THE Yes campaign for Scottish independence boasts plenty of big-name backers, but the ones it is most proud of are those who were previously vocal backers of a stronger Holyrood within the UK.
Industrialist Jim McColl, the fifth richest person in Scotland with an estimated wealth of £1 billion, is one such recruit. When he threw in his lot with the Yes camp there was much rejoicing among the Nationalist hierarchy. Here was a leading entrepreneur – one of the most successful Scottish businessmen of his generation – backing the move to independence. If the Yes camp needed a counter to the argument that independence would cause a business flight from these shores, it had the ready-made answer in the shape of one of its key supporters.
In his essay today for this newspaper’s Scotland Decides series, there is a strong sense, however, that McColl has only come across to the Yes side of the fence because of the collapse of the notion that a second question in the referendum might offer Scots Devo Max or some other powerful form of devolution, within the UK.
McColl repeats the assertion made by SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon in this newspaper last week, that there is now no hope of the No side in the referendum coming up with such an offer to the Scottish people. Which again begs the question: what if this pessimism is misplaced? What if the pro-UK parties – all now signed up to some form of strengthening of devolution – can coalesce around a credible alternative at some point over the next 18 months? Would that be enough to persuade McColl to give the United Kingdom another go?
McColl’s contribution to the Scotland Decides series represents a re-opening of a debate that has accompanied Scotland’s constitutional progress over the past 40 years – namely, what is the business community’s view on power moving from Westminster to Holyrood? It is easy to be cynical about the rationale of business tycoons such as McColl and media mogul Rupert Murdoch taking a keen interest in Scottish independence. After all, the policy of the Scottish National Party is to move towards a cut in corporation tax in a go-it-alone Scotland, to produce a competitive edge for Scottish industry and also to attract new inward investment that might otherwise go to other parts of Britain, to Ireland or to continental Europe. Some personal self-interest could conceivably be part of their motivation.
There was a time in the home rule debate when the view of industrialists was one of the key issues in Scottish public life. No longer. Perhaps it is because we live in a less deferential age, but the views of ennobled and knighted captains of industry no longer carry the weight they once did. The role they played in the referendums of 1979 and 1997 – when they warned of the dark clouds that would descend on the Scottish economy should the country choose constitutional change – is unlikely to be as much of a feature of the debate in 2014. Scots ignored those warnings in 1997, and the sky did not crash about their ears. Similar warnings next year will, for the large part, be similarly ignored.
Over the past decade and a half, Scots have become used to idea of democracy, and embraced the simple idea that they are in charge of their own destiny, thank you very much. Sovereignty rests with the Scottish people. The decision next year will be the extent to which we want to share – if at all – that sovereignty with the other nations of these islands.
For the benefit of all
WELFARE reform is fast becoming the most explosive issue in domestic British politics. The spectacle of Conservative ministers hunting down savings from benefit claimants is politically toxic enough. In Scotland, the big constitutional question has stirred the pot further. The SNP has seized on the savings to argue that it proves the UK Government is imposing “brutal” cuts on the poorest. The pro-UK side demand to know in response how they would do any different.
The danger is that with such a politicised issue, attention is taken away from the matter at hand. And, as we report today, it appears that the harshness of the reform agenda is being worsened by the cruelty of byzantine bureaucracy and a dysfunctional public service. The Government’s policy is set in stone. But bad administration can be fixed. Both the Scottish and UK Governments must put the political scrap to one side and work together to find a solution.
It is to the credit of MSPs on the Welfare Reform Committee at Holyrood that they have sought to uncover these practical problems on the ground. Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has so far declined invitations to meet to discuss issues further. If he really cares about the way his far-reaching plans are being implemented, he should think again.