Sunday, 24 June 2012

Do SNP Policies Matter?

At first glance that would seem to be an odd question to ask, given that the party is the largest party in Holyrood and is therefore, the Scottish government. According to its supporters, it is also the largest party committed to Scottish independence or at least to its version of independence, more of which below. Even its strongest critics, of which I am considered to be one, have to concede that in terms of members, organisation and money, it is by far and away the largest, best organised and wealthiest party currently campaigning for a "Yes" vote in the coming referendum on Scottish independence. For all of those reasons, one would assume that what the party says, the policies it promotes, must be of major importance. In fact, to many of its supporters, they are the only policies that matter. They matter to such an extent, that woe betide anyone who questions them, never mind disagrees with them. That particular brand of supporter demands total obedience to the party hierarchy, will countenance no criticism or disagreement, on the grounds that to criticise the SNP is to undermine the campaign for independence, as the party is the most realistic vehicle to achieve it.

On the other hand, there is another brand of supporter, which argues just as vehemently that any criticism of the SNP or its policies, will undermine the campaign for independence and is to be condemned, but because the SNP's policies do not really matter. This is a relatively new line of argument and might have found favour with older Nationalists in the days when party members hoped they could appeal to Scots of all political persuasions, to vote for independence first and sort out the policy differences after. Obviously, no one was suggesting that policies were irrelevant, but the hope was that a majority of Scots could be persuaded to set aside their personal commitment to "right" or "left" or whatever, vote for the principle of independence and the policies would be determined in the first elections to be held after independence. One prominent party member at the time, the 1960s, argued that he was not prepared to stand on the hustings "naked", and as a political party seeking power, rather than a pressure group merely seeking to create political change, it was inevitable that the party develop policies.

The second group makes the perfectly valid point that the current campaign is a Referendum and not an election, therefore to argue against the SNP on its policies is rather pointless as there will be no vote on policies and all that the electorate is being asked to do, is to vote "Yes" or "No" on the principle of independence. The second part of their argument is that once Scotland is independent, Scots can change any policy to which they object, The SNP may not be the government in an independent Scotland and policies which they currently promote, may be totally inappropriate and in any case, the SNP may not exist in an independent Scotland. As a hard line, uncompromising and unconditional nationalist, I have some sympathy with the theory of that line of argument but am forced to reject it for several reasons. The first is that only about 30% to 35% of Scots are in favour of independence and not all of them would vote for independence unconditionally. The logical conclusion to this line of argument is that the SNP should have no need of policies, should have no need to say what kind of country Scotland will be when it becomes independent. Of the 70% of Scots who are not committed to independence, approximately 50% of them are equally committed to Scotland remaining part of the UK, although a section of that number is also in favour of greater powers being transferred to Ediniburgh. The remaining 50% want to know what they are voting for.

The Scots who need to be persuaded to vote "Yes" have demanded to know what independence will mean, hence the policy statements that have been produced by the SNP, some of which have caused considerable controversy and opposition. It was inevitable that any policy statement would run into some opposition, therefore it is something that SNP supporters will have to tolerate. Not everyone who opposes SNP policies is a Unionist and to label any and all opposition in that way, will be counterproductive. The problem that many nationalists (many of them party members) have with recent SNP policy statements, is that they are seen as diluting independence to the point where the term is almost meaningless. That aside, the other points raised by SNP supporters deserve to be examined in more detail.

The referendum is to take place in June 2014 but it is said, it will take anothet two years for negotiations to be complete before independence can become effective. What is not clear is what it is that is going to be negotiated. If a big enough majority of Scots was in favour of independence unconditionally, negotiation would involve the mechanics of transferring power to Holyrood and little else, as there would be little disagreement in Scotland about independence per se. However, we know that is not going to be the case and there will have to be some prior agreement on what it is that Scots are voting for. If there is a "Yes" vote, Scots are bound to expect the negotiations will simply cement what has already been agreed. For example, the SNP is making considerable effort to convince Scots that sterling will still be the currency and that the Bank of England will control the banking system in an independent Scotland. What happens if the rUK decides that is not acceptable, what happens if any changes that may have to be made, are found to be unacceptable to a majority of Scots?

The arguments being put forward by SNP supporters, that after independence Scots can change any policy they don't like, suggest a degree of naivete I find difficult to accept as genuine, particulary coming from people whose answer to every criticism is "independence is a process not an event". They have had such a commitment to gradualism that every dilution of independence, such as the retention of sterling, is dismissed as of no importance as it will all work out in the end. Political change does not happen overnight, as the 300 years it has taken Scots to come to this point would amply demonstrate and we have to give some thought to the likely make-up of the first parliament in an independent Scotland.

After Winnie Ewing won the Hamilton by-election in 1967, she came to the first National Council of the SNP, after the victory, to be greeted with a thunderous ovation from delegates as soon as she entered the room. Some of them were in tears, such was the emotion created by winning a single parliamentary seat, the first since 1946 when Robert McIntyre won Motherwell. The following year, the party won 100 seats at the local elections, quickly followed by winning 19 of the 21 council seats in the first ever election in the new town of Cumbernauld. The next day I discussed the situation with a friend in the party who was quite confident we would be independent within 15 years. The victories of 1974 were followed by the massive disappointment of 1979, the doldrums of the 1980s, the belief we would be "Free by '93" followed by the current success in the Scottish Parliament. People who have gone through most if not all those various stages in the party, are not going to walk away as soon as Scotland votes to be independent. Friendships and rivalries have been formed and survived and few will walk away to leave Scotland under the control of people in the Unionist parties, who have spent their political lives doing everything they could to deny Scotland independence.

