Reflections on the SNP conference

Professor James Mitchell, University of Edinburgh

Professor James Mitchell, University of Edinburgh

James Mitchell discusses this weekend’s SNP conference in Aberdeen, reflecting on the party’s 80 year history and its future.

The SNP meets in Aberdeen this weekend almost exactly 80 years after its foundation.  There will be many references to the long journey, the many friends lost along the way – no doubt Margo MacDonald will rate a few mentions – and insistence that repaying the debt requires current members to work hard up to the referendum.

Parties are like other institutions (and people) – they love anniversaries.  They adopt a Whiggish view of their history, viewing the past through the lens of today.  The referendum is seen as the inevitable climax of a long struggle for independence that started eight decades earlier.

Its opponents charge it with proposing ‘independence lite’ unaware that in so doing they are assisting the SNP in projecting an image that might be more palatable to Scotland’s rather (small ‘c’) conservative electorate.

There are continuities, not least evident amongst activists who kept the idea alive through generations.  But the SNP’s history has been marked as much by discontinuities.  The SNP of 1934 was on the fringe of the fringe.  Political history is littered with parties that fought to survive and survival invariably involved change.  The most enduring feature of the SNP has been its name.  Even that was questioned at various points.

Douglas Crawford (SNP for Perth and East Perthshire 1974-79) once suggested changing the party’s name but that suggestion found few supporters.  Even Alex Salmond once thought that the party ought to change its name.  His preference was for Scottish Independence Party to ensure its core objective was in its name but he soon abandoned the idea.  Instead, when he was a vice chair of the party in the 1980s he altered the party symbol in minor ways, each time irritating many members.

But even independence has not been the term for the core objective of the party throughout its history.  The party in 1934 compromised on ‘self-government’ and referred to ‘sovereignty’, in an ambiguous effort to draw in wide support.  But ‘independence’ became the common term used.  The party only formally changed its objective in its constitution in 2004 under an important review under John Swinney leadership.  There was a paradox in this change.  The party had shifted its view from Euroscepticism to Euroenthusiasm over the previous decade.  It was moving towards a more sophisticated understanding of the position of states in international politics yet the change appeared to signal a step backwards, towards a more hardline position.

The paradox is easily explained.  Independence operated more as a slogan, a means of mobilizing activists and offering a clear objective than as a fully developed constitutional option. That journey towards a more nuanced understanding combined with attachment to a symbolically sharper term has served the SNP well.  And it was a journey that continued.

The SNP White Paper on independence, issued after it first came to power in 2007, may have used the term independence but there were many references to interdependence. Even a casual reading of the document suggests a rejection of old-style notions of state sovereignty however much ‘sovereignty’ remains a favoured term amongst party activists.  The journey continued with the publication of last November’s White Paper.  Finding anyone in the SNP willing to concede that the prospectus was anything other than independence is a challenge.  Its opponents charge it with proposing ‘independence lite’ unaware that in so doing they are assisting the SNP in projecting an image that might be more palatable to Scotland’s rather (small ‘c’) conservative electorate.

But careful reading suggests that what the SNP proposes might be termed confederal.  In the final analysis the term adopted is less important, though not for activists. What is understood by independence has always been at issue.  How this is interpreted by the electorate will determine whether the SNP’s next conference will involve a massive celebration amidst the hard work involved in negotiations (old-style independence would require far fewer negotiations) or whether it needs to review not only its strategy but also how it conceives of Scotland’s constitutional future.

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Constituting Scotland: a Retreat from Politics?

Dr Steven Tierney, University  of Edinburgh

Dr Steven Tierney, University of Edinburgh

Writing at the Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum, Stephen Tierney discusses the prospect of an interim constitution in the event of a yes vote.

The Scottish Government has recently announced its intention to introduce a draft Scottish Independence Bill into the Scottish Parliament which will set out an interim constitution for Scotland in the event of a Yes vote in September’s referendum. It will also describe the process by which a permanent written constitution will be drafted following the Scottish Parliament elections in 2016. The announcement by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that this latter process will be participative and collaborative is to be welcomed, as is the Government’s commitment to the principle of the sovereignty of the people. In this article, however, I wish to challenge the modern inclination to embed more and more values beyond the reach of legislatures, arguing that popular sovereignty is best maintained by modest constitutional arrangements which leave as many policy choices as possible to elected parliaments.

As yet of course we don’t know what the final constitution will contain, but if Scotland does become independent it will do so at a time when more and more countries are opting for ever more elaborate written constitutional documents. It seems that this fashion is likely to rub off on any constitutional convention established to draft a Scottish constitution.

Once the essential organs of government have been established, why not leave the democratic will of the people, expressed through their Parliament, to shape policy for the new state? It seems strange that the newly won autonomy of an independent people should be immediately truncated by the deep entrenchment of a highly partial set of policy preferences.

The Scottish Government in its White Paper, Scotland’s Future has already suggested that Scotland’s constitutional structure is likely to be radically different from the current unwritten arrangement of the United Kingdom, entrenching issues as specific as a minimum standard of living, a ban on nuclear weapons and environmental protections. In this desire it is not alone; many constitutional activists at UK level would love such an opportunity to turn the UK constitution into a rigid structure of supposedly settled values, and who knows, Scottish independence may well provide that opportunity should the break up of the state prompt a moment of fundamental constitutional reconstruction also at UK level.

I should say immediately that my argument is not against a written constitution for Scotland per se. In the event of independence some form of foundational written document will be needed to replace the Scotland Acts of 1998 and 2012; even if an unwritten constitution were considered desirable, it is simply impossible today to replicate the conditions under which the UK Parliament acquired its authority. The powers of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government will require to be defined, as will the court structure, its hierarchy and the limits of its jurisdiction. A proposal to make provision for local government (proposed by the White Paper) would also fit within this model of a limited, institution-framing constitution; all of which would serve as a democracy-facilitating rather than a democracy-constraining set of provisions. But is it necessary to go beyond such a minimal constitutional model which would still leave policy choices to the new parliament? A new constitution will be needed, but it does not require to contain detailed policy issues which should rightfully remain the preserve of the elected parliament.

Notably the White Paper anticipates a document that will collate a very broad range of principles and detailed policies. For example:

  • entitlement to public services and to a minimum standard of living;
  • protection of the environment and the sustainable use of Scotland’s natural resources;
  • a ban on nuclear weapons being based in Scotland;
  • rights in relation to healthcare, welfare and pensions;
  • children’s rights; and
  • rights concerning other social and economic matters, such as the right to education and a Youth Guarantee on employment, education or training.

And this captures only a few of the policy preferences that will be put on the table during any drafting process. Certainly all of these issues will be for any constitutional convention drafting the constitution to determine, but the very fact that the White Paper considers such detailed policies to be appropriate for constitutional protection will serve to invite others to put forward their particular agendas and preferences, and these may well find their way into a new constitution, no matter how specific, contingent and deeply contested they may be.

