Monday, August 18, 2014

One Month To Go - Why I'm Still Undecided

You know how time normally flies.  Well I can’t believe that it was 26 months since the campaign for the Independence referendum started at Cineworld Edinburgh.  There is a month to go, a month for many people to make their minds up.  Including me.

I admit to being sold on some aspects of the arguments for Independence.  The prospect of all policies being tailored to the needs of Scotland & Scottish people rather than to the needs of winning seats in the traditional swing areas that win Westminster elections.  It’s this that has been at the heart of the “Radical Independence” prospectus.  Unfortunately there is no roadmap to the prosperous Scotland with higher living standards.

The biggest issue with the arguments regarding Independence relate to the Salmond Plan.  I’ve posted ad nausium about Sterlingzone and how I don’t think it would be in the best interests of an Independent Scotland to be put into a fiscal straightjacket that would follow with the inevitable fiscal pact. I also think that the fiscal pact undermines the argument that “we would have all the economic levers available” which John Swinney says each time he appears on the broadcast media.

The other part of the Salmond Plan is of course the SNP’s policy regarding the EU.  I would rather we negotiate our way in and join after a referendum rather than the back door method that the SNP favour.  Pro-Independence supporters are all to willing to believe the benefits – in relation to trade – without even acknowledging the downsides.  Surrender of sovereignty being the main downside.

One of the developing arguments pro-Independence supporters are putting forward just now is that to save the NHS from privatisation at the hands of the Tories at Westminster then we should vote yes.  The argument goes that with more cuts being threatened by the Westminster parties, that this time Health budgets would not be ring fenced.  On a similar subject, Iain MacWhirter wrote some pieces some time ago about the controversial TIPP trade negotiations between the EU and the USA.  One of the proposals would see American healthcare firms be allowed to enter the European Healthcare “market” where there is private provision.  MacWhirter made the point that Cameron’s own Healthcare reforms make the English NHS TIPP compliant which would make them more susceptible to the large US medical companies moving in

In the short term a devolved NHS might be at more risk of TIPP than a fully independent one – MacWhirter identified that the Scottish NHS may well be at threat through court cases.  I don’t think an Independent Scotland makes an NHS free at the point of need entirely safe.  For one thing there may come a point where we elect a right wing Scottish Government that might enact policies that would make the Scottish NHS TIPP compliant.  For another the EU could well force us to be TIPP compliant.

Pro-Indy supporters would probably be up in arms at this suggestion, but the EU do have form in this respect.  EU Directive 91/440 ensures that there would be no return to a nationalised Scotrail.  Like this directive, which came a couple of years before the Tories own Rail privatisation plans came into force, any attempt to force the market-ization of the Scottish NHS would please the Tories.  So no I don’t think if I voted yes, the NHS would be any safer than if I choose to vote No.

Those are my reservations for voting Yes.  If you’re thinking that I’m going to vote no, you’ve not seen the title of this blogpost.  No’s biggest problem can be summed up in four words.

The Better Together campaign.

It’s not that they’ve been relentlessly negative, or not put forward reasons to stay in the union, though they have scraped the bottom of the barrel so many times I thought Blair McDougall had scraped his way to Australia by now.  It’s more that those reasons are more often than not undermined or usurped by announcement's aimed at Westminster’s true focus.  The Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems focus has been on next years Westminster election.  As far as they are concerned, the Independence referendum is a distraction, nay... a sideshow to the main event.  All three parties are fully signed up members of George’s not so marvellous medicine yet, in the case of Labour, deny that fact.

One of the arguments the No side make is that a vote for yes is not just for Christmas, that this is a long term decision.  The problem with that is that the next two or three generations of leaders at Westminster are not the most promising crop regarding being sympathetic to Scottish issues.  If Labour win next May, Cameron’s successor is possibly going to be either Theresa May or George Osborne, with the London mayor Boris Johnson maybe emerging as the challenger to May should he be elected to Westminster.  Should Cameron (as I think) stay in Downing Street, Milliband would lose the Labour leadership to either Yvette Cooper, Chukka Umuna or Rachel Reeves. Not names that inspire, all of them can be described as New Labour at least.

This isn’t a case of there being not enough information.  I have serious reservations about voting yes.  I also have deep reservations about simply voting no as well.  Both sides have 30 days remaining to convince me of their cases, otherwise it’s down to eeney meeney miney moe… After all I can’t be the only one in need of convincing?