The SNP is not going to break up and the party most likely to be the main rival is the Labour Party. It will take some years for the Tories to shake off the legacy of the Thatcher Years and the Lib/Dems will still have to suffer for having gone into coalition with Cameron et al, in the last parl;iament of the UK. If the first parliament in an independent Scotland returns a SNP majority, the party is not going to change its policy on keeping sterling immediately or even within the short term. John Swinney has said it will take at least a decade before the SNP would consider joing the euro - "if the economic conditions are right" - which means the party is still in favour of joining the currency in principle, despite the fact we have been told that the EU elite now recognises that full fiscal union will be inevitable if the euro is to succeed. In other words, the SNP is still in favour of joining a currency - the euro- which will shortly be part of a full fiscal union, or it will not survive. At the same time, it is arguing that Scotland needs fiscal autonomy in the UK because Scotland needs to control its tax revenues. This places the party in a policy position which is as contradictory as the original "Independence in Europe".

The first parliament in an independent Scotland is very likely to be the same as or very similar to, the present Holyrood parliament in its make-up. For that reason, any changes to major policy positions such as the retention of sterling and Bank of England control, is unlikely to happen quickly. None of the erstwhile Unionist parties is likely to want to make changes that will cement Scottish independence, they will be more likely to retain as much as possible, any of the instituions that had been part of the previous UK. The SNP will keep those institutions such as the Bank of England or the monarchy, which they feel are necessary to cement the "social union" it has promised. This is where the arguments of SNP supporters fall down, particularly the claim that Scots can change any policies they do not like. The SNP cannot expect to be given free reign when it comes to policy formation, particulary when those policies undermine independence. Anyone who gives any thought to the political situation as it is likely to develop, both in the run up to independence and in the aftermath of a "Yes" vote, is unlikely to be as sanguine as SNP supporters, on the question of changing policies. For that reason, opposition to the SNP is unlikely to diminish, the closer we get to the vote. Patrick Harvie and the Greens have already made their position clear and, if the SNP is serious about making the campaign as inclusive as possible, it had better give some serious thought to how it proceeds from here on in.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Do I Feel British? No, Why Would I Want To?

During my activities in politics I have been interviewd countless times by all branches of the media and frequently asked if I feel British. The answer has always been the same, "No, I don't. I don't even know what Britishness is, or means." Occasionally, particularly if the interviewer was from one of the English newspapers, I have been pushed to say why I don't feel British. I have then asked them to define Britishness for me, in the expectation that I might learn why they thought it important. The explanations invariably involved definitions of what I have associated with being English or, at least had more to do with how I assume it must feel like to be English. I know why I feel Scottish, having been born in Scotland and with several generations of my family having been born in Scotland. The culture in which I was brought up is Scottish and the history of those among whom I have lived and worked all my life, is Scottish.

The symbols of nationhood, such as flag, buildings and castles, language and culture, to which I have a strong attachment are all Scottish. As a republican with absolutley no fondness for the institution of monarchy, the present Queen, most frequently held up us the symbol of Britishness to which we must all pay homage, represents privilege and inequality, never someone to whom I must give allegiance. Does that make me parochial or inward looking, a narrow nationalist? No, I don't think so, because Nationalism to me means no more than the desire to see my nation become a nation/state once again. I feel no animosity to other nations, nor do I desire to dominate any other nation. Having travelled widely and experienced other cultures, I have yet to see any other country that would persuade me to go and live there, although I have a particular fondness for France and speak the language well enough to be able to converse freely when in that country. Those who profess to be European have never been able to explain to me what that means, anymore than those who profess to be British can explain what that means.

The only reason there is now a need to speak about identity and what it means and represents, is because the SNP, in its eagerness to persuade Scots that independence will be so painless, it will not even entail leaving the United Kingdom, or ceasing to be British. This has been presented in a manner that removes the element of choice from those of us who do not feel British nor have any desire to be British. Scots are being told that on Day One of independence, they will still be British, whether or not they have ever been British when Scotland was part of the UK. Britishness is not about mere geography, it is meant to signify something more than just living in a particular area of the British Isles; it is supposed to signify a way of life that is peculiarly British - and that is where the problem begins. In my frequent spats and discussions with supporters of the EU, I invariably asked them to illustrate what it meant to be "European" as opposed to being British, Scottish or Irish or any other nation in the continent. What is it about being "European" that made them feel different - as opposed to just superior - to those of us who were content to just feel Scottish. I have yet to get a reply and in many instances found that the most ardent Europeans spoke only English.

Now that the genie is out of the bottle for the purposes of the SNP's campaign for the referendum, we will hear countless references to Scandinavians. On the most recent Question Time programme, Alex Neil used that very example to illustrate how if Norwegians, Danes and Swedes can also be Scandinavians, so Scots after "independence" can also remain British. I have met any number of Norwegians, Danes and Swedes and when asked where they were from, I have never had any one of them say, "I am Scandinavian". Historians argue it is a relatively recent term, dating from the 18th century, and although Hans Christian Anderson wrote "I am a Scandinavian" in 1839, the term does not seem to have caught on to the extent that in normal speech a Norwegian, Dane or Swede considers him or herself to be Scandinavian first. Despite the SNP's concern, according to the YouGov poll on identity in April this year, only 5% of respondents considered themselves to be British, rather than Scots.