I would like to sketch very briefly six key concerns with such a detailed model of constitutional codification:

  • legitimacy
  • judicial supremacy
  • rigidity
  • the stifling of political debate
  • a marginalisation of the political power of citizens, and
  • the creation of a constitutional battleground.

First, it seems highly questionable from the perspective of democratic legitimacy that the first generation of post-independence Scots should take upon themselves the power to crystallise a broad range of current predilections – some of which may well be fads – as constitutional principles. This will immediately constrain the decision-making capacity of successive generations of voters across a potentially vast array of policy issues.

Secondly, by constitutionalising specific values and policies, the constitution will significantly ramp up the powers of judges. The authority to resolve disagreements which are currently matters of political deliberation will be handed to a small unelected group which is arguably both unsuited and, in democratic terms, unentitled to determine these issues.

Thirdly, such a constitutional arrangement would bring a radical transformation to the constitutional culture of the country itself. Scots would be leaving what is arguably the most flexible constitutional system in the world and creating potentially one of the least flexible. It is fashionable (mainly among academics) to criticise the UK constitutional system precisely because of its unwritten form and the concomitant privilege given to the Westminster Parliament as sovereign law-maker. But this model has worked very well over several centuries, allowing the UK body politic to adapt itself smoothly to new developments: the creation and amendment of the devolution settlements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland since 1998, and the conclusion of the Edinburgh Agreement paving the way for the independence referendum, being good examples. The principle underpinning parliamentary supremacy is a sound one: it is for Parliament, elected by the people, to debate and determine how law should manage competing political and moral values. If Parliament later changes its mind, this legislation is open to amendment or repeal by the same process. A written constitution replaces this with a form of rigidity which could lead to constitutional stasis. Furthermore, we also don’t know how deeply entrenched the new Scottish constitution will be because the convention which will draft the constitution will no doubt also determine its amendment procedure. But there is now a tendency around the world to make certain constitutional provisions virtually unamendable. At the very least, any issue given constitutional protection in a new Scottish state will be very hard to shift; that after all is the point of constitutional entrenchment. One mechanism which does serve to keep the people involved in constitutional deliberation is the referendum. It will be interesting to see what role, if any, is intended for referendums in the process of constitutional amendment under any new arrangements.

Beyond this, there is a danger that a highly detailed constitution can serve to supplant, and in so doing foreclose, political debate. Later attempts to amend issues which have been accorded constitutional protection will not only be difficult in practical terms but could be burdened with the stigma of illegitimacy. A constitution is not, after all, merely a regulatory device. It sets out the values of the state (particularly when it is a new state), and in doing so can help to shape the public identity of citizens. Once something is entrenched in a constitution it can become reified as a moral principle that transcends transient policy choices; extolled as a metaphysical value, the merits of which are rendered unimpeachable and to which citizens are called upon to owe unswerving allegiance. To campaign to amend such principles can lead to charges of disloyalty to the constitution and the political system itself. Incidentally, another recent move is to suggest that all holders of public office must pledge allegiance to the constitution and to its provisions: this is a particularly pernicious innovation, presenting the constitution as modern day Test Act, transforming dissent into heresy. It is to be hoped that this form of intolerance will be disavowed in any move towards a constitution for Scotland.

This raises a fifth issue: why do so many issues need to be entrenched beyond the decision-making competence of ordinary citizens? If matters of wealth distribution, international responsibility and good environmental policy are the preference of a majority of right-thinking people, why not leave it to the Scottish Parliament to legislate in these areas? Is there a failure of trust in the capacity of the people and/or the Parliament of an independent Scotland to make the right decisions? The rush to elevate so many issues beyond the realm of the political would seem to demonstrate a lack of confidence in a new country. Should the first step after ‘independence’ really be a detailed circumscription of the areas over which the Scottish people can, from generation to generation, determine and re-determine their own policies, in order to ‘protect’ them from their own ignorance or poor judgment? If Scots are fit for self-government then surely they are big enough and old enough to build their future through the rough and tumble of the political process.

A final danger is that if a signal is sent that the constitution is intended to micro-manage political and moral values then the constitution-drafting process could well become a battle for the soul of the country. The birth of the state could lead to a culture war resulting in a sharp delineation between victors and losers, and in turn leaving a large number of people feeling excluded from an elaborate, highly specific and deeply partial vision of national identity solidified in the constitution. Such a dispute could be just as acute, or indeed more acute, than the referendum campaign itself. It is not hard to imagine that certain pressure groups will be glad for the opportunity to see their own value preferences privileged within a constitution, placing these beyond the opposition of a simple majority of the people or their elected representatives. This, as I say, is a parlous game and a potentially undemocratic (as well as an entirely avoidable) one. It risks the drafting process being heavily influenced by the most vocal and best organised interest groups, including those which cast their opponents not only as wrong but as bad, thereby inhibiting debate and claiming that political victories which they manage to achieve are thereafter morally unquestionable and immune from any residual dissensus. By this construction it is not in reality the founding generation that gets to play for keeps, but rather activist elites within this generation which may well be both unelected and unrepresentative.

What then of the proposed process by which such a detailed constitution will come about? Until the Scottish Independence Bill is published we must rely upon the White Paper which suggests that a constitutional convention will ‘prepare the written constitution’ following the elections to the Scottish Parliament of May 2016 (some six weeks after Independence Day, set for 24 March). As yet we don’t know much about the proposed convention other than that it is intended to be ‘open, participative and inclusive’ and that the new constitution ‘should be designed by the people of Scotland, for the people of Scotland’. Given the potential that a highly detailed document will emerge from this convention, the composition of this body, who decides on its composition, how it deliberates and how it reaches decisions will each be a vital, and potentially deeply contentious, issue. We should watch keenly to see how the Scottish Independence Bill approaches these issues.

Independent statehood will itself be a massive step. Citizens will have to reorient their focus away from Scotland’s relationship with the UK political system, addressing one another in all their diversity as co-authors of a new polity. It should be a time for modesty and moderation, to take stock and consider the future carefully, to respect other views, to accommodate the deep differences that have always marked Scottish society but which have not been fully vocalised during a period in which attention was diverted from internal identities towards external influence. It will also be a time to heal divisions that may still be sensitive following the referendum campaign. I would counsel against rushing into an expansive process of constitution-building. Once the essential organs of government have been established, why not leave the democratic will of the people, expressed through their Parliament, to shape policy for the new state? It seems strange that the newly won autonomy of an independent people should be immediately truncated by the deep entrenchment of a highly partial set of policy preferences. The September referendum in itself encapsulates the spirit of vernacular politics – letting the people decide. If independence comes about, why would we abandon this inheritance?

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Labour’s Devolution Proposals: More questions than answers

Writing at the Future of the UK and Scotland site, Nicola McEwen examines the proposals put forth by the Labour Party’s Devolution Commission.

The future of the welfare state has been a key feature of the referendum campaign. Against the backdrop of the UK government’s controversial welfare reforms, the Scottish government and Yes Scotland have argued that an independent Scotland would oversee a more progressive, fairer welfare system. The Labour Party’s Devolution Commission proposals, published yesterday, are likely to reinforce the centrality of the welfare issue. But Labour’s welfare state is unmistakably British.

