Bill Jamieson: White paper fails examination

David Cameron's insistence on a Yes/No vote handed an advantage to Alex Salmond. Picture: Getty Images
David Cameron's insistence on a Yes/No vote handed an advantage to Alex Salmond. Picture: Getty Images
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Further work needed before we can reach any conclusive answers on Scotland’s – and the UK’s – future, writes Bill Jamieson


Standard 111 Intermediate Examination: “White Paper Consequentials”

Candidates are required to discuss TWO of the following THREE topics. Mobile phones, tablets and laptops are disallowed, spoilt papers disqualified and candidates who write on both sides of the paper penalised. Time allowed: three hours.

After completion, candidates proceed to further intermediate papers on currency options, EU membership, North Sea oil projections, pension arrangements and banking regulation. NB: Pass levels are required at ALL intermediate stages before proceeding to the FINAL EXAMINATION on 18 September, 2014.

The topics for the candidates are:

1: “It’s all David Cameron’s fault.”

2: “The white paper has betrayed the cause of independence.”

3: “The white paper is not a test of independence. It marks a crisis of unionism.”

Candidates are required to give arguments for and against and to cite all references.

It is disappointing to report a poor level of passes and a disturbingly high level of disqualifications in the above exam paper.

Many candidates opted to answer Question 1, but not to the level of sophistication required. Responses to Question 2 were conspicuously unbalanced, while responses to Q3 revealed little evidence of a holistic viewpoint.

Why might the Scottish Government’s formidable white paper, its international press attention, extensive exposure on UK media channels and the generally sceptical approach be considered to be in any way “David Cameron’s fault”?

The starting point for discussion has to be the decision to exclude the option of “more devolution” from the September 2014 referendum. It has been clear in opinion poll surveys that this was the option consistently more favoured by voters than either SNP-style independence or “status quo”.

Had this option been on the ballot paper, we would have been spared the polarisation of debate and the increasingly acrimonious exchanges between Westminster and Holyrood on the currency question. Most Scots households and businesses recoil from the prospect of a separate currency and all the expense and hassle this would involve in everyday dealings with the rest of the UK. But the “more devo” option was excluded on the assertion that a straightforward Yes/No vote would deliver a clean result and settle the independence argument for a generation. To this was added the malicious sentiment of some unionists to leave Alex Salmond and the SNP with no consolation prize or hiding place. Their defeat would be seen to be unambiguous and absolute.

It was Cameron’s insistence on a straight independence Yes/No that has not only ensured a more polarised debate, but also denied Scots the opportunity of voting for an option that was clearly the preference of many. This has allowed the SNP to argue that only a Yes vote will secure any change in Scotland’s governance arrangements. How ironic that a Yes vote for independence next September would be likely to result after all negotiations, concessions and compromises on a solution not far removed from devo max. Unfortunately, the route which we have been compelled to take has made this entire process far more divisive and antagonistic than it need have been. And that stems directly from the insistence of the Westminster Prime Minister not to allow Scots a full choice.

Question 2 invited candidates to consider whether the cause of independence has been advanced or endangered by the white paper. Here it was necessary to distinguish between the spending aspirations of the SNP as opposed to the case for constitutional independence per se, whether Scots wished to have higher public spending and taxation or not.

In particular, the independence issue was clouded by a headline-grabbing proposal to extend more generous provision for childcare, enabling mothers to return to work earlier. This has nothing to do with independence, but in seeking to conflate independence with specific financial benefits for a targeted group of voters it has reduced a profound constitutional issue to the level of retail politics. This, together with pledges on higher pension benefits and the abolition of the “bedroom tax” cannot but invite speculation as to how these long-term commitments are to be funded and which taxes and thresholds may be raised or spending elsewhere curtailed.

These consequences do not flow from independence itself, but from what a future SNP government might choose to do. And once these are allowed into the white paper, it cannot then exclude the consequences of a long-term decline in oil revenues and an ageing population, reckoned by the Institute of Fiscal Studies to entail spending cuts or tax increases equivalent to 8p on the standard rate of income tax, or about £1,000 a year for people on the basic rate.

The paper thus moves the focus away from the arguments for independence to a fruitless pursuit of tax and spending hypotheticals – an impenetrable mist of speculation and conjecture.

Arguably more damaging is the implicit threat by the SNP leadership to resile from Scotland’s share of UK borrowing and debt should there be failure to agree arrangements for currency sharing.

Salmond has consistently attacked the debt and borrowing policies of the previous two Westminster chancellors, oblivious to the fact that Scotland enjoyed its proportionate share of UK government spending and debt throughout this period. We are in it up to our Barnett necks. To encourage speculation as to whether Scotland would honour its share of UK debt would inevitably cast doubt on whether a future independent Scottish government would honour other debt obligations in the future and thus automatically attract a risk premium on all Scottish public debt. This does not help the cause of independence.

Question 3 encouraged candidates to set the independence white paper in the wider context of constitutional reform across the UK. Whether or not we opt for independence, the direction of travel is towards more devolution. And the further we proceed down this route, the more evident the deep questions now posed for the UK overall. There needs to be a movement towards some form of federalist solution, involving all nations and regions of the UK, as the Welsh leader Carwyn James has sagely indicated. It would also involve a radical reconfiguration of the second chamber, which has bedevilled Westminster for more than 100 years.

As the white paper argued the case for the retention of sterling on independence, it necessarily raised the question of how debt, spending, borrowing and central bank monetary policy issues were to be reconciled in such an arrangement. Some set of federal institutions will be needed for the UK as we know it to survive. This is where the crisis of unionism is to be found.

Regrettably, the examiners concluded that voters need to put in far more work and study before proceeding to the next intermediate – and more testing – examinations on European Union membership, pension provision and regulation. On the basis of results so far, it is far from certain that the final examination next September can be regarded as in any way conclusive.