The SNP's concern to be British is of very recent origin, so recent in fact that John Swinney, during his term as leader of the party, addressed annual conference with the words, "It is time to tell the Brits to get off". Had any reporter or commentator approached SNP members at any gathering in the 1970s, and asked if any of them felt British, they would have been subjected to some good natured banter but left in no doubt that the answer was a resounding "No". In fact, I would hazard a guess that this little charade comes from the same "positive-psychology" school that has deemed the word "independence" to be unsuitable because it denotes "risk". Now, every letters page, every twitter and facebook programme will be inundated with references to how British we are obligated to feel. One enthusiast, in his eagerness to illustrate how this is so, wrote to the Sunday Herald, "From Cape Town to Cairo, millions of Africans feel they belong both to their homeland and the mother continent." The argument can get no more ludicrous and pretentious than that and will no doubt comes as a great surprise to those very same millions of Africans.

Perhaps one of the reasons that so few Scots tend to describe themselves as British first, and not many more describe themselves as British at all, is that for years the English have laid claim to the term, so that to be British was to be synonymous with being English. It has often been the complaint of over-sensitive Scots that the English media in particular, seemed to find it difficult to differentiate between the two. How often have we heard, "Aye, so-and-so is only British when he/she is winning. They are always Scots when they lose". References to "The Queen of England" or "Anglo/American relations" have irked Scots for generations and now suddenly, we are all supposed to profess such a strong attachment to being British, that we will continue to shout it from the rooftops, even after we are independent. It is all so artificial there is a danger it will make the "Yes" campaign an embarrassment or, signify just what being "independent" means to the New SNP.

This concern to express an identity has become more important in England, in direct proportion to the demands for independence in Scotland. Now the English feel threatened to such an extent that several newspapers, including the Telegraph and the Guardian, have conducted surveys to discover what identity means to people in the UK. The results have been interesting although whether or not they are what was hoped for, is difficult to tell. What did come across loud and clear, is that few if any, of the respondents could define Britishness or say what it was that made them British. In fact, the majority of those who made the attempt seemed to be first generation immigrants to England, in particular, and few English people saw themselves as being British first and English second. Significantly, Scots who described themselves as British, tended to do so in terms of their negativity towards independence, while some of those who considered themselves to be strongly English, tended to bemoan the loss of the "England we knew".

Being British meant no more than "to obey the law" or "warm beer and cricket" or "to be polite to people" or "we have special festivals that no one else has". When suggestions have been made that "Britishness" might be taught in schools - English schools - the problem that has been raised most often, is knowing what to teach. The one symbol to which everyone could cling and which symbolised Britain more than any other, is the monarchy but English people still tend to regard the Queen as being "their Queen". Elizabeth is Elizabeth the Second whether Scots like it or not and, if we want to argue that she is "our Queen! as well, we will just have to accept she is the Queen of England first and foremost. So, to all those "independence ambassadors" out there, I hope your independence manual has a definition of "Britishness" so that you can explain it to the general population, particularly those who are going to be both independent and British for the very first time. I suppose it is too much to expect you will have a definition of independence.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Recent History of Scottish Economy And Why It Matters

When the SNP announced an independent Scotland would retain sterling as its currency, there was no discussion with other interested parties and it was accepted by everyone else, the opposition parties, the media and the Scottish people. When I have raised objections to that policy decision, I have been told we can decide on the currency after independence, that it was important to get a Yes vote first. That Scots were being told that even if they did not control their economy, they would still be independent, was either glossed over or simply ignored. When questioned more closely, the SNP leadership presented four main arguments which were meant to defuse the situation, to impress on us that we really had nothing to worry about.

The first was that in modern society, monetary policy was not all that important that, according to Alex Salmond, "fiscal policy has primacy". Even to the uniniated, that argument is seen as nonsense, in light of the part that monetary policy is playing in the debacle that currently afflicts the eurozone. The second was that there were 67 other currency unions in the world, like the one he was proposing for the UK, an argument he was forced to withdraw a few days later. The third was that the Bank of England is independent and that Scotland would have a seat on the Bank's Monetary Policy Committee (MPC). This would give Scotland a "measure of control" over monetary policy and place an independent Scotland in a stronger position that it is now. The Treasury has issued a statement to the effect that Scotland would not have a seat on the MPC and at least two previous Chancellors have said the same. My two most recent blogs have questioned just how independent the Bank of England is and put forward arguments that Scotland should have its own currency. I have asked SNP supporters to challenge the arguments and to say how having a single member on the MPC would give Scotland any control of monetary policy but to date, none has replied.

The fourth argument put foward by the SNP, to allay any fears that Scots have about continuing to use sterling, is perhaps the most questionable of all the arguments. We are told that the Bank of England, through the MPC, is unlikely to follow a monetary policy that would be greatly different from that which would be followed by an independent Scotland. It follows therefore, according to the SNP argument, that having the Bank of England control Scotland's monetary policy does not really matter. Anyone with any knowledge of the recent history of the Scottsih economy will know just how fatuous that argument is, particularly if they have been members of the SNP for any longer than the past few years. The party claimed with total justification for over 70 years, that the interest rates set by London were rarely if ever, set with Scotland's interests in mind. On Thursday night (June 7th) on BBC's Question Time programme, Michael Forsyth who was Secretary of State in John Major's government, between 1995 and 1997, admitted that when the SNP claimed that interest rates that were set by Westminster ignored Scotland, he had no answer because it was true.

