Sunday, 19 January 2014

The SNP's unconvincing White Paper


Forgive us for only catching up with news in the Scottish independence debate very tardily, but the holiday period caused a tail-back of issues. The Scottish Government's White Paper on what independence might actually look like was published back in late November, and 'Public Policy and the Past' has only just had time to take a proper look. There was no point commenting closely without looking at the detail.

Or at least there wouldn't be if there was any detail. For the document is rather unsuccessful in sketching in anything other than a series of aspirations - which is fine for a potential state that is bound to look hazy at first, but hardly much of a guide for voters.

Several of the assertions in the document are also tenuous at best, and highly misleading at worst. Take three areas that this blog talks a lot about: the public finances; currencies and international diplomacy; and the European Union. mIn every area the Scottish National Party basically says 'don't worry, everything will be fine, things will pretty much go on as normal'. Except that they might not, with disastrous consequences for both Scotland and the remaining 'Rest of the UK' after independence. You can read the whole lot here, but we'll just limit ourselves to these three areas for now.

First, the public finances. The White Paper says that 'independence will provide us with the opportunity to manage our public finances more securely and to create a more vibrant and resilient economy'. Hmm, well excuse me if that seems like a best-of-all-possible-worlds scenario, but the respected Institute of Fiscal Studies says that this is a bit of a misrepresentation, to put it mildly. Basically, Scotland by leaving would lose between £3bn and £10bn a year in public spending, even on relatively optimistic assumptions about oil revenues. Where do we get any outline of this at all, amidst all the talk of Scotland's relatively high tax revenues rather than its spending numbers? Er, nowhere.

Let's move on to the currency. The SNP has now ditched its once-fervent adherence to the Euro, for obvious political reasons: now it wants the new country to remain part of the sterling area, at least for the foreseeable future. So far, so good: this is a compromise that makes sense for a new country which will have to keep worried investors onside. But the White Paper exhibits a head-in-the-sand attitude to how this might actually work. It says that 'monetary policy will be set according to economic conditions across the Sterling Area with ownership and governance of the Bank of England undertaken on a shareholder basis'. Well, perhaps Scottish members will be asked to sit on the Monetary Policy Committee; perhaps account will be taken of Scotland's particular monetary policy needs. But maybe they won't. It'll be up to the Rest of the United Kingdom to decide what happens to the currency - not a newly-independent Scotland, which might well have lost a good deal of its influence in London.

Lastly, let's have a look at Scotland's links with the European Union. The country can't hope to compete internationally without being a member, and will be much better off in the Union than outside (an argument that holds for the UK as a whole, by the way). But the independence White Paper says that this will just happen as of right - that Scotland will negotiate 'from the inside', and that 'we will not be taken out of the EU against our wishes as may turn out to be the case if we are not independent'. There's a truth there: Scotland may have to leave (whatever its own views) if the whole of the UK votes to come out during the next Parliament, assuming there's a Conservative-led government at Westminster. But to say that Scotland cannot 'be taken out' against its will simply is not true. It will have to negotiate as an accession country; it may have to agree to open borders and to eventual Euro membership; countries with their own nationalist movements (particularly Spain) may veto its membership. Remember: any single one of all of the other EU presidents and parliaments can scupper the process. Any single one.

This level of opacity and evasiveness is not much of a mandate for anything - which means that we're likely to see a lot more wrangling, and possibly a second referendum on the actual terms of any treaty, even if there is a 'Yes' vote in September. Here's another good rule when you're making policy: make some sharp and believable promises. Don't print off a great big long wish-list that nationalists could have written at any time in the past thirty years.

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