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Bad Politics of Sterlingzone

Since the debate between Salmond & Darling on Tuesday, Sterlingzone has become front and centre of the Independence debate.  Darling’s win has even seen a swing in support towards the no camp in the first post debate poll (though the usual caviats apply – we need to see if other polls follow this pattern).  What the arguments disguise though is the bad decision making on both sides over this subject.
Osborne delivering what is now known as "The Sermon on the Pound"

In this week’s Sunday Herald, Salmond makes clear that according to his Fiscal commission, “retaining sterling in a formal currency union” is the best option for Scotland and for r-UK. Salmond’s arguments for the currency union range from it being “as much our pound” to the various trade related issues.  What Salmond doesn’t mention is the sovereignty that would have to be surrendered should I-Scotland’s proposal for “Sterlingzone” come to pass.  Mark Carney, while not saying that Sterlingzone will not occur did flag up that a fiscal pact would need to be negotiated between r-UK and I-Scotland – “in a monetary union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK the two parliaments would have to agree on whether fiscal rules were sufficient or whether similar risk-sharing mechanisms were necessary.  a durable, successful currency union requires some ceding of national sovereignty.

With that in mind, I simply do not understand the one-eyed dogma surrounding this issue from pro-Independence supporters.  We would have to surrender some of the economic levers of power were we to go into Sterlingzone, we would surrender some of our powers not just to one of our biggest competitors but also perhaps a neighbour with a grudge.  We simply do not know how r-UK will react if there is a “Yes” vote.  For pro-Indy supporters to claim that everything would be ok displays a sort of complacency.  Then again pro-Independence supporters seem to be blithely unaware of the consequences of Sterlingzone.

Considering that one of the key arguments for Independence is that decisions about Scotland would be made in Scotland & that we would be able to use all the economic levers in the best interests of Scotland.  Surely this argument is all rather disingenuous?

I had rather hoped that when it came to the currency issue, the pro-Indy groups would have advocated a “Scottish” Pound – initially tacked to Sterling but with no currency union agreement.  I had hoped that this arrangement would be a short to medium term currency in the timeframe it would take for us to set up a central bank/lender of last resort.  The option of a Scottish Pound is infinitely more preferable to Sterlingzone – with the fiscal straightjackets that presents.  In short, I do not believe that Sterlingzone would be in the best interests of I-Scotland.

More understandable though is the stance taken by the Westminster mandarins regarding Sterlinzone.  Their implacable opposition can be read as an opposition towards any form of currency union & in a sense is a refighting of the arguments possibly deployed when the debates raged in relation to the UK’s possible membership of the Euro in the 1990’s.  Blair when he was leader of the opposition was keen on the UK joining the Euro.  Arguably the person that kept us out of the Euro was Gordon Brown’s economic advisor – Ed Balls.

The civil service mandarins that wanted to keep Sterling out of the “ghastly” Euro would in no doubt be equally perturbed at Swinney’s back of a fag packet plan for a currency union when it surfaced a couple of years ago.  What is strange though has been the response of the finance ministers/spokesmen of the three Westminster parties.  Their motives are understandable, but their actions can be best described by quoting Michael Portillo on the subject “bad politics”.

From the point of view of R-UK, rejecting Sterlingzone does not make good sense.  The chance to hinder a potential competitor by putting it into an economic straightjacket, while keeping Sterling as a petro-currency – these arguments for Sterlingzone have been brushed aside because of Whitehall’s aversion to currency unions.  What is worse is the form that this decision has been put across.  Osborne’s now infamous “Sermon on the Pound” will go down in infamy as how not to talk to an electorate.  It was the most condescending & deeply patronising speech delivered by a senior British politician since…  well Thatcher’s own “Sermon on the Mound” in 1988.  That Balls & Alexander could not help themselves and rushed to support Osborne has tarnished their credibility in Scotland.

Instead of gleefully talking down to us and telling us that we will not be able to use the pound after Independence, Osborne should have set out his terms for a fiscal pact – and set high eye watering terms that would have shown the folly of Sterlingzone. The constraints on public spending & debts that the treasury would alow before agreeing to a currency union.  That would have torpedoed the folly that is Sterlingzone under the waterline.  Instead we have this argument where Westminster politicians claim that there will be no Sterlingzone if there is a Yes and nationalists stick their fingers in their ears, dismissing it as bluff – pointing to Nick Watt’s story in April. 