This argument also ignores the point made repeatedly by the SNP, that independence will allow Scotland to apply economic policies that suit Scotland, will encourage Scottish business to flourish and improve the standard of living of our poorest people. The whole point of independence, according to the economic nationalists who currenctly hold sway in the SNP, is to improve the Scottish economy and realise the potential we have, with the natural resources we enjoy. That can only be done when the economic problems of Scotland are addressed, unless the SNP is now saying that the economic problems in Scoltand are exactly the same as they are in the rest of the UK and there is no need for Scottish control of the economy. It is increasingly difficult to have any faith in people who claim to know where they are going, when they would appear to have little knowledge about where they have been. The following is a very brief and superficial summary of the recent history of the Scottish economy.

It is generally recognised that Scotland has been over-reliant on the public sector since the end of the Second World War, in terms of employment and spending. The massive housing crisis faced by post-war Scotland was tackled quickly, to the extent that 86% of all housing being built in Scotland in that period, was public sector housing. In the 1950s rents in the public sector were one third the level of those in the private sector, something which greatly encouraged the reliance on public sector housing. Slum clearance in the Glasow area provided much needed employment and housing but gave rise to the peripheral schemes such as Easterhouse and Drumchapel, with all their associated problems. Easterhouse had a population the size of that of Perth, without a single pub or shop, causing Billy Connelly to coin the infamous "desert wi windies". At the same time as housing was seen as a priority, Scotland's heavy industry was being destroyed piecemeal, by succesive UK governments. As an indication of just how much Scotlanmd became dependent on the public sector, the number of civil servants employed by the Scottish Office rose from 2,500 in 1945 to 8,000 in 1970.

The 1960s and 1970s is a period during which the UK was governed by both Labour and Tory governments, under the premiership of Harold Wilson, Ted Heath and Jim Callaghan, all of whom played their part in ignoring the particular problems of the Scottish economy, in order to deal with those of the "UK as a whole". Under Wilson, inflation reached figures in excess of 20%, the bulk of it generated by the South East of England and London. In 1964, when he was elected, unemployment in the UK stood at 400,000 but by 1967 it had reached 631,000, with Scottish unemployment at 50% higher than the UK average. The discovery of oil in the Scottish sector of the North Sea could have changed the economic propsects of Scotland out of all recognition but the policies of successive Labour and Tory governments ensured it would not happen. The true extent of the value of the oil was kept secret from the Scottish people until the publication of the McCrone Report in 2004, thirty years after Heath had instructed it.

The economic problems of Scotland were simply a reflection of the problems of the UK and, despite the discovery of oil, Scottish industry was either closed down, from Beeching to Scottish steel, to shipbuilding to mining or was undermined by the economic policies of the successive governments. Heath sacrifised the steel industry as part of the price of entry to the Common Market and considered the Scottish fishing industry to be expendable. Entire communities which relied on both industries, have since been destroyed as a consequence. That it could have been so different is emphasised by the McCrone Report which said that not only would Scotland, with control of the oil revenues, be economically viable and the 7th richest country in the world, it would have a currency worth 20% more than sterling within two years of becoming independent, with no downside to the Scottish economy. Perhaps more importantly, he also said that even without the oil Scotland would be economically viable with a small devaluation of the currency along with a substantial reduction in its defence budget.

The Thatcher years punished Scotland more than the previous governments and few Scots have many fond memories of her tenure of office. In the first two years of her being elected in 1979, Scotland had lost 20% of its workforce, as she pursued policies to ensure there would be no return of the inflation of previous governments. During her term of office unemployment in the UK reached 3 million, Scotland lost 15 of its 18 remaining pits and although she had been out of office for a couple of years, the closure of Ravenscraig was the final nail in the coffin of the Scottish steel industry. Far from benefiting from the oil off its coast, Scotland again suffered unemployment levels higher than the rest of the UK, while the oil revenues were used to pay for her economic reforms throughout the 1980s. Between 1960 and 1973, unemployment averaged 1.9% in the UK but over 2.5% in Scotland; between 1973 and 1979 it was 3.4% in the UK but 4.5% in Scotland and between 1979 and 1989 it was 9.1% in the UK but over 10% in Scotland. Despite this record Alex Salmond said that "Scotland didn't mind the economic side of Thatcher but disapproved of the social implications of her policies." It was a remark he came to regret very quickly.

Throughout all of the period in question, interest rates were set by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and frequently manipulated before elections in an attempt to influence the voters. A reduction in rates just before the election was meant as a bribe, and more often than not, seen as a bribe, having little or no effect on the voting intentions of the electorate. It was to avoid the risk of politicians making this kind of policy decision, that Gordon Brown decided to give the responsibility of setting interest rates to the Bank of England, in the belief that the reasons for setting the rates would have nothing to do with the electoral prospects of the party in office. If we are to follow the logic of the SNP's arguments about the "independence" of the Bank of England, it would be reasonable to note some change in the setting of the interest rates since 1997, when Brown came to office, in terms of the Bank taking greater account of the needs of Scotland. When politicians made the decisions, it was to be expected they would set rates according to what they thought would best suit their likely supporters but, freed from that kind of political pressure, it is equally to be expected the Bank would be more objective. Has that happened? Is there any evidence to suggest the Bank of England has set rates because it thought it would be to Scotland's benefit, rather than to the benefit "of the UK as a whole"?

