The launch of the “Better Together” campaign last week (no, not this one, nor even this one, but this one) generated reasonable and measured statements from heavyweights like ex-Chancellor Alistair Darling and positive signs that unionists are finally getting their act together to articulate proper reasons why the UK should continue to exist.
Despite already being enthusiastic about the benefits of Independence themselves, nationalists of the Scottish persuasion are neither narrow in their outlook nor blind to cogent arguments deployed against them by such campaigns. There are many debates to be had and questions to answer. Few of us think that the great apolitical majority will embrace a different future, no matter how enticing, unless those advocating change deploy credible reassurances and plausible reasons for taking such a step.
At the same time, any arguments why staying in the Union would be beneficial also need to be made with depth and cogency. Glorious joint histories, shared civic cultures and even geographic closeness are all important. But they are not, by themselves, decisive: why would 50-odd members of the Commonwealth abandon empire; why would Slovakia and Czech Republic, Sweden and Norway, Malaysia and Singapore not have each stayed together as one country if “better together” were a universal truth?
Many unionist protagonists are starting to build their case and should be commended for that, especially as years of frankly bratty behaviour, of pouring scorn on the concept or simply declaring this to be “the strongest union the world has ever seen” has clearly not worked. On June 25th, constructive joint statements from Darling, Rennie, Lamont and Davidson demonstrated considerable cross-party strength and encouraging signs that thrawn naysaying would no longer form the major part of a unionist campaign. “We make a positive case for staying together. A positive case that celebrates not just what makes us distinctive but also celebrates what we share” Darling claimed.
Fair enough—’bout bloody time.
Except that one of the team seems yet to have ‘got’ this religion. As Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander plays a pivotal role in running the Union, as well as representing a large slice of Scotland’s photogenic scenery. But he does not diplay this new enlightenment. Since the campaign launch, he has been singing the same wrist-slitting dirge as before. Yet, any of his pronouncements must be seen in a context that throws his judgement—both political and financial—into some question. He has:
- told a London City audience that the oil tax increase the UK government imposed on the North Sea, and which threatened developments and jobs in the North Sea was “my idea, which I proposed a few months ago.” Entirely unhelpful to the British economy, let alone the Scottish.
- argued that the UK Government’s £10 billion tax raid on the offshore industry “would be good for people in the north and north-east.” Again entirely unhelpful to the British economy, let alone the Scottish.
- claimed “mortgage rates will be linked to government bond issues in an independent Scotland“. This claim was debunked by Dan Macdonald, Chairman of the Scottish Property Federation 2007/8
- said “cutting the top rate of tax would be cloud cuckoo land”. Now, he supports a budget that is doing precisely that.
- claimed “regional public sector pay was a distant and unlikely prospect.” He had previously written to the Welsh First Minister saying he was “keen” to see it introduced.
- been author of the current budget’s ‘omnishambles’—successive U-turns on 3p rise in fuel duty, tax relief on charitable donations, and VAT on pasties and caravans.
- entered the 2010 election pledging not to increase tuition fees, to oppose an increase in VAT and on a platform that would not back Tory austerity cuts. Upon entering government with the Tories he has reneged on each of these.
This is no track record to write home about. So his baleful pronouncements on the fiscal evils of independence must be seen as not just running counter to his unionist colleagues attempts to make a positive case for the Union, but also deriving from a kind of innumeracy that sits badly with his day job. Some examples:
- July 5th 2012: “Scotland will have a large budget deficit, be overly reliant on oil revenues and would see financial services flee south of the Border.” That deficit would be 2/3rds the size of the UK’s per head and, while most oil economies are dependent on oil prices, Scotland has a more diversified economy than most (whisky, tourism, engineering, renewables, financial services). The latter go where most profits are to be made and Edinburgh competes nicely with Manhattan or Canary Wharf on costs, quality of life and skilled people.
- June 23rd 2012: “low interest rates for family mortgages will be hit in an independent Scotland because of higher borrowing costs”. He doesn’t seem to know the difference between mortgage availability in the private sector and government bond issues. Banks base their mortgages on the interest rate set independently by the Bank of England, which would be exactly the same for Scotland as for England in the proposed sterling zone.
- December 29th 2011: “plans for an independence referendum are a ‘self-inflicted wound’ on the Scottish economy“. Meanwhile, in the real world: North Tyneside Council’s Tory mayor warned Scotland was at a competitive advantage over the north in England in attracting inward investment; Aker Solutions announced another 500 jobs to its current 2,700 strong operation in Aberdeen; £4.5 billion investment announcement by BP West of Shetland – an extension of the existing Clair oil field, including investment by oil firms Shell, ConocoPhillips and Chevron; Hewlett-Packard will provide more than 700 jobs by setting up an IT services hub at Erskine.
- September 2nd 2011: “Scotland would have struggled to deal with the fallout from the financial crisis if it had not been part of UK.” As we are now discovering, the FSA missed many key issues creating the fiscal crisis, including loose LIBOR control and following Brown’s ‘soft touch’ regulation. Had Scotland been independent, a tighter regulation would have kept RBS & HBOS sensible enough to avoid fiscal meltdown— as banks in Denmark, Norway and other countries did.
In short, our Danny peddles mince—and not just mince but bigoted mince at that. Scots needs a proper debate about their future. He isn’t providing one. Whatever drives him, it would be in his own future interests, as much as anyone’s, if he toned it down some and embraced Better Together or (the equally unionist but nonetheless articulate) Scotland Institute for ideas how to make the running. Properly.
Because, unless he sees the light, we will.