The spectrum of proposals – on tax as well as benefits – rests on a characterisation of the UK as a ‘sharing Union’, where solidarity, risks and rewards are spread across the UK’s nations and regions. The report affirms the Devolution Commission’s belief that the majority of cash benefits – “the core of the Welfare State” – should remain a responsibility of the UK parliament and government. But it proposes the devolution of two key areas of social security – Housing Benefit and Attendance Allowance.

The justification given is that these benefits are closely linked to devolved responsibilities in housing, health and social care. The same could be said for many more areas of social security, from child benefit to pensions, but these are considered central to the pooling of risks and resources within the UK ‘social union’. Housing Benefit and Attendance Allowance also carry symbolic significance for Scotland. Housing Benefit invokes the bedroom tax, which has been used by Labour, the SNP and the Greens to symbolise the iniquities of the UK government’s reforms. Attendance Allowance is closely linked to that most symbolic of policy milestones of the Scottish parliament, free personal care.

At the heart of the debate, then, are competing visions of communities of belonging. For Labour, the boundaries of solidarity and community are British. For the SNP and the broader Yes Scotland movement, ‘sharing and belonging’ – solidarity and welfare – go together more easily within Scotland.

However, the report – or at least the Executive Summary which was published yesterday – is surprisingly lacking in detail about how these policy competences would be transferred, and with what implications.

  • Housing Benefit is one of six cash benefits being merged and replaced by the Universal Credit under the UK Government’s welfare reforms. Notwithstanding the problems which have beset the introduction of Universal Credit, the Commission’s ‘Executive Summary’ report makes no mention of it. How would Housing Benefit be disentangled from the other benefits and tax credits which make up Universal Credit? How would a separate Scottish housing benefit be delivered? On what basis would the revenues to be transferred to the Scottish government to cover one element of Universal Credit be calculated?
  • While most claims for social security benefits made by Scots are processed by DWP offices based in Scotland, Attendance Allowance is not one of these. DWP centres in Preston and Blackpool administer Attendance Allowance for the whole of the UK. Would these centres have separate service agreements with the Scottish government? What would be the impact on their capacity to deliver such a service were it to be designed in different ways in Scotland and the rest of the UK?
  • UK social security policy is implemented through a highly integrated system of processing and delivery, with a centralised, complex IT system which calculates entitlements based upon policies set by the UK government. There is no suggestion in the report of deviating from this system. Could such an integrated system cope with divergent policies from two governments? If so, how and at what cost?

Beyond these specific examples, the report concludes that social security is more properly a responsibility of the UK parliament, as a reflection of “the social solidarity that helps bind the UK together”. Running throughout the report is a vision of Union, and of Britishness, founded upon myths of the post-war welfare settlement. This nation-building rhetoric has been a feature of Labour discourse for many years, and was particularly evident in the speeches and statements of Scottish ministers within the 1997-2010 UK Labour government, especially those of Gordon Brown. It is quite clearly a statement of purpose for a British Union, not a vision of Scottish self-government within that union. In the context of the referendum campaign, and the austerity agenda and welfare retrenchment of the current UK government, it may be a difficult sell.

The debate over which level of government should deliver social security is in part about practical, financial and instrumental concerns, but it is also a debate about the boundaries of community, identity and belonging. Labour’s proposals are an appeal to Britishness and British solidarity. As Gordon Brown noted in his evidence to the Devolution Commission: “We choose to share these risks and the relevant resources with the people with whom we belong. Sharing and belonging go together.” At the heart of the debate, then, are competing visions of communities of belonging. For Labour, the boundaries of solidarity and community are British. For the SNP and the broader Yes Scotland movement, ‘sharing and belonging’ – solidarity and welfare – go together more easily within Scotland.

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Welfare, fairness and independence

Dr. Nicola McEwen, University of Edinburgh

Dr. Nicola McEwen, University of Edinburgh

Writing at The Guardian, Nicola McEwen reflects on whether welfare in an independent Scotland would be more fair.

At its height, the welfare state was a symbol of nationhood and solidarity that helped Scots to feel at home in Britain. Nowadays, much of the core welfare state functions have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The one that remains at Westminster – social security – is taking a battering.

UK welfare reform has helped to make welfare and ‘fairness’ a central feature of the independence referendum. For the Scottish Government, independence would mean having the power to create a more equal society. But how distinctive would an independent Scottish welfare state be?

Not very, if we look to last year’s report by the Expert Working Group on Welfare. It recommended Scottish/rUK co-operation to deliver pensions and benefits for a transitional period to avoid any disruption in benefit pay-outs. The report also pointed to the complex arrangements for delivering pensions and benefits: most – though not all – benefits paid to Scots are processed in Scotland, but these DWP offices also process payments for claimants in the north of England, Yorkshire and London. Sharing service delivery would limit the scope for the two governments’ policies to diverge.

The independence White Paper hinted at more radical change. It included a commitment to immediately scrap the bedroom tax and halt the roll-out of universal credit and PIPs, pending the design and implementation of a new system of social protection. The expert group will set out its welfare vision this spring. Expect it to look more Nordic than British.

Change, however, won’t come easy. Independence would not be a ‘year zero’. Scotland would inherit existing institutions and services. These come with vested interests and modes of operation that can stymie change. Shifting resources from one group to another is always difficult politically, especially since rUK would remain Scotland’s main point of reference. The pressure would be for all Scottish public services and benefits to be at least on a par with those in England, if not more generous.

Scottish policy choices would also be constrained by the demographic and economic pressures that have made social protection the highest proportion of government expenditure across Europe. It’s far from clear that the Scottish government would have the fiscal resources and policy freedom to match its welfare ambition.

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Why is Scottish independence unclear?

Dr Steven Tierney, University  of Edinburgh

Dr Steven Tierney, University of Edinburgh

In a post at the UK Constitutional Law Association, Stephen Tierney reflects on outstanding issues on the debate and the role that academics can and should play in bringing people answers.

As commentators we seem to end many of our contributions to the independence debate with the rather unhelpful conclusion that much remains, and will continue to remain, uncertain; a state of affairs accentuated by recent comments on the prospect of currency union and EU membership. This must frustrate those hardy souls who read to the end of our blogs seeking enlightenment. Perhaps then we owe readers an explanation as to why it is so hard to offer a clear picture of how an independent Scotland will be brought about and what it would look like.

As commentators, all we can do is try to offer some objective guidance so that these visions bear closer resemblance to reality than they otherwise might. A modest aim maybe, but no one ever said constitutional change was simple.

In trying to envisage life after a Yes vote it is natural to begin with the Scottish Government’s White Paper published in November 2013 which, at 648 pages, cannot be accused of failing to set out the SNP’s broad vision for independence. But for several reasons we must treat this only as the start of our quest and certainly not as a definitive template for a new Scottish state.