What did Gordon Brown's reforms of the financial services industry and the Bank of England, do to Scotland, given that Westminster still controlled the economy? GDP figures showed that Scotland fell into formal recession in the first 3 months of 2002, five years into Brown's tenure of office. The Scottish economy had been underperforming the UK economy for some years and in the 2nd Quarter of 2002, GDP growth was 0.3% as opposed to 0.6% for the UK. Scottish growth between 1995 and 2002 averaged 1.9% per annum, as opposed to 2.7% for the UK. Scotland was more reliant on manufacturing industry than the rest of the UK at that time and exports in engineering fell from £13 billion in 2001 to £10 billion in 2002. The climate at the time was not conducive to sustain the economic mix that Scotland had in electronic engineering and in the 18 months prior to to 2002, both America and Japan had stopped investing. Brown reacted by imposing an "energy tax" which was predicted to cost Scottish manufacturing £90 million in 2001 and actually cost the industry £143 million in the first year. He topped that off with a 10% hike in corporation tax on North Sea oil companies, placing in jeopardy the development of marginal fields. The then First Minister, Jack McConnell, was moved in September 2002, to ask the dismal Jimmies -and he was not referring to Nationalists - to stop talking Scotland down.

Alistair Darling held senior office from the time he was appointed by Blair in 1997, to the office of Chief Secretary to Treasury, a post he held until he took over as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions the following year, a post he held until 2003. He then combined the posts of Transport Secretary with that of Secretary of State for Scotland, until he was appointed Secretary for Trade and Industry in 2006, holding that post until being appointed Chancellor in 2007, the post he retained until Labour's defeat in 2010. In his first budget in March 2008, he allowed Brown's intention to abolish the 10p rate of income tax to stand thereby punishing 5 million of the lowest earners in the country. In reaction to the criticism this caused, he raised the tax threshold and borrowed another £2.7 billion to pay for it. So much for cutting back on debt. His announcement of £20 billion of new spending, earned him a warning from Mervyn King at the Bank of England about public spending. He increased NI by 1%, his department managed to lose the personal details of 25 million citizens, said to be worth £60 million on the black market and in his final budget, he was roundly criticised for what was termed a "pre-election con", when it was discovered that he had set aside money for only one year, to cover increases in benefits he had announced.

Darling recently called Alex Salmond a "complete fool" for endorsing the RBS takeover of ABN AMRO, the purchase of a Dutch bank loaded with toxic debt, which helped to destroy RBS. RBS was in competition with Barclays Bank, which was advised in its attempt to buy ABN AMRO by one, Naguib Kheraj, who was just as keen for the takeover as both Fred Goodwin and Alex Salmond. Barclay's bid failed and Kheraj was appointed as a special adviser to the FSA. Was he also a "complete fool" and when did Darling decide that Salmond and Goodwin and, by extension, Kheraj, were all fools? If his opinion of them was so low, why did he not stop the purchase, which he could have done as Chancellor? Why was Kheraj appointed as a special adviser to the FSA, fool that he was? He was at Barclay's when Barclay's tax avoidance schemes came to light in 2009 and it was learned the bank owed HMRC £500 million, which in itself should have disqualified him from any government position.

It is fifteen years since the Bank of England was given the responsibility of setting interest rates, ample time for it to have given some thought to Scotland's particular economic problems. If in fact, there was ever any possibility of it having done so, it is surely to be expected there would be some evidence of it. I know of none, nor have I ever spoken to anyone in the financial services industry who has ever suggested that it might be the case. It is perfectly reasonable to ask therefore, where the SNP gets the notion that the Bank of England will suddenly find a "Scottish conscience" and place concerns for Scotland's interests at the forefront of its general concerns for the "UK as a whole", when it sits down to discuss the next rate it will set. The party has never taken the trouble to explain where it gets the idea the Bank of England will consider Scottish interests and now might be a good time to do so, before the Scottish electorate begins to get the idea it is just havering.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Why An Independent Scotland Should Have its Own Currency.

When countries become independent from a previous colonial power, as in the case of the European empires, including the British Empire, or are forced to re-establish themselves as "new" nation/states because of the collapse of a dominant neighbour, such as the client states of the Soviet Union; the currency to be used by the new nation/states must be a major priority. Not every new country will choose the same path but ever country must choose some path because no country can operate without some means of conducting trade with other countries or conducting the most basic business of everyday life, within its own borders. It is a long time since primitive society used barter as a means of conducting business, altough in times of war, barter frequently becomes the chosen method because of the scarcity of currency. It will also be used when a currency collapses, as in the case of the Weimar Republic. Some countries have chosen to use the currency of other countries either for the sake of convenience or because they see certain advantages in using the currency of a country such as the USA, rather than establishing their own. The majority however, irrespective of size, establish their own.

