OUR independence referendum may still be almost two years away, but no subject more dominates debate in Scotland and no statement on either side, however small, passes by without being subjected to close examination.
The lecture delivered by Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign last night, was a critique of the proposals thus articulated by the SNP for an independent Scotland.
But the speech remained just that: a critique. For the Better Together campaign to advance beyond the firing into the air of a shower of arrows and to win the greater war it must also put forward a positive and compelling case for Scots to choose to remain within the union. It must seek to match the positive, aspirational rhetoric with which the advocates of independence are already able to mobilise a significant section of the population. The greater war will be won by the power of future possibility and positive vision. By this measure, many will consider this speech to fall short.
This is not to argue that the questions he raised are unimportant or irrelevant. For example, what influence will we enjoy on the world stage and in international institutions outside the UK? Would an independent Scotland remain within the EU or be required to apply as an external state? Just how much fiscal and monetary autonomy would an independent Scotland enjoy while sharing the same currency as the rest of the UK and the same central bank? And what positive benefit will flow from the legal, political and constitutional separation from the rest of the UK which accounts for £45 billion or 40 per cent of our total output?
These are not political point–scoring questions. They are of profound concern to the business community and it would be deeply mistaken to assume that its quietude so far indicates compliance. For there can be no meaningful certainty until the outcome of detailed negotiations with the rest of the UK is known. Mr Darling’s speech could hardly fail to reflect the experience of its author. It is the work of a former chancellor who had to deal with the greatest banking crisis this country has faced, and who faced it with fortitude. Little wonder that his concerns linger on how an independent Scotland could cope with the debt and deficit legacy, let alone a repeat of such a debacle.
That experience gives Mr Darling authority but, in parts, his speech failed to reflect his distinguished career. His assertion that British music would no longer be British was bizarre to say the least and will allow the SNP to ridicule him, potentially undermining the wider points he had to make on the economic argument for independence. After last night’s speech, it is clear that Better Together campaign will need to make a bigger, broader, and above all more positive and aspirational case if it is to deliver a knock-out blow.
Lesson in practical assistance
Doubtless voices will be raised in criticism of the announcement by international development secretary Justine Greening, that UK aid to India will be phased out by 2015. The focus will now shift to technical assistance. Critics will argue that this flies in the face of deep and continuing poverty in that country afflicting millions. And it will be seen as a step backwards from our commitment to humanitarian aid and international development.
Britain has derived enormous benefit from our centuries-old association with India. And we benefit today from the huge volume of raw materials and consumer goods that India exports every year to us in increasing quantities. Indeed, many will have regarded it as anomalous that we continued to contribute a significant financial amount in aid to India while many companies have been shifting production and employment from the UK to that country.
The argument that this aid should now be phased out is not that deep poverty in India has ceased to exit, or that as individuals and communities we should cease to contribute monetarily or by such goods as the provision of education and training, but that India and its economy have advanced massively in aspiration and self-confidence in recent years. It should in no way be regarded as a signal that charitable giving and support for aid organisations and educational programmes should not continue – and continue to be encouraged. But the supplanting of aid by technical assistance is a recognition of the enormous strides India has made in recent years and which enables both countries to move to a mature relationship of equals.