'What we could be': Alex Salmond launches blueprint for independent Scotland
Holyrood's First Minister insisted country would 'stand still' if it stayed part of UK
James Cusick is political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. His career as a journalist has been split between print and television, including senior positions as producer with Sir David Frost and at BBC Newsnight. He is also an award-winning golf and travel writer, working for over a decade as the UK contributing editor for one of the USA’s leading golf magazines. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and CNN. He lives in London.
Tuesday 26 November 2013
It was billed as the Scottish government’s long-awaited authoritative blueprint for independence. Brave Heart and tartan-wrapped aspirations would be minimised in favour of hard-edged economics and unchallengeable number-crunching. The undecided, still key to next year’s referendum outcome, would be won over by “the greatest document of its kind ever published by a prospective nation.”
But on a damp Glasgow morning, inside a spartan steel building resembling a cardboard box factory, Alex Salmond presented a wish-list and a tame marketing manifesto. The birth-of-a-nation moment or a new Bannockburn it wasn’t.
A rainbow was faintly visible over Govan and the River Clyde when the First Minister said the 670-page document he held in his hand showed “what we could be” if next year’s referendum was won.
But the weighty tome, on examination, was like a reverse of Dr Who’s Tardis – big on the outside, but with little of substance inside.
Nevertheless, Mr Salmond warned that Scotland would “stand still” if it remained part of the United Kingdom, and forecast his new state would create “a revolution in employment and social policy” and deliver an economy with Scotland rather than Westminster at its centre.
Without deviance, hesitation, though with much repetition, he offered serial assurances that Scotland would become part of a new Sterling Zone with Westminster’s full backing, and would enjoy guaranteed “continuing” membership of the EU.
The White Paper was headlined “Scotland’s Future” and claimed to “comprehensively” answer a list of 650 key questions on independence. After an hour of direct interrogation by international and domestic journalists, the document’s merits felt thinner and thinner.
Although unable to go beyond aspiration and assumption, Mr Salmond and his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, both claimed an independent Scotland would be unquestioningly welcomed and given what it wanted by a range of institutions including Westminster, the Bank of England, the EU and Nato.
Regardless of the fact-limited White Paper, Mr Salmond remained confident that Scotland after the referendum next September would regain “its place as an equal member of the family of nations".
He urged Scotland's four million voters to seize a "once-in-a-generation" chance to create a fairer, more prosperous country by voting to leave the UK and taking control of their own destiny.
He promised to cut corporation tax - initially by three per cent, to honour current pensions with a triple-lock, extend free childcare and to increase the minimum wage.
The childcare changes would mean 30 hours per week in school term times for all three- and four-year-olds.
Although seeking a divorce, he sounded like someone still wanting live-in and visitation rights for the kids. Scotland and the remainder of the UK would, he said, still have close economic ties with each other, and both would still be using the same pound. Buckingham Palace, though in the centre of London, would still be home to Scotland’s head of state.
A free Scotland would take 90 per cent of North Sea oil revenue; within the first term of a fully independent Holyrood, Trident nuclear weapons would vanish from Scottish territory; the assets and staff of the BBC would to a new state broadcaster, the Scottish Broadcasting Service.
The scale of Scotland’s share of the current UK national debt was straightforward. The document simply stated this “will be negotiated and agreed” within 18 months before Scotland becomes officially independent in March 2016.
Without any obligation to adopt UK tax policies, the document nevertheless listed the Westminster pain it would dump.
The bedroom tax "rejected at the ballot box in Scotland" would go. The Royal Mail would be renationalised. The minimum wage would rise; air passenger duty would be reduced. And in advance of independence day, the UK government would be asked, nicely, to immediately cancel the rollout of universal credit in Scotland.
On defence, the new independent state would create a Scottish military force of 15,000 regulars, with a security and intelligence agency directed to work closely with Police Scotland.
Scotland’s diplomatic representation overseas would see the creation of 70 to 90 embassies estimated to cost £120m to run.
In his preface to Scotland’s Future, the First Minister said: "It will no longer be possible for governments to be elected and pursue policies against the wishes of the Scottish people. Independence will put the people of Scotland in charge of our destiny."
He added "If we vote no, Scotland stands still. A once-in-a-generation opportunity to follow a different path, and choose a new and better direction for our nation, is lost.”
The response to the "promised land" document was predictable. The Scottish Secretary, Alistair Carmichael, said what had been offered fell short of its billing and said huge questions remained.
Mr Carmichael said it was "highly unlikely" the Scottish government's plan to keep the pound and retain the services of the Bank of England as part of a "currency union" with the rest of the UK would work.