If Scotland votes "Yes" in the referendum and re-establishes itself as a nation/state, the currency will be as much of an issue for us, as it has been for every other country in a simialr position. It is not a simple issue and should have been given far more prominence in the debates about independence, than it has been given to date. Since the SNP took the decision to adopt the euro in the 1990s, there has been no debate because it was assumed there would be no problems, therefore the SNP has been able to ignore the inherent contradictions in its European policy. It is only now that the currency has been driven to the verge of collapse, that the true nature of European Monetary Union has been highlighted, with the inherent flaws being recognised. If the euro survives, it will be in a much more tightly controlled version, which then destroys any notion of any members of the "new" euro, being politically independent. At last, the Euro-elite has been forced to admit that for the currency union to work, there must also be a fiscal and political union - in other words, there must be a country called Europe, a federal, United States of Europe. That this has always been the ultimate aim of the European founding fathers, has never been denied in political circles in Europe, only in the UK, particularly in the SNP, has the political spin attempted to claim a different aim.

As the SNP's policy on the euro unravelled - the policy now states it will be in the mid 2020s before an independent Scotland could even consider entry to the euro - the party decided to stick with sterling. Here again, the party's policy has created major problems, out of which it has been unable to talk its way. This is one area where the customary response of the SNP - accusing anyone who criticises the policy of "talking down Scotland" or, in this instance " requires a remarkably diminished view of Scotland and its position not to believe we would be entitled to the same representation as other people" - amounts to no more than hot air. The SNP can whistle in the dark as loudly as it wants to, but it is not going to answer the questions that have been provoked by the party's decision to unilaterally decide to use what will be another country's currency, no matter that that "other country" is one with which Scotland has unfortunately shared a 300 year Union. The problem is self-made because the SNP omitted to explain which kind of arrangement it favoured, in order to retain sterling as Scotland's currency.

Alex Salmond was previously forced to retract an earlier assertion that there are 67 other currency unions in the world, similar to the one the SNP is proposing to have with the rest of the UK. There aren't, there are formal and informal unions, neither of which has been earmarked by the SNP as its preferred option. When Alex Salmond was put under pressure in Holyrood to explain the assertion that the SNP would have a place on the MPC, his spokesman's claim that Scotland "would have the same representation as other people" implies a formal union like the euro. However, the statement from the Treasury denying that an independent Scotland would have a seat on the MPC, said, "Scotland using the pound through a sterlingisation mechanism....would have no say over its own monetary policy." That implies an entirely different relationship and one where Scotland would most certainly have no say on monetary policy.

A currency or monetary union is a much more centralised regime, frequently with political overtones and involves centralised control through a new central bank and a new currency, as in the European Monetary Union. In this kind of formal union, all the countries in principle have a say in forming monetary policy - the famed "seat at the top table". Every member country has an opportunity to state its case, even if it is overruled by Qualified Majority Voting for example. In the case of sterlingisation (the more common term is dollarisation), only the country whose currency is being adopted has any say in determining monetary policy. A country can choose to use another country's currency, for reasons stated above, but the disdvantages are greater than simply having no say in monetary policy. If Scotland were to ask for a formal currency union with the rUK, it would require a formal treaty drawn up and ratified by the parliaments of both the newly independent Scotland and the rUK. Is Westminster likely to agree to re-write the Bank of England Act of 1998 in order to accommodate Scotland? Does anyone really believe that a single Scottish member on the MPC, would have any effect on the voting intentions of the committee, if it was required to support the economic policy of the rUK government? It just isn't going to happen.

SNP supporters have argued that the monetary policy of the Bank of England is unlikely to be any different from that of an independent Scotland, therefore it makes no difference if the Bank of England controls monetary policy. Nicola Sturgeon on "The Big Debate" on BBC, in which she claimed Scotland would have a seat on the MPC, argued that control of monetary policy in the hands of the Bank of England would be a success because "the productivity levels in Scotland and the rUK are very similar".The reason the euro was not a success, or so she claimed, is the great disparity between the productivity levels in Germany and Greece. If that is the case (it isn't) when did the SNP discover it and why were they so much in favour of the euro right up to the beginning of 2012? The other problem with her analysis is that the main reason Alex Salmond and other economic nationalists in the SNP, want independence, is so that Scotland can improve its economic performance and the well being of its people. With independence there is every liklihood that it will, which means the economies of Scotland and the rUK will increasingly diverge, which in turn means control of monetary policy will be vital, otherwise Scotland will be at the same disadvantage it has suffered for generations.

The customary arguments against Scotland having its own currency, is the size of the country and the instability it would suffer in the early stages of independence. The CEO of RBS said recently that if Scotland voted "Yes", RBS would "more than likely move south" as "big organisations tend to be centred in big countries". When asked to explain why it is that Switzerland and Norway are both very successful small countries, with equally successful banking systems, unionists become totally silent. Why does New Zealand, a country with a population of 3.5 million insist on having its own currency, when there are economic arguments for having a monetary union with Australia? Canada, with a population of 33.5 million, exports over 82% of its goods and services to the USA and over 54% of its imports come from the USA, ratios which are far in excess of those that Scotland has with the rUK and the EU, but she guards her independence jealously, including her currency. The population of the USA is almost ten times that of Canada and all the arguments about size and being in bed with an elephant apply just as much as they do for the relationship between Scotland and the rUK.