Here are some reasons why:

1. The White Paper is selective

The White Paper is certainly comprehensive but inevitably offers if not a Panglossian then at least an optimistic picture of the future, using evidence that supports the Scottish Government’s case for economic success and relatively easy transition to statehood. Inevitably many of these claims have been subject to contestation, and since they are dependent upon varying circumstances and the cooperation of other actors, not least the UK Government, they cannot be taken to be the last word on independence.

2. Are we sure there will be negotiations?

This is surely the easiest question to answer. The White Paper not unreasonably assumes a process of mutually cooperative negotiations given the Edinburgh Agreement in which the UK and Scottish governments undertook ‘to work together constructively in the light of the outcome, whatever it is, in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom.’ This has recently been restated by a UK Government minister. It can also reasonably be assumed that despite the bluster of the referendum campaign it will be in the interests of the UK to build a constructive relationship with its near neighbour. But there are still many unknowns concerning the negotiation process and its possible outcomes.

3. Who will negotiate?

On the one hand we would expect the Scottish Government to take the lead for Scotland. But let’s not forget the Yes campaign is a broader church than simply the SNP, and different contributors to this, such as the Green Party, will have their own agendas which they would seek to advance in negotiations with the UK. Furthermore, in the White Paper the Scottish Government announced that it ‘will invite representatives from the other parties in the Scottish Parliament, together with representatives of Scottish civic society, to join the Government in negotiating the independence settlement.’ (para 2.7) Who might take part, what influence would these other actors have, and how might their influence re-shape the negotiations? Also, on the UK side different uncertainties present themselves. We assume the UK Government will negotiate for the UK, but with a general election in May 2015 a new government may take a different view of the negotiation process.

4. What if negotiations break down?

An unlikely scenario but one which does add more uncertainty to the mix is the possibility of failure of these negotiations to result in agreement. If negotiations do indeed break down, what then: a unilateral declaration of independence? This possibility has rarely been considered within the Scottish debate but it would raise a new set of issues regarding both the terms of separation between Scotland and the UK, at which point international law would provide some guidance as to the default position, and for Scotland’s status internationally.

5. Will there be a deal?

We can expect a deal at the end, but in light of the ‘personnel’ issues considered at point 3 the terms of any negotiated deal are hard to predict. How many of the goals to which it aspires in the White Paper will the Scottish Government achieve, and on which issues will it have to compromise, not only with the UK but with other parties to the negotiations on the Scottish side?

6. Surely experts can predict the outcome of negotiations?

Given that a UDI is highly unlikely, as commentators we can reasonably focus upon the terms of negotiations, but here voters must be struck by how we suffix our references to the most likely outcomes by restating how many variables are at work. It is no surprise that on the various issues at stake experts will reasonably disagree about different scenarios. As commentators we also have a duty not to enter the debate in a polemical way, using expert knowledge to advance the cause of one particular side. It is important to remain objective, presenting the evidence for the different sides of each argument as best we can.

7. Clarity and simplicity are not synonyms

The subject matter for negotiations could scarcely be more complex – disentangling a state with a highly integrated advanced economy. So many issues will need to addressed together that even listing the topics to be dealt with is a difficult, and inevitably an incomplete, task: the economy, the currency, debt, welfare, pensions, oil and gas, higher education, the environment, defence, the European Union, security and intelligence, borders, citizenship, broadcasting etc. etc. Issues surrounding each of these issues will have to be negotiated. Therefore, there is reasonable disagreement among commentators about the nature of the competence which an independent Scotland would acquire in relation to each of these, and as to the prospects for some degree of on-going cooperation or union with the UK in relation to each area of competence. And even if we commentators can reach some kind of consensus about a particular issue taken in isolation we need to factor in that each is a potential bargaining chip in negotiations. There may well be trade-offs which see some aspects of the Scottish Government’s preferred model of independence subject to compromise in return for other gains.

8. It’s politics, stupid

What would make things clearer? Well the obvious solution to a lot of uncertainty would be agreement between the two governments on a range of issues ahead of the referendum. The Electoral Commission (paras 5.41-5.44) has recommended ‘that both Governments should agree a joint position, if possible, so that voters have access to agreed information about what would follow the referendum. The alternative – two different explanations – could cause confusion for voters rather than make things clearer.’

But this is not going to happen. Uncertainty among voters is an important card for the Better Together campaign. It is simply not in the political interests of the UK Government to work with the Scottish Government to clarify possible negotiation outcomes. And in any case it may not be in the interests of the Scottish Government either should such pre-referendum discussions result in stalemate, thereby serving only to heighten rather than diminish uncertainty before the vote.

9. After independence: designing Scotland’s constitution

Even if negotiations are concluded and independence formally endorsed we will not have a final picture of Scotland’s constitutional future. Scotland will not at that stage have a constitution. According to the White Paper there will be an interim period during which some form of transitional arrangement will be needed. There will then be a Scottish parliamentary election in May 2016, and only after this, according to the White Paper, will a constitutional convention be established to draft a constitution. So many of the proposals set out in the White Paper concerning Scotland’s constitution are contingent upon how this convention is established, how it will draft a constitution, what this will contain, and how it will be ratified (i.e. will it be approved by the Scottish Parliament or by way of another referendum).

And what would the institutions of government in an independent Scotland look like: will the Queen be head of state? Will there be a one chamber or two chamber parliament? Will Scotland have a new constitutional court? The Scottish Government has views on these issues but also accepts they will be for the constitutional convention to determine. And what institutional arrangements would be needed to maintain areas of cooperation or union with the UK? All of these issues will remain to be settled.

10. It takes three to tango

And of course the foregoing issues focus upon Scotland’s relationship with the UK. What of Scotland’s external relations? Issues such as state recognition; succession to international rights, obligations and treaties; and membership of international organisations, all remain to be fully worked out. And most crucially, the European Union presents two huge issues. The first is how Scotland will be admitted to membership, something which remains a focus fordebate, not helped by the bizarre interventions of senior EU politicians. The second issue is surely much more salient and the source of more reasonable disagreement, namely the terms of such admission.

11. What is ‘independence’ anyway?

All of these questions raise a larger issue, namely the heavily integrated nature of the modern nation-state and the web of international relations which bind states within Europe. As the details of the Scottish Government’s proposed model of independence emerge, for example in relation to the currency, what is envisaged is in fact the continuation of important relationships with the UK as well as new and close relations with international partners. But clarity on these points is obscured by campaign gaming. The Yes side is reluctant to voice these aspirations in detail since this will invite the ‘we will never agree to that’ response which we have seen in relation to currency union. This will inevitably mean that much of the detail of what the Scottish Government aspires to will most likely remain unstated at the time of the referendum. The challenge for voters then is a broader one: it concerns how they understand the very meaning of statehood and sovereignty in today’s Europe. The reality today is that any new state emerging from within the EU and intending to remain within the EU will, by definition, instantiate a novel form of statehood which delivers independence but not separation. This, a unique state of affairs, is the factor which poses the deepest analytical challenges to political actors, to constitutional theorists and practitioners, and, since a referendum is the mechanism assigned to determine such an outcome, ultimately to voters.

Is there any point in expert commentary?

