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Scottish referendum: time running out for ‘Yes’

17th August 2014

Scottish referendum: time running out for ‘Yes’

By Ewan Gibbs

Political life in Scotland has been dominated by September’s independence referendum since the moves towards it began about two and a half years ago, and the ‘Yes Scotland’ and ‘Better Together’ ‘No’ campaigns were launched in the summer of 2012. Since then it’s at times often felt as though things were more or less on hold in the build-up to the vote and almost every major political issue is viewed and discussed through the prism of independence. This has intensified over recent months as the official campaigning period began and the first of a series of televised debates took place.

Throughout the campaign both sides have emphasised the positives associated with the public interest in the referendum. Often this appears to have been over-stated. In particular it has become a common refrain on much of the pro-independence left to claim that a major activist movement in support of a socialist or at least social-democratic independence has been formed and mobilised. Without doubt there has been a heightened political awareness and discussion over the independence referendum and some large meetings have been held. The turnout at the poll will likely be much higher than would be expected at even a general election.

However in many respects the positives stop there. The confines of the debate, at least within the mainstream, have been narrow. Although platitudes in support of social justice abound on both sides, especially since the launch of ‘United with Labour’ in an effort to put some distance between Labour and Tory reasons behind the ‘No’ vote which continued to be bound within the ‘Better Together’ campaign. Yet in reality the principle arguments have come to revolve around the extent to which an independent Scotland would be able to maintain parts of the status quo. The SNP has already taken the step of reversing its historic stance and come out in favour of NATO membership whilst the debate has now come to focus around whether an independent Scotland could easily gain membership of the EU and continue to use the pound.

It was the latter issue which dominated the first of the televised debates between Salmond and Darling. With ‘Yes’ still trailing in the polls it was viewed as an opportunity for Salmond to chip away at the ‘No’ lead given his greater charisma and political ability. However, he struggled in the face of Darling’s argument that he had no “plan B” in place to respond to a rejection of a currency union by the remaining UK post-independence. From a socialist point of view whoever came out better in an argument characterised by very little policy differences sans the poll itself is probably neither here nor there. What is more important is the ramifications of the argument that Scotland should and could use sterling. In essence both sides are wrong, at least in the populist versions of their arguments. It goes without saying that Scotland could use sterling in a formal currency union or not. However, in the former scenario this would mean that unelected Central Bankers operating from London would have control over monetary policy, including interest rate setting, and in the latter it would mean the same de facto with Scotland having no formal control or influence at all. By the same argument Scotland could use the euro or the dollar and similarly have no lender of last resort.

This was recognised by the Thatcherite Adam Smith Institute recently when they commented favourably on the prospect of either an informal currency union or pegging a Scottish currency to sterling: “Because Scottish banks would not have access to a currency-printing lender of last resort, they would have to make their own provisions for illiquidity, and would necessarily act more prudently.”  The Scottish nationalist website Newsnet commented favourably on this arguing it demonstrated economics experts supported the viability of an independent Scotland. Their analysis neglected to comment on the consequences of these policies for the sort of social-democratic ‘Nordic’ state the SNP are committed to alongside lower corporation taxes, no income tax rises and a competitive “business environment”.

The limitations of the arguments of both sides have been epitomised in microcosm by claims from both sides that independence would improve annual incomes per head by dubiously calculated sums of money. The most revealing thing about this was the calculations were essentially based on the status quo largely remaining in place outside of moving the border. They were not based around redistributing wealth and power, but on the contrary on why a constitutional shift without any major associated changes would make Scots collectively poorer or richer. The most progressive argument to be herd from the official ‘No’ campaign is the Labour argument that “pooling and sharing” resources across the UK is the best method to show social solidarity. However, this argument is fundamentally a continuation of New Labour’s approach to the economy. It is predicated on the argument that London and to a lesser extent Edinburgh operate as key financial sectors within liberalised labour and capital markets and that the government will minimally redistribute resources and provide welfare for low paid workers. Even this has proven too much for the Coalition and, with Labour proposing to continue austerity, contrary to Better Together’s slogan, the UK is not ‘OK’.

Despite Better Together’s weak arguments and reliance on a nasty and flimsy array of patriotic symbols, militarism and ‘celebrity’ endorsements it looks likely a ‘No’ vote will win in September. This is far from guaranteed but the weakness of the ‘Yes’ campaign’s reliance on arguing for a form of independence that is predicated on minimising political and economic change has hamstrung them regarding currency after they invested so much in arguing for the use of sterling. However, in the case of either result we will be facing the same fundamental struggles against austerity and to renew the labour movement through mobilising at community and workplace level and struggling for a socialist programme. Given the programme we have on offer from ‘Yes Scotland’ it seems difficult how this form of independence, which will strengthen the role of unelected neoliberal institutions in the setting of government policy, can be seen as part of the solution.

I’ve explained my reasoning for voting ‘No’ in a previous issue of ‘Labour Briefing’

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