The former chancellor, Alistair Darling, in charge of pro-union "Better Together” campaign, said the White Paper had “ducked” answering the big questions
He said the promise it contained rendered it a “non-starter“, adding: “How can they guarantee the pound? And what’s plan B if they can’t get that?”
Attacking the White Paper’s scattered assumptions and assertions, Mr Darling said: “We waited months for this. And it has failed to give credible answers on fundamentally important questions.”
He branded it “a fantasy" and a “work of fiction”, insisting that Scotland could not leave the UK and simultaneously keep all the benefits of UK membership.
Scotland’s Future: the White Paper’s conditional claims
An Independent Scotland would retain the pound
A free Scotland would decide which currency it used. The Fiscal Commission (in Scotland) looked at the continued use of Sterling, a new currency, and the Euro. Monetary union with the remainder of the UK, using the pound, was considered the best option. Salmond said this would be in the best interests of Scotland and the UK, therefore neither Westminster nor the Bank of England would object to a "Sterling Zone" with Scotland as a participatory member.
The Scotland Office threw cold water on the SNP’s assumption, saying currency unions need close political and fiscal co-operation, and that “Scottish independence is about disintegration".
An independent Scotland will continue as member of the EU
This is described as a “natural position” with Scotland “not taken out of the EU against our wishes". The document however notes the current uncertainty over the UK’s position in the EU and the coming referendum on EU membership.
What are the joining terms? Would the UK’s opt-outs continue? The document doesn’t say, other than that a “full and constructive role” as a member would follow after discussions with Westminster, EU states and the EU’s institutions. It points to EU treaty law as the basis that Scotland wouldn’t need to re-apply.
The apportionment of the UK national debt will be negotiated and agreed
The UK’s debt level is currently £1.3 trillion. The document mentions Scotland’s historic contribution to UK public finances, and the offsetting of its “share of the value of the UK’s assets against our inherited debt”. The document predicts this to be a “realistic calculation". It won’t be. For lawyers north and south of the border, sorting this out will mean a bonaza of expensive cases.
Scotland will negotiate the transition from being a member of NATO as part of the UK, to becoming an independent member of the alliance
NATO will be notified about Scotland’s membership. That is as detailed as it gets. As other members of NATO are non-nuclear states, no problem is envisaged with the parallel decision to fast-track the removal of the UK's nuclear weapons. Trident, says the document, will be gone “within the first term of the Scottish Parliament following independence". Faslane will be retained as a “conventional” naval base and joint HQ for a Scottish Defence Force.
A single GB-wide market for electricity and gas will continue
The document claims taxation revenue from oil and gas will support Scottish public services. It claims Scotland’s energy assets will help the rest of the UK secure its supply and meet its renewables obligations.
How UK energy markets are working at the moment, and whether state interventon is needed, is a contentious issue. The White Paper however assumes the current UK-wide market continuing.
The White Paper’s red herrings
The Royal Mail would be renationalised
What, the entire royal mail, or just the Scottish bit? Westminster took the decision to sell off a state-owned company - which is now in private hands. So this won’t be “the return of the Royal Mail” as the document suggests. It will simply be the creation of a new Scottish state-owned mail carrier. Although it signals defiance, and that Scotland can work differently, it is just a conditional promise.
Retain the current TV licence fee.
But surely not send the cash to London and the BBC? No. This is again about keeping the “system” of a universal tax that pays for state broadcasting. The UK licence fee can’t be retained in Scotland – unless it wants to take the unusual step of sending revenue south. “Retaining” sounds more comforting than creating something new. The document is full of such risk-free red herrings.
The Court of Session and the Appeal Court in Edinburgh would become Scotland’s Supreme Court.
Law was never part of the 1707 union. Independent or not, Scotland can call its law courts what it wants. Just as it can call the Royal Mail the Caledonian Mail, it can choose Supreme Court or Great Court or the Premier Court. Even though there is currently no naming restriction, this sounds like a benefit of independence, instead of the political illusion it is.
The minimum wage will be increased in line with inflation.
What happens to the current UK “minimum wage” is immaterial because how it is legally enforced by Westminster would no longer apply. If an independent Scotland chooses to introduce a minimum wage, in whatever currency is used, it will not be governed by the wage level stipulated by the rest of the UK government. The White Paper could have stated that a free Scotland would adopt a “living wage”. That would have suggested a Scottish government leading, not following.
Reduce air passenger duty by 50 per cent
The tax system of a free state is a matter for it alone. Does this mean that whatever air passenger duty is in the rest of the UK, Scotland will have half that rate? Probably not.
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