Yes of course. There are many technical issues which can be clarified. This will not fully explain how Scottish negotiations will go with either London or Brussels but it can make clearer the issues which will be subject to negotiation.

Secondly, much of the uncertainty stems from the political positions of the two sides: Better Together which does not want to suggest negotiations will go smoothly for the Scottish Government; Yes Scotland which claims that they will. However, the UK Government’s position following the hard reality of a Yes vote is likely to be significantly different from that as stated in the heat of the referendum campaign. Again academics must try to disentangle these two different positions. At the same time they can probe the viability of the claims made by the Scottish Government in its White Paper.

In the end some kind of bigger picture may emerge, albeit through a glass darkly. People when they vote will do so with two rival visions of the future in mind. These will not be perfect predictions of what either an independent Scotland or an on-going UK (we must also remember that a No vote also carries many uncertainties concerning the future) will look like in 1, 5 or 10 years’ time, but they will need to make sense to the people casting their votes. As commentators, all we can do is try to offer some objective guidance so that these visions bear closer resemblance to reality than they otherwise might. A modest aim maybe, but no one ever said constitutional change was simple.

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Welfare policy takes its place in the Scottish policy arena

Richard Parry, University of Edinburgh

Richard Parry, University of Edinburgh

Richard Parry addresses the evolution of Scottish welfare policy, noting that ‘it is clear that UK welfare reform policy has had the unintended effect of knocking social protection like a curling stone into the house of Scottish-driven policy debate’

At the heart of the devolution settlement of 1997 was the distinction between policies devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Government and those reserved to the UK level, which include income transfers between the citizen and the state.  This constrains the devolved system, but also gives a convenient excuse for not taking a position on contested  issues. Above all, there is no need to finance entitlement-based pensions and benefits whose cost might pre-empt on other public services.

Beyond a ‘preserve and defend’ strategy, the Scottish Government has started to articulate its own vision of welfare through its response to the Expert Working Group on Welfare it set up.  This response reflects the lack of a Scottish tradition of debate and philosophy on social protection similar to that in health, education and housing. 

Even before the referendum campaign, the fencing-off of pensions and benefits, hitherto neither defined by separate Scottish legislation nor even a distinct Scottish delivery system, was breaking down. The UK Welfare Reform Act 2012 imposed controversial policies interfacing with devolved areas – in housing, the spare room subsidy or bedroom tax (phrases that define the difference between the designers and recipients of policy); in social care, the Personal Independence Payments that replace Disability Living Allowance; and, in the overall system, Universal Credit, the kind of reckless, over-ambitious big idea about which the Scottish devolved system has been cautious.

Any earlier SNP thoughts that this might be handled passively as part of benefit simplification were swept aside by the insistence of anti-poverty groups that the Scottish Government use its powers to resist the Act. No Legislative Consent Order was proposed; a separate Scottish Act granted the order-making powers consequential on the UK Act; and a Welfare Reform Committee of the Scottish Parliament has been set up. There was keen interest in the manoeuverings of the Northern Ireland Executive to resist the bedroom tax and exploit the long-standing devolution of social security to Northern Ireland within  a parity of approach with the UK. Funding now passed in the Scottish Budget for 2014-15 will use devolved money to mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax rules.

Scotland’s Future makes it clear that an independent Scotland would call a halt to the concept of Universal Credit and the incorporation of Housing Benefit within it. Just as in health, the approach would seek to perpetuate traditional UK welfare state concepts better than England.  Ironically, the SNP’s promise to perpetuate the ‘triple lock’ on pension increases was subsequently endorsed by UK party leaders. Although the present 1% UK cap on annual increases in working-age benefits and (from 2014) child benefit and housing benefit will run out in 2016, the SNP would again take a jump in favour of generosity by promising to ‘ensure that benefits and tax credits increase in line with inflation’ (p159).  David Phillips’s work for the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that any generalized case that benefit payments are a drain on the UK at the moment, or on the finances of an independent Scotland,  is decreasingly true.

Beyond a ‘preserve and defend’ strategy, the Scottish Government has started to articulate its own vision of welfare through its response to the Expert Working Group on Welfare it set up.  This response reflects the lack of a Scottish tradition of debate and philosophy on social protection similar to that in health, education and housing. The debate will take time to crystallise; a second Expert Group has been at work and there is interest in the definition of distinctive themes of Scottish welfare system, more joined-up, inclusive and vaguely ‘Nordic’ in character.

All policy is incremental, and it will be difficult to make a rapid impact in terms of substance; the bedroom tax is a warning of the dangers of making any recipients instantly worse off.  But whatever the referendum result, it is clear that UK welfare reform policy has had the unintended effect of knocking social protection like a curling stone into the house of Scottish-driven policy debate.

Posted in Welfare and Social Policy | Leave a comment

Hijacking the Debate

Neil Walker, University of Edinburgh

Neil Walker, University of Edinburgh

In a post originally published at the Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum, Neil Walker discusses the nature of interventions by the president of the EU Commission and the ramifications it might play in the debate. He argues in favour of national candor, saying ‘If any of the key players on the EU stage is opposed to Scottish membership then they should either show the courage of their convictions through a discourse of public justification linked to the interests of the Union as a whole  or, failing that,  they should at least be prepared to declare their intentions to act out of national self-interest’

Let me lay my cards on the table. I remain inclined to vote ‘no’ in September’s referendum. I put it no stronger than ‘inclined’ in part  because I believe, in  the spirit of democracy – even democracy referendum-style – that those of us who have not signed the party pledge should keep an open mind as long as possible. That, indeed, is one of the reasons  why,  18 months ago,  some of us set up the Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum  and its  accompanying blog. But my reservations are also partly because  recent  events  have fuelled my anxiety about  the climate in which the debate is taking place. They have made me wonder whether the case for independence is getting a fair crack of the whip on the international stage, and have caused  me to ponder the implications of lending my vote to a position that remains so reliant upon negative rather than positive arguments.

But why should anyone listen to Barroso on this topic?  Does he have a legitimate political voice in the debate? Does he speak from a position of legal authority?  Or, regardless of his political or legal standing, does he simply have a good insider argument, and one that we should heed? The answer, on all three counts, would seem to be ‘no’. Why is this so, and why is it important to the integrity of the debate that the kind of intervention Barroso has sought fit to make should be challenged?

I am not talking about the shenanigans over a Currency Union. It may  be a minority position, but I believe both sides have been giving as good as they get on this question, and that neither comfortably occupies the moral high ground. There has always been something  both opportunistic and wishful in the nationalist stance. Sterling, once derided as a busted flush,  is reclaimed as a joint birthright. The Euro, once hailed  as the bright new  monetary dawn, is conveniently relegated to the status of a political  lifestyle choice rather than faced up to as an obligation of EU membership that can, at most, be  deferred.

