THE debate about an independent Scotland’s place in Europe is taking on the character of Groundhog Day, with the same arguments rehearsed ad infinitum without ever taking us forward.
So when Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire expressed the Westminster government’s belief yesterday that an independent Scotland would not automatically become a member of the European Union he did little than add to the widespread sense of ennui on the issue.
The status of an independent Scotland in Europe is obviously fundamentally important, and a key part of the discussion about the country’s future. But it is also an aspect of our national conversation rendered close to meaningless by the bewildering array of learned opinions on the subject.
So we have some eminent academics who say Scotland’s entry would be automatic; and some who say it would be automatic but subject to negotiation on the exact conditions; some who say it would necessitate signing up to join the euro; and others still who say Scotland would have to apply for entry from scratch.
Mr Swire’s comments do have the benefit of being the nearest we have to a Westminster government opinion on the subject, but the minister made clear his was a view based on the weight of legal precedent. Given the clear division of legal opinion on this subject, this is close to meaningless.
The same could be said of an intervention yesterday by Labour MP Ann McKechin, who warned an independent Scotland might face trade tariffs when selling goods to England. At best, this is a hunch about a theory based on a hypothesis.
The truth is, nobody knows what Scotland’s position will be come independence day, if that is indeed where the country is heading. Moreover, an official opinion from the EU now may not be the same as an opinion in two years time (when Scotland votes) or a year further down the line (when Scotland would be in throes of independence negotiations with London). The EU position may well fluctuate depending on the political outlook at the time, and the political complexion of EU member governments.
That does not mean we should not seek views to help illuminate the debate, and we look forward to receiving the opinion of the Scottish law officers on the subject, now that it is clear that they have been finally asked to look into this. If Mr Swire was commenting after asking the Westminster government’s own law officers to make a considered judgment, then that would indeed be worth listening to.
At this stage, however, one politician’s opinion based on one politician’s selection of legal advice from an a la carte array of choices will add little to the debate. Nor will it advance the Better Together cause.
Once again, this newspaper calls for clarity – and a modicum of restraint.
The age of opportunity
They say the definition “an old person” is anyone more than ten years older than whatever age one happens to be at the time.
By the Scottish Government’s thinking, however, an old person is anyone aged 60 or over, because that is the age one currently has to be to receive a concessionary bus pass that entitles you to free bus travel across Scotland.
This has always been a somewhat arbitrary age at which to offer this benefit. Most working men do not even have then option of retiring until they are 65. And it has been made abundantly clear by successive governments that retirement age is only going to get higher, and the days of women being allowed to retire far earlier than men will soon be looked back upon as an anachronism.
Nonetheless is comes as something of a surprise to find that the people suggesting concessionary bus travel should start at age 65 and not 60 are none other than the charity Age Scotland. They argue the saving of £40 million could be targeted more effectively, providing transport for the elderly where it is needed most – for example in rural areas, where public transport options are more limited.
It is an interesting intervention into the debate on how we spend public cash, not least because it goes to the heart of the ideological tussle of universal benefits versus targeted benefits, which is becoming one of the key battlegrounds in Scottish politics.
Away from politics, the charity’s comments are a cue for all of us to recalibrate our definition of elderly. If Age Scotland is saying 60 is too young to be considered old, all of us under that age have an extra five years of relative youth to look forward to.