Talking at Edinburgh University Business School earlier this month, Jeremy Peat from the David Hume Institute (and formerly head economist at RBS) reckons that the debate on independence for Scotland needs the injection of some rational thinking, so that voters can make an informed decision in the referendum next year.
His beef is that there are a lot of questions, and each side is picking its answers politically, rather than factually: for example, his institute produced a paper on the possible range of oil income; one newspaper printed only the lower limit, and the campaign for the opposing argument used only the upper limit. Neither is wrong, but both warp the discussion – and confuse people by promoting the figure which supports their argument as “fact”.
Peat set out to clarify what the questions are, and what the options might be. He doesn’t have a fixed viewpoint, and wouldn’t say whether he was pro- or anti-independence. Indeed, he believed remaining objective was key, giving access to all parties and bringing informed debate to their arguments.
He covered both macro and micro economic issues.
The main macro concern is the currency, where he saw four options:
- keep formal currency union with the UK
- use sterling as a parallel currency (just as some countries use the US dollar) without formal currency union
- join the euro
- establish a new, Scottish currency
No surprise there, then. For me, this is the crucial matter. But Peat went on to identify several issues around the currency.
Both a formal currency union and adoption of the euro would introduce strict fiscal and monetary constraints. Monetary policy would be set by either the BoE or the ECB, and Scotland would have limited influence over either.
Adopting the euro would take time to negotiate following independence (including membership of the EU and the need to meet the euro stability requirements, which could take years), and there would need to be an interim solution; similarly, the UK government has said that an independent Scotland would need to negotiate currency union. The impact on borrowing and trade under any option need to be assessed. (Peat recommended a paper by Brian Quinn, a Scot and former deputy governor of the Bank of England, on the impact of currency on an independent Scotland [PDF].)
Under any currency solution, who would be the lender of last resort? What about bank regulation? These are things that can only be decided once the result of the referendum is known, but the make a rational decision, the options and likely outcomes need to be considered.
Peat did say that Scotland wouldn’t be wholly independent inked it controlled its own monetary and fiscal policies – that is, its own currency. This may be why some of the Yes campaign have come out in favor of an independent currency, despite the SNP favouring sterling. (I couldn’t find a statement on the Yes campaign website – they do not have a search function on their website [at least not one I could find] – and the SNP doesn’t mention “sterling”, “pound” or “currency” in its vision.) There would however be significant costs transitioning from sterling, and small countries with a stable currency tend to have very rigid monetary and fiscal policies to protect the value of their currency. Any benefits of independent mindset and fiscal policies could therefore be lost.
The other major macro issue concerns the public finances. The global economic situation means that an independent Scotland would be starting from a very weak position. Public spending in Scotland is higher than the non-North Sea tax take from Scotland; the difference is generally made up by the income from oil and gas. The value of the income from the North Sea is therefore crucial, and depends on the price of hydrocarbons, the volume of production – and the basis of taxation. These are unknowable, though it is possible to estimate likely ranges. (These are the figures which Peat was irritated had been taken out of context, each side quoting the figure which supported their argument rather than the range in context.)
Much would depend on the share of government debt taken on by Scotland. There’s a lot of uncertainty about this. For instance, what comprises government debt? There’s government borrowing; a share of the RBS and HBoS bailouts; public pension liabilities. What about the decommissioning liability for nuclear power stations? The cost of decommissioning North Sea installations? Rail infrastructure? And so on. Much of this is unknowable – but of course it is possible to estimate these debts, and to model what it might mean for the economy.
The micro issues Peat discussed mostly involved the opportunities that existed for policy which an independent government would need to decide and enact. These were legion. What would competition policy look like? Financial regulation? Transport (though already a devolved power)? Energy policy? All these need regulation, as well – the competition for economists might mean a boom in wages… There would need to be the creation (or duplication!) of all sorts of institutions, including an equivalent to the Office of Budget Responsibility to keep government accountable. (Peat suggested the “Scottish Office of Budgetary Accountability” – or SoBA…)
The policy involving the non-Scottish bits of UK-wide firms represents lots of issues. How about cross-border mergers and transactions (and that is after the currency has been decided…). The interactions with the rest of the UK over all sorts of matters could become key – and might involve all sorts of transaction costs.
Once policies have been decided – government’s role – implementation and regulation would down to other bodies, operated at arm’s-length from government to reduce political interference. What others might call quangos. The establishment of these might cause a surge in the demand for skilled economists, administrators – and change managers (like me! I definitely see a way of hedging my bets here…). The SNP has set out a timetable to independence following a “yes” vote of about 18 months. Not long to get all the institutional infrastructure set up. Where will these skills come from? And what will this mean for business competing for the same talent?
One of the key benefits of independence identified by Peat would be freedom over taxation. Under devolution, the Scotland Act 2012 allows the Scottish government to set income tax and land transactions tax (currently stamp duty). An independent Scotland could completely revamp the tax system – simplifying it (and therefore saving individuals and businesses large costs in fulfilling their obligations), and designing it to meet specific policy objectives. This could be quite powerful in driving policy outcomes and the economy. (ICAS have an extensive report on the practicalities of tax devolution [PDF].)
It is hard to know how an independent Scotland would perform. David Skilling reckons that that small countries outperform larger ones, though Peat thought the jury was still out on that one. The psychological outcome of independence might be positive – the “Braveheart” factor – which could spur innovation, but of course (as so much else) this is unknowable before independence. (It would be interesting to see if there were any such boost to the economy following the start of devolution in the early 2000s.)
Peat concluded that independence was feasible, but that there were so many unanswered – and even unasked – questions that we cannot say if it would be beneficial. (Indeed, we’d have to define what “beneficial” means – there is more to this world than economics!) To get answers, we need to have a more subtle, nuanced debate, rather than the rather shabby level we’ve currently got.
We also need to think about the alternatives. A “no” vote wouldn’t mean “keep Britain and carry on”. All three unionist parties are contemplating further devolution following a “no” vote, be it “devo plus” or “devo max” (neither of which is defined). To decide if “yes” or “no” is the right choice, we need to understand the different options.
But why wait for independence? There is much that the government could do under the current conditional set up. Blaming Westminster for a lack of progress seems rather childlike – always blaming the big boys, and never taking responsibility for our own actions. The SNP have been in power for six years; what have they really achieved? (I think I’ll have to go and find out. I may be sometime.)
[The David Hume Institute has several papers relevant to the debate on its research page.]