 The Unionist response may be  no more elevated  than this, but is surely ranks no lower. There is an arguable case, if a far from compelling one, that it would be in rUK’s best interest to refuse the  departing Scots a Currency Union. There are certainly risks  either way, and rUK might well change tack in the cold light of a ‘yes’ vote. But Better Together is being no more narrowly strategic than the nationalists in arguing forcefully for the position that  best suits its immediate interests. It is a position that could backfire – may already be backfiring – as it allows the nationalists to play the victim card, and to point out that, as the residual sovereign in the event of post-yes-vote negotiations, rUK enjoys  the ‘bully’s’  advantage  of  being able to make promises  – or threats – that it can credibly deliver upon in self-fulfilment of  its prophecies and  prejudices. But in the final analysis, the Better Together position, like the nationalist one, is a democratically legitimate one. It is articulated by  elected politicians of various parties in favour of a constituency – the UK – whose  right to retain the decisive constitutional  voice is the very issue at the heart  of the referendum. And while nationalists may proclaim the inconsistency of Better Together’s new position with its previous self-denying ordnance against pre-specification of the terms and conditions of independence, they must also acknowledge that  the Unionist parties, by building a united front on sterling, have at least  answered another widely aired  doubt. For  once they have demonstrated their ability to get their act together and find common voice when it really matters.

The issue of democratic credentials, however,  brings me directly  to the point of my comment: namely that other awkward union, the European Union, and the position of Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, on the subject. Barroso has previously given strong indications of where he stands, so perhaps we should not be too surprised by his remarks on the BBC’s flagship Andrew Marr Show last weekend. The novelty of his latest contribution may only have been one of emphasis, but the tone was nevertheless striking. Apparently the prospects of membership for an independent Scotland, never untroubled in his perspective, are now to be assessed as  “extremely difficulty… If not impossible.”

These remarks have been well publicised. Predictably, they have been seized upon by Better Together as vindicating their long-standing scepticism about an independent Scotland’s EU future, and as further evidence of the emptiness of nationalist promises. But why should anyone listen to Barroso on this topic?  Does he have a legitimate political voice in the debate? Does he speak from a position of legal authority?  Or, regardless of his political or legal standing, does he simply have a good insider argument, and one that we should heed? The answer, on all three counts, would seem to be ‘no’. Why is this so, and why is it important to the integrity of the debate that the kind of intervention Barroso has sought fit to make should be challenged?

First, there is the question of legitimate political voice. Barroso is not an elected politician. One upon a time he was. Between 2002 and 2004 he was Prime Minister of Portugal. Since then he had done two stints and ten years as the unelected President of the European Commission. His position, which he will vacate this year, does depend upon that of two elected institutions – on the  Council ( made up of nationally elected politicians) which proposed him, and on the European Parliament which  was required to approve  his appointment.  Under new rules introduced by the recent Treaty of Lisbon, the appointment of his successor will be subject to an additional  indirect democratic check – namely the requirement that his or her nomination by the European Council should ‘take account’ of the results of the latest European Parliamentary elections. In fact, the last European elections in 2009 already saw a move towards an overtly political style of appointment, with Barroso the chosen candidate of the   European People’s Party.    But none of these developing procedures and practices can make an elected politician out of an unelected public servant. Barroso has no popular mandate, and perhaps some sense of that lay behind his protestations to Andrew Marr, rendered not a jot more credible by their repetition,  that his words did not constitute an attempt ‘to interfere’ in a matter of internal Scottish and British politics.

But even if Barroso represents no electoral constituency, does he, as head of the Commission, nevertheless possess a clear legal authority, or even a duty,  to step into the Scottish debate? The Commission certainly has an extensive legal remit. According to Article 17 of the Treaty on European Union, it ‘shall promote the general interest of the Union’.  Yet in so doing we should understand the Commission’s  role as servants of the Treaty framework rather than its master. Article 17 continues by specifying the Commission’s role in ways that reflect and confirm its status  as  the EU’s  administrative college. Its responsibilities are largely downstream. They include the monitoring of the  application of European law, the performance of various budgetary, management, executive and management functions, as well as the power to initiate ( but not decide) legislation under the Treaties. In all of this the Commissioners, including the President, like civil servants everywhere, are charged to act independently of external influence.

None of this suggests any stand-alone authority for the Commission or its President on the high political question of new membership, except insofar as this is directly specified in the Treaties. But if we look at the relevant provisions  – Article 49 on accession and  Article 48 on  the alternative route of general Treaty revision – the standing of the Commission is a distinctly modest one. As regards accession, its role is only one of consultation, with the key decision-making reserved to the European Parliament and the Council. As regards general Treaty revision, the Commission is one of a number of institutions that may make proposals, but here the decisive voice lies squarely with the national governments.

If the Commission does not command a central  legal role in these matters, should we not nonetheless be prepared to listen carefully to the views of its President simply as an expert in Union-craft -  as someone who has the knowledge and experience gained from a decade of independently ‘promoting the general interest of the Union’? Absolutely. Of course we should! The snag  here is  that the President has chosen to say nothing worth saying – nothing that would draw upon a considered sense of that general interest,  but instead restricts himself to well-worn  prognostications about what others  might do in pursuit of their particular interests. He trades on the symbolic authority of his position to do nothing more than profound than  recall that the reception of an independent Scotland into the European Union, whether through the  Article 49 route that he envisages, or through the relatively  ‘seamless’ Article 48  route that the nationalists argue for, would  require the approval of all 28 existing member states; and then to advise that this is an arithmetically formidable threshold, especially given the reservations of certain member states about independence movements in their own backyards – a caution that, as Barroso proceeds to reminds us,  has led Spain, concerned with Catalonian and Basque claims, even to refuse to permit a precedent as distant as the recognition of Kosovo as an independent Balkan state.

What is glaringly absent from the debate, both in the  knowing buck-passing of Barroso’s intervention and in the broader silence of the EU’s main movers and players on the Scottish question, is the articulation of any kind of public philosophy that would provide good reasons, rather than simply motivations of base political self interest, why an independent Scotland should or should not be welcomed with open arms. How, precisely, is the EU, still  resolved by common commitment of the member states in the preamble to the Treaty on European Union ‘ to  continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity’, to justify the exclusion of an independent Scotland? Why should  a country of 5  million citizens, who  have also been EU citizens for 40 years and who have expressed no desire to leave the European Union, be treated less  generously than the 110 million new EU  citizens – over 20% of the EU’s total population – who have joined from Central and Eastern Europe since 2004? Why should Scottish citizens instead be placed in the same category of Kosovo, or any other  potential candidate from beyond the Union’s distant borders?

The point in posing  these rhetorical questions is not to suggest that the propositions they contain will simply collapse under the weight of their own absurdity. For there  may well be a principled case to  make  against automatic and accelerated membership of an independent Scotland. We find the embryo of such a case, for example, in the analysis of Joseph Weiler, the current President of the European University Institute in Florence. He has argued, with special  reference to the Catalan case,(see http://www.ejiltalk.org/catalonian-independence-and-the-european-union/) that just as national minorities in existing member states who presently enjoy extensive forms  of individual and collective freedom have no  automatic right to secede as a matter of general international law, so, too, the  European Union in its accession policy should not be expected to indulge the independence claims of these unoppressed sub-state nations.To the contrary, the very ethos of integration, reconciliation and continental solidarity that has fed the European project from its post-War beginnings, according to Weiler, should lead  the European Union to take a dim view of any separatist impulse that seems to betray these very founding virtues. From this perspective, therefore, far from having a stronger claim than those external candidates  who have benefited from the post-Cold War Enlargement, those nations already comfortably nested in the EU’s Western European heartland  of multi-level governance should be promised no safe European haven if they insist on the path to independence.

