’s merely aspirational rather than deliverable, that it contains precious few actual policies and even fewer that are costed. (Unless you share their vision of big government you may also say that it’s a terrifying lurch to the left.) But it’s what the people who live in my neighbourhood and in countless similar neighbourhoods across Glasgow and west central Scotland have been aching to hear. My neighbours don’t want separation from their comrades and cousins south of the border. But they do want to vote for a party that goes out of its way to do as if it represents them. We’ve heard far too little of this from Scottish Labour in the last, well, decade. There’s been not only a lack but a near total absence of confidence. There have been plenty of tribal attacks on the SNP but there’s been very little positive about why the Scottish working class should come back to Labour. Now, finally, Scottish Labour has woken up again. And unlike the report of the Devolution Commission, this message will be read. There’s to be a two-page summary of Together We Can mailed between now and 18 September to every household in Scotland. This matters, and it matters a whole lot more to ordinary voters in neighbourhoods such as mine than the finer points of who should set which rates of income tax and whether housing benefit should be devolved in 2017 or 2018.
The third thing the media have hit us with in the last couple of weeks are scare stories about the dysfunctionality of Better Together. It’s badly led, we’re told. Its chief executive is out of his depth. They waste too much time on Twitter. They’re not getting their message out where it matters. They’re being out-spent, out-fought and out-manoeuvred by Yes Scotland. And so on. Yet, what you never hear is just how remarkable a body Better Together is. British politics is tribal, sometimes brutally so. Scottish politics is tribal, almost always brutally so. Yet here we have a genuine cross-party pan-Unionist campaign group that is working together to try to defeat the machine politics of the SNP. Yes, I know that the Greens, the SSP, and other assorted Trots and lunatics of the deep-freeze far left are also hangers-on at Yes HQ. But, really, any pretence that this is anything other than an SNP-led and an SNP-funded operation has long since melted away.
Within Better Together there are bound to be tensions. And in today’s 24/7 news media there’s bound to be the occasional leak of an argument here or a disagreement there. Fortunately, the media-saturated public doesn’t get as excited about these things as bored newsmen with nothing much else to report.
Of course, we all have our frustrations with Better Together, just as the SNP and the Scottish Government have their evident frustrations with Blair Jenkins and his leadership of Yes Scotland. But the answer is not to sit on the sidelines and point the finger. The answer is to get involved, get out on the campaign trail and pull your finger out. My personal frustration with Better Together is that I live in a constituency in Glasgow that was once rock-solid safe Labour and which the SNP won by a single-figure margin in 2011. You would have thought that Better Together would have targeted the area where I live in order to stop it slipping further into YeSNP hands. Yet, whilst we’ve had several Yes newspapers pushed through the door and at least one Yes meeting in the local community hall, there’s been neither sight nor sound of Better Together. So, within the last few days, I got in touch with them on their website, plugged in my details, and within 36 hours I’d been invited to go canvassing in my neighbourhood this coming weekend, which I shall do. I’m reassured also that the famed sophistication of the SNP machine must be at least slightly over-stated if their activists are blowing resources by pushing their literature through my front door. There ain’t too many Yes voters in my house!
Currency union redux
The final nail in the Unionists’ apparent coffin, and the immediate cause of my friend’s ill-judged Hemlock remark, was the Guardian story on Saturday that an unnamed minister in the UK Government had “admitted” that, as the SNP have asserted all along, the Chancellor ruling out any currency union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK was a campaign bluff and that of course the rUK would not desert the Scots in the event that they vote Yes in September. It is fair to say that the immediate reaction amongst my most well-informed Unionist friends to this front-page story was wild fury. It was demanded that heads roll, that the culprit be not only sacked but shot, and that the damage to the UK’s credibility caused by the story was such a gift to the Nats that it could be the very game-changer Mr Salmond is said to need. I confess: for a day or two I shared in all this – the fury, the demand for retribution, and the fear that our credibility was shot. But I was wrong. Fury is said to be blind for a reason, I now see.
This has given the Nats nothing. That is to say, it has given the Nats nothing that they weren’t claiming anyway. They already said that ruling out a currency union was “bluff, bluster and bullying”. It isn’t any of these things. As I explained in a long post here a few weeks ago, the judgment that the rest of the UK could not sign up to a currency union with an independent Scotland is one that is firmly based on an accurate reading of the Treasury’s independent and expert economic analysis, reinforced by a hard-headed and deeply realistic sense that, in any event, the House of Commons would never agree to the ceding to Scotland of the political sovereignty which would be required in order to make a currency union work successfully. To have the Chancellor, the Shadow Chancellor, the Prime Minister’s office, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Scotland, and many others, take to the airwaves yet again in the last week to reinforce and explain all this is not terrible for the No campaign. But it is bad news for the Yes campaign.
It’s bad for Yes because it puts back into play the deep uncertainty in people’s minds about the currency that an independent Scotland would use. As I’ve explained before, ruling out a currency union does not mean that Scotland cannot use the pound. But it does mean that the conditions under which Scotland could use the pound are seriously unattractive. So unattractive, indeed, that the SNP’s own fiscal commission concluded that it would not be in Scotland’s national interest. As with the argument about “more powers now”, I sense that it’s not the detail of the issue that will make the difference. What will get through to the voters is simply that there is great uncertainty about the currency an independent Scotland will use. There’ll be no currency union. But will we still use the pound anyway? Or will we use some new currency of our own? If so, will it be pegged to the pound, or will it be allowed to float freely? And is the only long-term monetary future for an independent Scotland not to join the euro, one day?
The truth is: we don’t know. I don’t know. You don’t know. The SNP don’t know. Yes Scotland certainly don’t know. The only thing we do know is that the SNP’s preferred position on the currency is not going to happen. All three Unionist parties have ruled it out not only for good economic reasons but for sound political reasons too. And that the SNP prefers to give greater credence to an unnamed, invisible, unknown minister talking out of turn to the Guardian rather than to the clear, authoritative, expert and published judgment of the Governor of the Bank of England and the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury speaks volumes as to how desperate they are to hear only that with which they already agree.
The bread and butter of my day job is to teach law. One of the first and most important lessons we law professors try to get across to our students is that not all arguments carry equal weight. Some are better than others. It’s often hard to tell which ones are right. But it can be much easier to identify those which are plainly wrong.
We Unionists have the arguments on our side. We have a little over five months to make sure those arguments are heard and understood. Get out there and join me in making the case. Let reason prevail over folly. Let the weight of facts and argument crush the bluster and nonsense of the Nationalists. Keep your heads. We’re winning. Be part of it.