I recently heard Michael Marra from Five Million Questions talk on the issues surrounding Scottish independence and next year’s referendum. (“Five million” refers to the approximate population of Scotland; to be honest, there are probably a lot more questions…!) Like Jeremy Peat, it is Marra’s aim to bring a more nuanced approach to the independence debate, but looking at how the issues affect people rather than pure economics.
Clearly, many of the issues central to the debate – the currency, spilt of national debt, allocation of oil reserves, the size of the public sector, the division of pensions and associated liabilities – are economic, and as Marra pointed out, only knowable after the referendum, since the UK government has decided only to negotiate after the result is known. Similarly, the three unionist parties have all said they would support more devolution in the event of a “no” vote – be it “devo-plus” or “devo-max”, but no one is saying what they would actually do. So whether we vote yes or no, we won’t know what we’re voting for – hardly a victory for democracy, but that’s what we’ve got. (I haven’t been able to find anything on the Conservative, Labour, LibDem or Better Together websites confirming that they categorically support further devolution, but I have read it in the press and Marra referred to it; maybe I was simply not looking hard enough.)
Marra described the debate as highly complex and highly political – hardly surprising given that it is politicians leading both sides of the debate. But the result of this is that the debate is highly polarised. Better Together concentrate on the (mainly financial) risks and great uncertainty (or, less generously, fear tactics: the latest – today – being the threats to the Royal Mail and rural Post Offices); Yes Scotland are trying to minimise the perception of those risks. Each seems to benefit from a low level of debate; it is easier for them than to raise their game.
To this end, the SNP government (represented in but somewhat different from Yes Scotland) have outlined their proposition. They will be publishing details in a white paper (or perhaps two, just to maintain that uncertainty) in December (or maybe November). Marra summarised their current position (which differs from their previous positions in some key areas – after all, they weren’t in power then, so they could say anything…) as
- a shared currency with the rest of the UK (“rUK”)
- freedom of movement between Scotland and rUK
- retaining the monarchy
- competitive tax rates
- NATO membership
- EU membership
Of these six points, five are outside the Scottish government’s gift: they can only be decided in collaboration with other bodies: the Westminster government, the EU and NATO; and I guess the Queen might have a say. Only one represents a change from the current situation – the ability to set competitive tax rates.
Marra described this as “Indy lite”, and you can see why. According to the SNP, nothing much would change; it is just business as usual. Indeed, during the morning, Marra was told that the SNP proposed retaining the welfare system (at least for a while).
So if nothing is going to change, why on earth would we want to vote for independence? The SNP wants us to vote “yes”… to keep everything the same!
For me, this lack of vision on both sides is crippling the debate. Purely on economic grounds, I am a strong “no”. But if either side could set out a platform for change – a vision for a more just, equitable Scotland, a positive, radical alternative to the status quo that they currently seem to be proposing (in order not to scare the horses. Or the voters), they might be able to shake up the campaign and actually change some minds.
For instance, a complete reform of taxation might free up entrepreneurs and businesses and stimulate the economy, something Peat suggested. (I’m not a tax expert, so I can’t even imagine what this might look like – but I can’t believe that a system designed to provide funds to fight a war more than two hundred years ago is really fit for the 21st century.) It can’t be beyond the wit of man to design a welfare system that supports rather than stigmatises those unable to support themselves. (The Scottish health, education and legal systems are already separate from the rest of the UK.)
A new social model might be worth voting for; but of the options on the table, with minimal change – well, is that really the best we can do? The rare opportunity to really explore what Scotland means and what we want our country to be like is being lost.