Alf Young: Yes, get the facts – but get them right

The Yes Scotland website promises all the facts needed for an informed decision, but it has not started well, writes Alf Young

On the new Yes Scotland website, which aims to garner a million signatures for a declaration of independence by 2014, there’s a section called Get the Facts. “Over the next two years,” it promises, “the Yes campaign will provide you with all the information you need to make an informed decision about becoming independent.”

On the train to London on Wednesday, I had a look at it on my laptop and found the newest Get the Facts entry had this tag line in bold: Being independent better than the status quo. “Sir Tom Farmer,” the entry went on, “has joined fellow leading entrepreneur Jim McColl in suggesting Scottish business will do better in an independent Scotland than under the status quo.”

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Regular Scotsman readers will recall that, on Monday, Sir Tom, a generous SNP donor, hit the front page by saying he doesn’t support “separatism” – his word, not mine. Rather, he supports full fiscal autonomy within the UK.

The next day Mr McColl, another devo-max supporter, was all over page 4. If his preferred option wasn’t on the ballot paper, he might rethink his views and back independence, he suggested. By Wednesday, Sir Tom was back, on page 6, echoing that McColl line.

You wouldn’t have known any of that from glancing at the website’s Get the Facts entry. The preferred constitutional option of both men wasn’t even mentioned. True, the entry provided a “more” tab. And, if you hit that, a fuller story emerged. Then I checked back, while writing this column. Mysteriously, the whole entry has now been removed.

Perhaps it’s just another teething problem, like the unionist politicians who followed the site’s Twitter feed and found themselves dragooned into the Yes army. Or the young actors, none of them apparently Scots, from a stock picture used to adorn the site’s home page. Now also gone. But it serves to remind us all that, in this great constitutional debate, facts can turn out to be devilishly hard things to pin down.

Get the Facts may eventually get round to telling us what currency an independent Scotland would use and on what terms. But judging by the latest squabbling on that front, not any time soon. We know the SNP has had to park its long-held ambition to join the euro. Given the escalating problems in Greece and now Spain, and not withstanding Ireland’s decision to back the new eurozone fiscal pact, there may not even be a euro to join, come 2015.

We’ve also known, from the turn of the year, that the SNP now wants an independent Scotland to keep sterling. There are some in its ranks – and some who have left its ranks – who believe a truly independent Scotland would adopt its own currency. But, ever the calculating pragmatist, the First Minister has a referendum to win first.

If trying to take Scotland straight into a tottering eurozone might scare too many voters away from the Yes camp, how many more might take flight if he embraced an independent Scottish currency, immediately at the mercy of foreign exchange traders and ratings agencies? So the aspiration is to keep the pound for now. But on what terms?

Back in January, Alex Salmond told the journalist who writes the Bagehot column in the Economist he favoured a “stability pact” with the rest of the UK, post-independence. Would that mean legally binding rules on debt and deficit levels? Bagehot pressed. “We’d negotiate a stability pact appropriate for the circumstances,” came the First Minister’s rather gnomic reply.

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The SNP leadership is resistant to the whole idea that what happened to the euro has any real lessons to teach a post-independence Scotland, now seeking to keep sterling. In last Sunday’s big debate on BBC television, Nicola Sturgeon rejected the conventional analysis that eurozone monetary union was always doomed to fail because it was never accompanied by ever-closer fiscal and political integration.

“The key lesson,” she insisted, “is you can’t have a successful monetary union when you’ve got wildly divergent economies like the richest parts of Germany and the poorest parts of Greece. That’s not the case across the countries of the UK, where productivity levels, for example, are very similar.”

Alex Salmond took the same line in his chat with the Economist.

There are, however, several problems with that line of reasoning. If, because of these persistent material disparities, the eurozone was always doomed to fail, why did the SNP spend so long making the case for an independent Scotland joining it? Shouldn’t they have been warning us of these dangers from the very start? Doesn’t that kind of negligence fall into the same category as describing the banking crash as wholly the work of spivs and speculators?

I see Paul Krugman, the Nobel-winning American economist, has been telling the Independent that the UK ought to be putting up a statue of Gordon Brown in Trafalgar Square “to thank him for keeping Britain out of the euro”. Fat chance of that, I suspect. But Brown, for all his other failings, can at least look back on his reluctance to see the UK join, as one of his better calls as chancellor.

Secondly, if the SNP really does believe disparities been rich German lender and poor Greek regions are the core reason for the eurozone’s current travails, why haven’t the differences in wealth and poverty across the various parts of these islands produced similar tensions in the UK’s monetary union? Isn’t that because we do have much tighter fiscal integration and bigger fiscal transfers across our current UK polity?

Thirdly, at the very core of the SNP’s case for independence is its belief that, given control of the remaining oil reserves in the North Sea and access to a full suite of fiscal powers, it can make Scotland a much richer country than it currently is. So it is in the business of widening these material disparities between Scotland and the neighbours we have been in political union with for 305 years.

If it succeeds in that aspiration and the Deputy First Minister is correct in her contrary diagnosis of the eurozone’s ills, won’t that whole process end up putting the post-independence sterling zone the SNP wants to strike with the UK Treasury under the same stresses the eurozone is already enduring? Even blow it to smithereens?

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These are critical issues that will affect us all in our daily lives. Yet the SNP leadership has not initiated discussions with the Westminster government or with the UK monetary authorities on any of them. Far from getting the facts, they haven’t even got round the table. We deserve better.