This techiness has infected the pre-negociating process already – witness Swinney’s threat that no Sterlingzone means we walk away from the UK debt free should we vote yes. Cue pro‑union politicians outraged at this blatant attempt at…  er…  negotiating (straight from the UK playbook of bullying tactics too…).  Milliband’s outrage on GMS on Friday morning did not have the desired affect as I kept on giggling at is faux outrage, I mean come on – what did you expect?

The Sterlingzone issue does seem to be the whole Independence debate in microcosm.  Pro-Indy supporters shun the common sense approach for an option that is not necessarily in the best interests of I-Scotland, when challenged on this, they display dogmatic behaviours.  In the mean time, the pro-Union supporters just get the wrong end of the stick entirely.  Once again, it shows that the pro-Indy camps have made bad policy choices that will come back time and again to haunt them.  The dogma may well be unedifying but they are tied to Sterlingzone – sink or swim.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

A Wasted Opportunity

We were told that Salmond was the best orator in the country.  We were told that Salmond was the best debater in the country.  We were told, in short that Salmond was a big beast of the political landscape, both here and UK wide.

So how did Salmond lose a debate against Labour’s own version of John Major, Alistair Darling?

Salmond, STV's Bernard Ponsonby and Darling
The first thing to point out is that, in spite of the dominance of the SNP and the loud claims of supporters of Independence, polling still shows a lead for those who would like us to stay in the union.  The poll unveiled at the start of STV’s debate tonight showed a 42/58 split in favour of the union, though with a rise in support for Independence.  This means that Darling’s “Better Together” campaign has a lead to defend.  It might be a stretch for this to justify the notorious “Project Fear”, but it explains Darling’s performance tonight.

What it doesn’t explain was Salmond’s poor performance tonight.  The First Minister needed to convince undecided’s (I suppose like myself) that Independence is a project worth buying into.  Instead we got the soundbites that have been rattling about the MacTwittersphere since… well probably the launch of Yes Scotland over two years ago.

After the opening arguments, Darling aggressively questioned Salmond over his plan for a Sterlingzone.  It was at this point that Salmond’s night came close to collapse when Darling asked and asked and asked for Salmond’s plan B.  Salmond stuck to his guns about the pound being as much ours.  I’ve said before that I don’t think Sterlingzone would be in the best interests of I-Scotland, surrendering fiscal powers to our biggest competitor is not good politics, while my short to medium term preference would be for a “Scottish” Pound tacked to Sterling.  I just don’t get the Pro-Indy camp’s dogged ideological preference for Sterlingzone.

Salmond’s choice of questions didn’t help him.  Instead of focusing on the arguments regarding Westminster’s intransigence towards Scotland or maybe their economic arguments (currency aside), Salmond went on Project Fear asking darling questions about Better Together’s apparent statements on I-Scotland’s policy towards driving on the right and aliens.  Salmond sort of wound up to trying to get darling to agree with Cameron over…  well I’m not sure.  I think when Salmond opened his set of questions on “Project Fear” he lost the debate there and then.

The second part of the debate was a straight audience participation section.  This section, in truth felt like a sort of lull.  Darling was essentially just sowing doubt regarding Salmond’s claims, while Salmond fell into the trap of regurgitating all of the Pro-Indy’s soundbites.

This has been the aim all along for Better Together, to essentially defend their poll lead.  As notorious (and at times laughable) Project Fear has been, it has mostly preserved their poll lead.  It’s also meant that it’s been incumbent on Yes Scotland to make the running – which they haven’t.  I tweeted that Darling skewered Salmond on Sterlingzone and did nothing else – because he didn’t need to do anything else.  Darling’s job was maybe done, but Salmond was very poor tonight.

For long and weary, I’ve said that Scotland will vote to stay in the union for as long as the SNP and Yes Scotland persist with Sterlingzone and with the current line regarding EU membership – policies I’ve dubbed “The Salmond Plan”.  Tonight was conclusive proof that for all that the grassroots campaign has been the most successful part of their campaign that will count for nothing with “The Salmond Plan”.  I’m not sure how Salmond can reverse out of this cul de sac.  The time to do something is now running out, while tonight was a definite missed opportunity for pro-Independence supporters.