Unionists will argue that all of those examples are of countries which have been independent for generations and Scotland would be different, particularly in the current economic situation in which we find ourselves. They will exaggerate the problems associated with rating agencies and the currency markets. Will a Scots currency maintain its value against other major currencies, will it become a petro-currency and make our exports too expensive, causing us to lose markets, will we lose our triple A status? While all of those are valid questions no one can give guarantees, least of all the Unionists, who excel at asking for guarantees in the event of independence while refusing to give the same guarantees on behalf of the Union and more importantly, have a history of broken promises made by serial liars for generations.

There are currently 25 countries in Europe which do not use the euro, having currencies of their own, all of which are in a healthier state than the euro. There are 221 currencies in the world, some of which are in informal currency unions but in August 2011 only 13 countries had AAA status, after the USA lost its top rating. Those countries included, Austria, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. How many major economies and large countries are included in that list? Since then France has lost its AAA status and the UK has been placed on "negative watch" by Moody, and nine European countries were downgraded in January 2012. Should we really be getting ourselves bent out of shape over a collections of agencies, all of which gave Lehman Brothers AAA status the week before it went into liquidation?

When the Soviet Union broke up, those countries which had been behind the Iron Curtain with their economies controlled by the Soviet Union, suddenly found themselves as new nation states again. Without exception, they all established their own currencies. Within five years between 1990 and 1995, Poland completely turned its economy around from a command economy to a market economy, achieving its pre-1989 level of GDP in that period. The Balkan Republics of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have made remarkable progress, as has the Czech Republ;ic since its Velvet Revolution of 1993. None of them had the economic structure that Scotland has, the natural resources, the banking structure and the financial experience needed to make sure our own currency could work. All of those countries had to start from a base much lower than the base from which we will start - but they did it.

Obviously setting up an independent country and our own currency will require commitment and at the moment, that is the only thing that we lack, to make it work. Of course we will have to make preparations for the new curency to come into circulation. We already print our own bank notes, which are already familiar in the financial world. We have a reputaion for financial expertise and more importantly, financial probity, therefore we have a head start which none of the countries mentioned above had. We are not going to get a seat on the MPC and why would we want one? We are not going to control monetary policy if we keep sterling and it is vital that we do. "All we have to fear is fear itself" may now be a cliche, but it is more apt when applied to Scotland than it ever was when applied to depression-era USA.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

How Independent is the Bank of England?

As the debate leading up to the referendum begins to heat up, one of the most important issues will be the currency an "independent" Scotland decides to use. Since John Swinney announced that the SNP would keep sterling as the currency, there has been a series of statements from the SNP leadership, mainly Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, some of which have been condemned by the Unionist opposition, as "gaffes". The most recent from Ms Sturgeon, came in a televised debate in which she claimed an independent Scotland "would have a seat on the Monetary Policy Committee" (of the Bank of England). The first Minister reiterated the claim during First Minister's Question Time in the Scottish Parliament the following day and, despite serious pressure on both Ms Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, to provide proof that this would be so, none was forthcoming.

I have an obvious interest to declare here as I have been banging on about the SNP's policy on the currency, not just for the months since John Swinney's statement, but for the years since the SNP decided it would join the euro. I have been attacked and ridiculed for my efforts by the usual SNP supporters, but not once has there been any attempt to address the issue of what a monetary union means and how it would effect an "independent" Scotland. Now that the SNP's policy on the euro is dead in the water, although as I pointed out in the most recent blog on the subject, the leadership were still supporting it a couple of months ago, attention has now switched to the use of sterling and how an "independent" Scotland would have a say in devising monetary policy, the current responsibility of the Bank of England. As recently as yesterday several SNP Tweeters insisted the Bank of England is independent and, that meant that it would determine monetary policy for the UK "as a whole" including the part that was now an "independent" Scotland. That suggested of course, that the Westminster government would have little or no say and, with a seat on the MPC of the "independent" Bank of England, something we do not have at the moment, Scotland would be in a stronger position than we are now.

Perhaps my usual critics could address the issue for once (I do not expect the attacks and ridicule to stop as that would render most of them speechless) but if they are so sure the SNP is right, that their arguments are valid, it should be very simple to destroy my arguments and therefore my case, thereby reinforcing the arguments put forward by the SNP and improve the liklihood of  a "Yes" vote in the referendum. It is certainly true that the SNP is in the strongest position, in terms of money, supporters and organisation, to win a "Yes" vote, to say nothing of the personal profiles of Alex Salmond and his ministers, particularly Nicola Sturgeon. By the same token, they have the greatest potential to provoke a "No" vote, if they continue with the nonsense claims they have been making, and not just on the currency. I need no persuasion to vote "Yes" but there is something like 30% of the Scottish electorate, including many who voted for the SNP last time around, who do need to be persuaded and won't be, if all they hear from the SNP are personal attacks on anyone who criticises them, together with ludicrous asserttions that can be kicked into touch by the first lad you meet in the pub. I intend to address the issue of an independent Scotland having its own currency in the next blog but for now, the following is an examination of just how independent the Bank of England is and, what that will mean if Scotland keeps using sterling.

