IF YOU were to mention to the average politically-interested Scot that there was a worrying new revelation about how Scottish pensions might be affected by constitutional change, chances are they would make the not-unreasonable assumption you were talking about independence.
In fact, this weekend, that assumption would be wrong. As we reveal on our front page today, the new worry about pensions is linked to a constitutional change already agreed by Westminster to extend the powers of the Holyrood parliament, within the UK.
The loophole we report today will – we are assured by the tax authorities – be closed before the new tartan tax powers pass formally to Holyrood. But it remains unclear what administrative changes may be necessary, both by HMRC and by private pension funds. It is also unclear how costly these changes may turn out to be, both for the government – and therefore the taxpayer – and for the private pension funds themselves. The irony of all this will not be lost to those who support a Yes vote in the independence referendum – it seems that staying in the Union causes uncertainty over pensions and could prove costly.
The lesson here is simple. Whatever Scotland’s future course, be it as an independent country or an increasingly autonomous nation within the UK, it involves unknowns and uncertainties. Of course, these exist in differing degrees. But each involves new relationships and new arrangements that would require thought, imagination and negotiation.
The Better Together campaign, by repeatedly presenting the idea of change as a threat, is doing Scotland no favours. All countries need constantly to evolve to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world. If Scotland does not change to meet the moment, its economy, its politics and its culture risks atrophy. In fostering fear of change, Better Together also risks damaging its own prospects. In the final year of the referendum campaign, attention will inevitably turn to the anti-independence camp’s offer to the Scottish voters. All the major UK parties are now signed up to the concept of a “more powers” offer to the Scottish people, with each party currently edging – painfully slowly in some cases – to its preferred model. It is still unclear what mechanism, if any, will be deployed to allow these positions to coalesce around something approaching a coherent proposal to put to the voters.
Some of the more die-hard unionist elements in the Better Together camp, comforted by their impressive lead in the current polls, may be tempted to think that going to the bother of creating a dynamic “more powers” offer may no longer prove necessary. If they are thinking this they are fools. Majority opinion in Scotland is not for the status quo. Majority opinion is for a far more powerful Holyrood parliament. At present these voters have been led to believe this is possible within the UK – in fact, they have been assured of this by all the main Better Together party leaders. And they have given these leaders the benefit of the doubt. Any backtracking on this – or any failure to make meaningful progress – would be a gross breach of trust, and would bring about a dramatic change in those poll figures leading up to referendum day in September 2014.
Scotland is on the move. Our country is changing as we face new challenges. The referendum debate is about what form those changes take, and whether turning our back on the UK is a necessary step, or a step too far. The Better Together campaign would do well to bear this in mind as we head into the final 15 months.
Taking a stand
When this newspaper launched its Let The Children Play campaign last year, we uncovered many shocking facts about the large sums of money many Scottish families were having to fork out just so their children could learn a musical instrument at school. But none was as shocking as the revelation that, in some local authority areas, thousands of young Scots were having to pay tuition fees if they wanted to sit the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s Standard or Higher exams in Music. This, we argued at the time, was a national scandal. In a state school, in a country that prides itself on a long history of free schooling, it is unacceptable for a child to be asked for money before they can sit a national exam in their chosen subject. The inevitable consequence is that areas of the Scottish schools curriculum are off limits to children from families less willing or able to pay.
So, Scotland on Sunday warmly welcomes the SQA decision to take a stand on this issue. It is the right decision, and ends an iniquity that should never have been allowed to exist in the first place. Our campaign to Let The Children Play continues, however. We will not stop until all tuition fees for all children learning a musical instrument at school become similarly consigned to the dustbin of educational history in this country. That is a promise.