The argument that the Union offers a utopia of jobs and growth fails to stand up to any real scrutiny, writes Jim Mather
I read Jim Gallagher’s article in The Scotsman, about “economic integration and social solidarity”, with mixed emotions. One was concern for him in terms of the response he will get from historians for his selective and simplistic rendering of Scottish history from 1707 to 1999.
My second concern was for those who might be fooled by his arguments and live to regret it, just as those who were fooled by Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s perfidious promise in 1979 of a better form of devolution if only we voted No against the proposals for Scottish assembly.
My third concern was the total domination of assertions and the complete absence of data to support his arguments.
Not only did he paint a Utopian picture of jobs and growth, but he refused to recognise that people and data tell a very different story.
He also failed to compare our results with UK results – whether that is the years of relatively lower growth, or our relatively flat-lining population numbers and our relatively lower average life expectancy.
Regrettably, he also chose to ignore the huge increase in income and wealth inequality in the period 1977 to 2012 which is more marked here than in anywhere other than the US and Portugal.
For my part, the best clarity I have had on that recently was in visits to London.
In one case, a very senior Lib Dem politician said that UK fiscal and monetary policy had always been skewed to the interests of the City of London and that those policies had priced real-economy jobs and ‘peripheral parts of the UK out of world markets’ over very many years.
Meanwhile, what really gets me is the naïveté of Gallagher’s arguments. Not for him any attention to the experience of other successful monetary unions. He prefers to offer us meaningless phrases such as “sharing goes alongside belonging” when many people are feeling the brutal personal impact of hard austerity, through no fault of their own, and are about to feel the loss of personal service and amenity that will come with the pillaging of public assets, such as the Royal Mail. That latter matter is important, for yet again we see a Beeching-like lack of awareness of unintended consequences and the concept of false economies – which we saw when the rail service was scythed and denied investment in the 1960s.
Sadly, Jim did not even manage to be balanced or objective when he produced his comparison between the UK and the European Union for that work is as shallow as it is biased.
He ignores the fact that the UK’s “deep economic integration” imposes the same tax rates on Central London as it does on Caithness. Deeply integrated it may be, but it is also deeply unfair, making no attempt to level the playing field.
Meanwhile Europe, in spite of complaints from some of the big centres like London, does allow more competitive rates in the smaller and more peripheral countries.
As for pensions being the same – that is true in the case of State Pensions (albeit payable a much lower rates than most of the small developed autonomous nations of Europe) – but that equality evaporates, when occupational pensions are considered and where the higher earnings and increased promotion chances of London and the South-east produce dramatically poorer pensions in Scotland.
And on structural funds, they have been more forthcoming from Europe than capital from the UK government in recent years, as successive UK administrations have turned private city debt into a public debt problem, penalised real people in the real economy and created yet more profits and bonuses for many of the surviving perpetrators.
Gallagher’s points do not stand scrutiny – but worse, he goes on to conflate “the social union” and “economic activity” between Scotland and the rest of the UK in such a disingenuous way that he deserves to lose the argument on that fact alone.
For, like the rest of Europe, an independent Scotland would compete and trade in the open single market that is Europe and directly with the rest of the world.
In so doing we would be free and would be able to overcome our currently constrained ability to build our brand and compete as effectively as possible.
That would allow Scotland to reverse many years of low trend growth and other adverse outcomes, manage our affairs directly and effectively and align Scottish policies and interests to achieve the best possible Scottish outcomes.
From assertion to false comparisons, Gallagher goes on to offer us a history lesson of the period running up to 1707 that can only be explained as being a function of the rosiest, rose-tinted Unionist lenses.
However, his explanation as to how Scotland resisted becoming “North Britain” conveniently ignores that this outcome did not come about for want of trying on the part of the UK establishment in London, Edinburgh and elsewhere.
And, of course, he is snow-blind to the fact that the creation of the Scottish Parliament was the direct result of huge effort on the part of many Scots, plus monumental public awareness and electoral support to rectify the previously obscene democratic deficit.
In concluding, Gallagher offers us a really scary option and that is, more continuity in this story, by which he means the Union Mark II.
But this time, he suggests that it will evolve and change to go beyond its historic track record of managing superior outcomes for London and the South-east with others trailing behind.
That vision, however, falls at a the first hurdle of his own making as he paints a complex farce of open-ended adjustments to powers in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and English regions – a prospect that even the casual observer can see is both beyond the capability of Westminster to manage and guaranteed to create a situation where competing special pleading and Westminster deaf ears would be omnipresent.
Meanwhile, more than 196 countries in the world will be getting on with the relatively simple task of optimising the position and doing their best to fulfil the needs and aspirations of their people. For me, therefore, the better option, rather than watch the space occupied by UK constitutional false promises and apologists in denial, is to build our own future with the powers of an independent country. It’s what works.
• Jim Mather is a former enterprise minister for Scotland and vice-chair of Business for Scotland, the pro-independence network.