I happen to disagree with both the specific thrust and the wider implications of the  Weiler thesis. To begin with, and most narrowly, even if Weiler’s reasoning is applicable to the situation of Catalonia, where no constitutionally permissible route to referendum and independence is presently countenanced at the level of the wider Spanish state, the Scottish case  is quite different. Here, the Edinburgh Agreement reflects the preparedness of the Uk’s flexible constitution to accommodate the prospect of independence. So for the EU to set its face against Scottish independence would be  to dismiss the significance of the member state’s own recognition of the legitimacy of secession.  Secondly, and more broadly, whether we are dealing with the  Scottish or the Catalan case or that of any other national minority, surely more store than Weiler allows should be set by an aspiring nation’s own sense of what is the constitutionally adequate vindication of its desire for collective autonomy. If nothing short of independence is deemed adequate from the perspective of the constituency in question as an affirmation of shared political identity, it is difficult to see why such a subjective  aspiration should be dismissed in favour of a supposedly objective  standard of adequate individual and collective freedom. Thirdly, even if a special case for the EU  as an entity possessing and pursuing a unique historical mission to make internal secession both unnecessary and unacceptable can  be advanced,  it seems unduly dogmatic to use this to justify a rigid policy against  continued membership of new internal states. There are, after all, other and rival views of the deeper purpose of the European Union. The priority given in the Preamble to the TEU to the principle of subsidiarity has already been mentioned, and this surely reflects an alternative  and more independence-friendly perspective. In the face of these competing narratives, should the public policy of the EU on accession not remain more agnostic?

Whether or not my arguments convince, they surely serve to demonstrate  that the EU’s accession policy is and always has been intimately linked to the deep purposes of the world’s first supranational polity, and to ongoing debate, inevitably controversial, over what precisely these deep purposes demand.  It is, therefore, a matter that  requires reasoned public argument and justification of the sort that Weiler attempts rather than a mere weighing of the strategic ‘private’ preferences of national parties. Yet all we get from Barroso is the latter. Not only is this less than we might expect from someone committed to the general interests of the Union, but it also allows the prejudices of national parties to be entered to the calculation without the embarrassment of a first person airing.

In a nutshell:  If any of the key players on the EU stage is opposed to Scottish membership then they should either show the courage of their convictions through a discourse of public justification linked to the interests of the Union as a whole  or, failing that,  they should at least be prepared to declare their intentions to act out of national self-interest. Barroso’ s intervention allows a significant oppositional note to be struck without either of these tests of public candour being met. The danger increases that our independence debate become hijacked to poorly specified and undefended external considerations. That surely is bad news for anyone interested in the referendum as a means to the long-term, widely accepted  resolution of our national conversation.

Posted in Constitution, Europe and External Relations | 2 Comments

Four reasons a Scottish Conservative might vote ‘Yes’ in 2014

Alan Convery, University of Edinburgh

Alan Convery, University of Edinburgh

In a piece originally published by the LSE British Politics and Policy blog, Edinburgh’s Alan Convery examines the potential motivations and intentions of Scottish Conservative voters.

At first glance it might seem odd that a former Conservative MSP has announced that he will be voting for independence in 2014. Scottish independence is for the most part seen through a centre-left lens.The SNP’s white paper, for instance, emphasises the possibility of creating a welfare state that is fundamentally different from England and the rest of the UK. However, it would be wrong to view independence as a project that is entirely without appeal to those on the centre-right of Scottish politics.

The launch of Wealthy Nation by former Conservative candidate and activist Michael Fry has consolidated into a single group a strand of thinking about independence that has hitherto not received much attention. It draws on tensions in Scottish Conservative (and indeed SNP) thinking that have been present for a long time. Michael Fry left the Conservative Party in 2007. To explore the tensions in centre-right thinking about independence, here we consider four reasons why a fictional member of the Scottish Conservative Party might vote ‘Yes’ in 2014.

1. Our Scottish Conservative member reflects firstly on the prospects for the party at Holyrood elections. She calculates that under devolution there will never be another government of Scotland that involves the Conservative Party. Unlike in Wales, there seems no prospect of the Conservative Party going into coalition with any of the other parties in the Scottish Parliament. Thus on the big domestic policy issues facing Scotland (education, health, social justice), it is unlikely in the immediate future that Conservative ideas will ever have any influence. If you are in politics because you want to represent your constituents and occasionally influence a minority government’s policies, then this may not be a problem. If you are in politics because you want to be in power, the present arrangements are deeply unsatisfactory. If our Conservative member cannot see how this situation will improve, then she might be tempted to opt for more radical change. Her other option is simply to join the SNP.

2. Relatedly, our Conservative member may have formed the view that winning a Conservative majority at the 2015 UK general election will be a hollow victory without significant gains in Scotland. She is tired of arguments about legitimacy and what she sees as the Scottish Government’s tendency to blame Westminster for problems. Increasingly, she finds that the UK without a truly statewide Conservative Party is difficult to defend. A gain of three Conservative seats in Scotland in 2015 would be considered a triumph for the party; our member begins to consider whether it is worth the effort.

3. Having reflected on the prospects for the Conservatives, our member now turns to the best way to see centre-right policies in Scotland. She thinks that the best way to reduce the size of the Scottish state in the long term is to make it responsible for the taxes it spends. She can see no better way of imposing fiscal discipline and an incentive to think about productivity in public services. The buck would once and for all stop in Edinburgh. She calculates that the UK government will not devolve the extent of powers necessary to have a sensible debate in Scotland about the proper role of the state and the market. After independence, the link between money raised in Scotland and money spent in Scotland would no longer be blurred. At a stroke, politicians could only raise spending if they taxed, borrowed or grew the economy. As a Conservative, this is ground on which she feels comfortable debating.

4. Finally, our Conservative member speculates about the party system in an independent Scotland. The centre-right might stand the chance of breaking free from the past and reinventing itself. In particular, removing the centre-periphery cleavage from Scottish politics might encourage members of other parties (particularly the SNP) to consider joining a new party of the centre-right because their main goal has been achieved. In any event, our Conservative member concludes that, politically, things can hardly get any worse in Scotland for people who hold her ideological views. With independence there is at least the prospect of a shake-up of a party system dominated by two parties (broadly) of the centre-left.

‘Yes’ and ‘No’ Tories are separated in part by an assessment of whether the political possibilities for the centre-right within the British state are still attractive. What price will you pay for power at the statewide level? A UK Conservative majority with only a modest increase in MPs from Scotland places the Scottish Conservatives once again in an awkward position. Faced with steady decline or (perhaps) steady recovery, it is not irrational for a Conservative to consider more radical options.

