Gregor Gall: Debate must focus on individuals

Nowhere is the SNP making arguments for a truly positive and progressive case for independence. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Nowhere is the SNP making arguments for a truly positive and progressive case for independence. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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SNP must focus on the benefits for individual Scots if they are to persuade them to vote Yes in 2014, writes Gregor Gall

So far the debate on the economics of independence has taken the form of questioning whether Scotland can afford independence. Framing the issues this way puts the focus on the external relationships between Scotland and England; Scotland and the EU and Scotland and the world. The endpoint of these discussions has pretty much come down to whether Scotland would financially be better off or not.

Readers will search in vain to find discussions that consider the other main aspect of the economics of independence: not whether Scotland as a single entity is better (or worse) off but whether its individual citizens would be better (or worse) off.

To frame the question in this way is to get to the heart of a very important matter; namely, whether independence will allow the citizens in Scotland to live materially enriched lives. In other words, it is to look at the distribution of wealth and resources across the social classes that exist in Scotland.

For the vast majority of citizens, the question of material enrichment covers not just the pounds and pence (or whatever an independent Scots currency might be called) in their bank accounts. It also covers their standards of living and life chances. Consequently, this would include the quality of public education, health, infrastructure and transport. The matters of income tax, pensions and benefits would be added to them.

The particular importance of looking at the economics of independence in this way is to be found in allowing individual citizens to try to quantify the potential benefits of independence to them. At the moment, the data which would allow them to do so does not readily exist. This is partly because independence could take different forms along a spectrum, running from neo-liberalism to social democracy. But it is also partly because the SNP’s approach is not to make any clear or concrete promises about what living standards would look like in an independent Scotland. And its - in the guise of the Scottish Government’s - November White Paper on the transition to independence is not likely to change this.

But if the SNP was to make clear policy promises that would lead to the financial and economic betterment of citizens, this would transform both the debate and the outcome of the referendum.

Two Scottish Social Attitudes surveys (from late 2011 and late 2013) have shown that if voters believed they would be £500 a year better off, support for independence rises from around 33 per cent to around 66 per cent.

Put bluntly, this would lead not just to a clear Yes vote on 18 September 2014, but to a huge and progressive transformation of society in Scotland as a result of the redistribution of wealth from richer to poorer. It would involve the implementation of a progressive taxation system and the ending of tax evasion and tax avoidance by the wealthy.

Now, of course, £500 a year across the array of items that make up citizens’ living standards and life chances is not a great deal. But what it does demonstrate more than amply is that if the case for independence was loudly to chime with the desire for material enhancement, then suddenly it becomes a genuine game changer.

Yet the message coming from the SNP on independence is two-fold. First, it is of no change and the maintenance of the status quo as a result of staying in the sterling zone and allowing the Bank of England to set interest rates. Second, it is of things being not quite as bad as staying in the Union – over pensions, cuts to public services and so on. When George Osborne says that people will have to work to at least 68 in Britain before retiring, the SNP says that in an independent Scotland the rise in age of retirement would only be to 67.

Nowhere is the SNP making the arguments for a truly positive and progressive case for independence. In the case of pensions, this would be to say that the age of retirement would remain at 65 as it has been for many years.

But there are countless other examples of where the coalition government’s policies take people two steps backwards, but where the SNP is only prepared to take people one step forward. This still leaves people one step worse off. Ironically, the sole exception, where the SNP is prepared to make substantive change, is that of corporation tax. But this is only to reduce it.

It’s almost as if the SNP is scared to fully use the levers of a new sovereign state – and for progressive purposes. It’s not hard to see a parallel in the current state of politics in Scotland under devolution. Since 1999, there has been the lawful right for any government in Scotland to vary income tax by three pence in the pound – either upwards or downwards. But no mainstream political party has dared to do so.

The one exception proves the rule. Eight months before the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections, the SNP dropped its “penny for Scotland” pledge of increasing income tax by 1 per cent to generate additional funds for the public sector.

No wonder then that when the SNP chooses not to offer a clear, progressive case for independence, the “undecided” and “don’t knows” regularly outnumber those supporting independence. Faced with two constitutional versions of the same economic and social status quo, many are nonplussed.

Of course, it’s up to Better Together to pull the rug from under this article’s argument by solemnly promising that it will ensure that citizens in Scotland will each be £500 or more better off per year. Even under Ed Miliband’s re-found “redness”, this is no more likely than hell freezing over.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford and a resident of Edinburgh.