When Gordon Brown became Chancellor in 1997, he changed the responsibilities of the Bank of England in two major respects, the first removed its function as overseer of the financial services industry, including the major banks, the second, gave it the responsibility, and alleged freedom to act independently, in setting interest rates. The Bank of England Act of 1998 set out the parameters of the Bank's responsibilities thus,

1) "maintain price stability and, subject to that,
 2) to support the economic policy of HM Government, including its objectives for growth and employment"

The Chancellor instructed the Bank to create a committee, the Monetary Policy Committee, which would set interest rates, bearing in mind the responsibilities which it had been given. The MPC has nine members, five from the Bank of England and four "external" members appointed by the Chancellor. The Governor chairs the MPC meetings, which take place once a month and the other Bank members include two Deputy Governors, chief economist, Director of operations and Committee chief economist. A Treasury representative attends every MPC meeting but does not vote. The purpose is to ensure the MPC is appraised of the government's fiscal policy and any changes that may be intended, as well as the Chancellor being kept informed of the views being expressed by the MPC. One of the major criticisms that has been made of the MPC, is that it is composed of Bank "insiders" and academics, with little or no business experience. In other words the Government gave the Bank of England operational independence - to set interest rates.

Outside of having the responsibility of setting interest rates, "free" of direct political interference, it is difficult to see how the Bank can be considered "independent"  in any other meaning of the term, bearing in mind its main responsibilities. To emphasise just how much the Bank is a creature of government, under the provisions of the Act of 1998, the Chancellor must write to the Governor of the Bank at least once every 12 months, laying down the Government's inflation target for the coming year and reminding the MPC of its remit under the Act. The letter is couched in the following terms,

"The MPC is accountable to the Government for the remit set out in this letter. Any changes to the remit will be set out in the Budget"

The target for inflation in respect of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) is currently 2% and has been at that level since 2003, when the target was changed from the previous Retail Price Index (RPI) to CPI, more of which below. In the event that the target is missed - either 1% above inflation or 1% below - the Governor of the Bank is obliged to write to the Chancellor with an explanation of why the target has been missed. To date, the Governer has written such a letter to the Chancellor on twelve occasions. The change from RPI to CPI was introduced in 2003 and was criticised as motivated by politics, to bring the UK more into line with the EU, which uses the CPI. One of the criticisms is the way in which the measurement of inflation differs between the CPI and RPI and the Royal Statistical Society has "called for a comprehensive review of the issues relating to the measurement of inflation." Another criticism is that the CPI shows smaller changes and therefore disguises inflationary pressure.

The Office For Budget Responsibility (OBR) has forecast the inflation for RPI and CPI as follows:-

Forecast       2010/11    2011/12    2012/13    2013/14    2014/15

CPI%               2.8            2.6             1.9             2.0           2.0

RPI%               4.2             3.4            3.0             3.2            3.4

OBR questions the assumptions on which inflation is calculated and predicts the gap between CPI and RPI will widen to as much as 1.8% by 2016. The CPI excludes the following goods and services from the measurement of inflation, which are included by RPI, Vehicle and TV licences, mortgage interest payments, household insurances and council tax. Perhaps the most important difference is the exclusion of mortgage interest payments, which are of far greater importance in the UK than they are in the EU because of the differences in the methods of mortgage lending. To exclude mortgage payments from the measurement of inflation seems ludicrous particularly when it is known that between 1997 and 2003, the average interest rate in the UK was 4% while in the eurozone it was 2%, although the UK has had the benefit of interest rates of 0.5% for the past three years, which has had an effect on mortgages rates. The Bank of England had no say in whether or not that change to the measurement of inflation should go ahead despite having the responsibility for setting interest rates, which can be instrumental in causing inflation.

In November last year, a report called "Independence and Accountability - A New Mandate For the Bank of England" was published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research, although it did not reflect that organisation's views. The report was the work of a panel chaired by Lord Roll of Ipsden and which included a group of academics and people from the finance industry. The main concusion of the panel was that the Bank of England should be "completely independent of the Treasury and have as its sole aim, the maintainance of price stability" or setting of interest rates. The view of the panel is that the Bank is not independent in areas where it needs to be. There is no doubt that any organisation which is set up by Government, has its targets set by Government, must answer to Government and which must support Government policy as set out in its remit, and relies on Government for the composition of its most important committee, and can have its functions changed at the whim of Government as was done with the governance of the financial services industry, is hardly independent.

SNP supporters who insist the Bank of England is "independent" must now say in what way it is independent. I appreciate that the SNP currently has problems defining what independence is going to mean for Scotland, but if the party's supporters continue to insist the Bank is independent, they have an obligation to say what that means. They must also say how the "independence" which they insist the Bank has, will be of benefit to an "independent" Scotland. What is it the bank will be able to give to an "independent" Scotland, it is not providing now? What is it that SNP supporters expect of the Bank of England in respect of Scotland? The SNP leadership has claimed it is only reasonable that if Scotland decides to retain Sterling, that Scotland should have a place on the MPC. The party has been told by several authorities, including past Chancellors, it will not be entitled to a seat, nor will it be given a seat, on the MPC. A seat on the MPC is not within the gift of the Bank of England and, bearing in mind that the second main remit of the Bank is "to support the economic policies of HM Government, including its policies for growth and employment." is the SNP really asking for a seat on a committee which is obliged to support the policies of a "foreign" government?

The history of interest rates in the UK is one where the interests of Scotland have rarely been considered and not considered at all, if they ran counter to the interests of the South East of England. Despite that, SNP supporters on here, have argued that maintaining sterling would be OK for an independent Scotland because the "economic policies of the Bank of England are unlikely to be much different from those an independent Scotland would have in any case." That argument is for the next blog. meantime, let us hear the SNP case for the independence of the Bank of England and how that independence will benefit Scotland.