ANOTHER piece of the referendum jigsaw slotted into place last week. We now know what words will appear on the ballot paper in the referendum in 2014: Should Scotland be an independent country?
Towards the end of last year, I came to the conclusion that, in the absence of a real alternative choice giving the Scottish Parliament substantially more fiscal autonomy, the answer to that question is Yes.
While Westminster policies may work for London, they are not working for Scotland, for our economy or our society. A different approach is needed if we are to make Scotland the kind of country we all know it can and should be.
It is encouraging to see the debate moving from the how of the process to the why of the real issues and also from ‘could we be’ to the ‘should we be’ of independence.
On a simple balance sheet calculation, Scotland can afford to be independent if we so choose. At present, Scotland contributes 9.6 per cent of UK revenue and receives back 9.3 per cent in expenditure. Next month we’ll know whether Scotland’s position relative to the rest of the UK has improved yet further during the past year.
Independence, however, is about much more than the financial numbers. It is about the power to choose a better Scotland. It is about building on what we have so we can deliver even more for the country in which we all have a stake. So, for me, there are three fundamental issues for Scotland to consider.
First, I previously argued for full fiscal autonomy to be on the ballot paper. In my view, the Scottish economy has characteristics that demand tailored solutions. We have, for example, distinct strengths in engineering, energy, food and drink, creative industries, asset management and tourism, but not the full toolkit to give those sectors the best possible advantage at home and abroad.
Unfortunately, this was a no-go area for the Westminster government. The Prime Minister visited Scotland to make that clear a year ago. At that point it became obvious to me that the only credible way to secure the normal financial powers was through a Yes vote for independence.
I have been disturbed by the way those opposed to independence portray it in misleading emotional terms as a break-up of the United Kingdom. The union of the crowns was put in place in 1603 and a year later James VI declared himself monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. This was 103 years before the union of parliaments. We will be voting in 2014 for an independent parliament while retaining the monarchy as head of state. We will still be a united kingdom but with an independent parliament.
There is no guarantee that more powers will be devolved following a No vote. I was pleased to see the Electoral Commission call on the Scottish and UK governments to give a clear indication to voters of what their policies would be following a Yes or No vote in 2014. So far, the No campaigners have focused only on pressing the Scottish Government to outline their policies for independence.
The referendum in 2014 is about whether we Scots want the decisions affecting our lives made in Scotland or at Westminster. Post referendum, all political parties in Scotland will be preparing their manifestos for the Scottish Parliament election in 2016. If the Scottish people vote Yes in 2014, the No campaign parties will have the opportunity to present manifestos clearly outlining policies to work better together in close alignment to Westminster.
The Scottish people will have the opportunity to choose which party best represents their interests. This is true democracy. In contrast, a No vote will shut down this choice, leaving Scotland entirely at the mercy of a Westminster regime they did not vote for, when it comes to real economic and financial decisions.
Indeed, the second fundamental issue worth consideration is the current and ongoing focus of the Westminster government on austerity when what Scotland needs now is investment in jobs and growth.
The current policy-making structures do not satisfy the ambition for a stronger economy, higher standards of living and the wealth needed for a more caring society.
Instead of waiting for the political winds to shift, we should be saying and doing what is required to grow our economy sustainably. We need the power to encourage investment and capital formation, to deliver competitive advantage for Scottish business and incentivise innovation through our tax system so we can create and retain wealth, grow and reward employment and sustainably expand the economy.
We need the ability to bring together skills and education with welfare and employment so we can create new opportunities for young Scots and deliver a system that is fairer and effective.
Finally, given all the natural and human wealth we enjoy and given our many strengths and comparative advantages, why is Scotland’s economy not performing better within the UK or relative to other smaller developed countries around the world? Why have we bumped along for decades with a growth rate that is as much as 40 per cent lower than the average of comparable but independent nations.
Let’s not forget what we have as a nation: 25 per cent of the EU’s offshore tidal and wind energy potential, which will be worth billions every year: oil and gas reserves in the North Sea with a wholesale value well in excess of £1 trillion and, for our size, the strongest university research base in the world. Of course, the arguments for financial control go well beyond oil and gas. We have a strong international brand and distinctive and growing industries in many sectors. Perhaps most importantly, we have the resource of our talented, caring and determined people.
These strengths point to the fundamental problem. We have a government responsible for economic policy whose focus is not growth in Scotland but rather London and the South-East of England. That tells me Scotland is a nation in desperate need of a well-planned and thought through management buy-out.
I sensed from an early age to look around at those who were most successful and to learn from their actions. And for Scotland there are two vital lessons from the nations that sit at the top of world wealth and well-being leagues.
First, they don’t look to somewhere else to take decisions on their behalf. Even when it comes to pooling sovereignty at a multilateral level they retain the option to withdraw and have a seat at the top table.
Second, they ascribe to the virtuous cycle of enterprise and compassion whereby jobs and investment create growth, helping to deliver a more equal and caring society and an educated and healthy workforce.
I have learned something else - as a nation, we are better than we think we are. And so much better than the naysayers say we are.
There is so much opportunity in Scotland’s future if we choose to claim it. A Yes vote in 2014 will give us the flexibility to choose the policies suited to Scotland regardless of who is elected to government at Westminster in 2015.
In 2016, we will have the freedom to choose elected representatives who have the best vision for Scotland. Let’s have the confidence and ambition to seize the opportunity.