Alan Convery is a Lecturer in Politics in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh.

Posted in Referendum process, campaign and vote | Leave a comment

Why George Osborne declassified official policy advice

Richard Parry, University of Edinburgh

Richard Parry, University of Edinburgh

Why did the Chancellor move to cite policy and legal advice which is normally protected from Freedom of Information requests? The University of Edinburgh’s Richard Parry discusses George Osborne’s speech in the context of Westminster’s strategy.

Normally ministers fight to their utmost to prevent disclosure of policy or legal advice from their officials – it is exempt from Freedom of Information legislation, and governments (including the SNP’s) are prepared to fight for this right in the courts. On the occasions when they find disclosure convenient, they waive the rules but in doing so  betray a political weakness that they see in need of shoring-up by expertise or cross-party advice.

In a reminder that official advice can be forceful and explicit, Sir Nicholas tells us that he could not recommend a currency union, but his fundamental opposition is to Scottish independence, which he sees as economically sub-optimal both for Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

This is the context of the most surprising feature of George Osborne’s ‘no to currency union’ initiative of 13 February 2014. Accompanying his speech in Edinburgh was not just a further ‘Scotland Analysis’ paper on the issue, but a memorandum by Treasury Permanent Secretary Nick Macpherson, a symbol of the cross-party Treasury view of affairs since being Gordon Brown’s Private Secretary (all documents are available on https://www.gov.uk/governmnet/collections/scotland-analysis). In a reminder that official advice can be forceful and explicit, Sir Nicholas tells us that he could not recommend a currency union, but his fundamental opposition is to Scottish independence, which he sees as economically sub-optimal both for Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Opposition to stratagems designed to make independence seem palatable stems from this, not necessarily from the unworkability of what is being resisted. Macpherson’s sting is Scotland’s ‘banking sector is far too big in relation to its national income’ and that ‘recent spending and tax commitments by the Scottish Government point in the opposite direction…to a rigorous fiscal policy’. This is little more than reiterating that the Treasury believes in the UK single market and in its own policies, and gives us a flavour of the self-regarding impregnability of Treasury logic that observers have noted over the years. It is also significant that the Treasury’s first paper in the Scotland Analysis series, Currency and Monetary Policy (April 2013) seems much more balanced and analytical, and as such well worth a read, than Assessment of a Sterling Currency Union (February 2014).

But there is another Treasury objection that is a reminder of their opposition to the Euro and the case made on the ‘five tests’ in June 2003 in which Ed Balls had a major role as Chief Economic Adviser.  This is their aversion to loss of institutional control of the key economic levers. They could not bear the thought of the Bank of England in some way answering to the Scottish and as well as the UK Government, with a direct line between Alex Salmond and Mark Carney. ‘Currency union’ is not so much shared use of the pound as shared governance of monetary policy. Although in business 90% of the equity would be effortless control, it is Scotland’s putative 10% wedge of ‘irresponsibility’ into policy-making that worries the Treasury.

Now a strategy, including the Macpherson memo, that seeks to clinch a ‘no’ victory is already anticipating a response to a ‘yes’ victory.

The UK Government has allowed inconsistency to creep into its approach. Last year, in the first Scotland Analysis paper Devolution and the Implications of Scottish Independence (February 2013), it was almost lyrical in its case (p42) that it presently works on behalf of Scotland and could not anticipate its mindset or negotiating position if  it were representing only England, Wales and Northern Ireland. No-one was very fooled by this renunciation of doublethink, but it served to defuse detailed debate and to brand independence as not worth thinking about until voted for. Now a strategy, including the Macpherson memo, that seeks to clinch a ‘no’ victory is already anticipating a response to a ‘yes’ victory. It is a risky tactical call that cannot be repeated later and could only be justified by poll movement in the ‘No’ direction.

Posted in Referendum process, campaign and vote | 2 Comments

Scottish independence and the EU

Professor Michael Keating, University of Aberdeen

Professor Michael Keating, University of Aberdeen

In a post on The Future of the UK and Scotland, Michael Keating responds to the intervention from Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso regarding Scotland’s future in the EU should it vote for independence. In this piece, Michael asserts that while Scotland would need to apply for membership, it would ultimately be admitted. 

The debate on whether an independent Scotland would be a member of the European Union refuses to go away, in spite of all the work put into clarifying matters. The latest intervention from Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso merely confuses the question.

Like most people who have studied the matter, I have long argued that Scotland would need to apply for membership but that it would be admitted.

  1. Under the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement, Scotland would be recognized by the United Kingdom. There is no reason for any of the other  EU members to refuse recognition. There is no precedent for a seceding state, recognized by the host state, not being recognized by others.
  2. EU membership is open to any recognized European democracy that meets the Copenhagen criteria and adopts the acquis communautaire. Scotland has been within the EU/ EC for over forty years and does meet these criteria.
  3. The situation is not like Catalonia, where the Spanish government has ruled out an independence referendum and the constitution forbids secession.
  4. Incidentally, Barroso has got himself tied in knots with his repeated argument that an independent Catalonia would be outside the EU. The real point about the Spanish constitution is that an independent Catalonia is impossible altogether, so Catalonia could not be outside the EU. By suggesting that it would be outside the EU, Barroso has fallen into the trap of accepting that Catalonia could be independent.
  5. It is in nobody’s interest to throw Scotland out of the single market – not Scotland, the rest of the UK, the other member states, business or anyone would gain from this.
  6. There is no ‘queue’ to get into the EU. Applicants are admitted as and when they are ready. Turkey first tried to get in 50 years ago, so if there were a queue they would be at the head; but 22 other states have got in before them.
  7. As the UK Government noted in one of its papers, the Nordic states completed negotiations in 1-2 years.  Were Iceland or Norway to change their minds and apply now, they would be in very quickly.
  8. Barosso’s comparison of Scotland with Kosovo is utterly misplaced. Kosovo is not recognized by a number of EU states because it is not yet recognized by Serbia. It emerged from the last of the Balkan wars, complete with mass killing and ethnic cleansing. Comparing this process with that of the Edinburgh Agreement, which was a model for democratic ways of dealing with the issue, is dangerous and a disservice to democracy itself.
  9. The role of the European Commission in the accession process for a new member state is limited to certifying that the state meets the membership requirements. If Scotland does meet those requirements, Barroso (or his successor) would be obliged to make a favourable recommendation to the European Council and not to invent new political criteria.
  10. There are many questions about Scotland’s position and strategy within the EU, which the Yes side need to clarify. These include the implications of keeping the Pound, a matter on which the Yes side has recently been put on the back foot. Suggesting that Scots would be thrown out of the European Union simply for exercising their democratic rights, however, is to undermine the very basis of the European order.
  11. None of this is in itself an argument for independence. Unionists can argue that Scotland is better off as part of a big EU state than as a small independent one. It is not consistent, however, to agree that Scots can vote to be an independent state but then seek to deprive them of the basic rights of any European democracy.
Posted in Europe and External Relations | 1 Comment