The Fiscal Commission’s first report is a quite superb, pragmatic and imaginative body of work. It was written by a team of two Nobel prizewinners and two other highly respected international economists, all led by one of the most substantial business and public service figures of his generation. Its conclusions won’t please all. For instance, many would rather have more of the trappings of autonomy such as a new currency. But this report recognises the practical imperative and self-interest of continued shared sovereignty with the rest of the United Kingdom but on new and improved terms.
The second document, published this week by the Scotland Office, was an altogether less visionary and oddly partisan output. No surprise there then. But the authors of its “legal advice” were woefully miss-spun by their political publishers. The academic lawyers, I am sure, were offering carefully considered theoretical advice. But legal theory and political and practical reality are – thankfully for us all – two different beasts. And to their great credit, when pressed by the media to consider the likely outcomes rather than theoretical debating points, they concluded sensibly: whatever happens, the numerous international treaties and institutions Scotland will inherit will remain while the process of start-up takes place. And any new agreements should be easily resolvable in the timescale of 18 months set out by the Scottish Government. I agree.
But this wasn’t enough for the Whitehall department that published and spun the report. The same people who once told us the referendum itself was illegal and unsustainable now tell us the outcome could be fraught too. I humbly proffer this advice to them and to my many good friends in the No campaign: base your argument on why Scotland’s future in the UK can be strong, prosperous and fair. There are good legitimate arguments to make, goodness I could help you with some. Don’t rest your case on contrived roadblocks and imagined legal constraints. That failed with the vote itself remember – you do recall spending months saying it was illegal don’t you?
You may well be able to win ugly as the No campaign did in 1979, but at what cost to the next generation? Moreover this makes it look like you are trying to do down your own country, and it isn’t pretty to watch. The Tories tried that with very similar arguments against devolution in 1997, look where that ended, not least for them. And in case you haven’t noticed, in the modern world the people tend not to buy grand fears from a governing class they no longer trust or respect. Tactics that once worked for you are ruthlessly exposed now. Time to mature and modernise, I respectfully suggest. If you have to bend the truth to win, what does that tell you about yourself?
The Fiscal Commission notes that our starting point as a nation is relatively strong in international terms but that more can and should be done to promote growth and equality. This latter point also contains the germ of a big and unifying idea. We require to reform the Scottish consensus that views government’s role as getting and spending money to dry the tears caused by under-performance and inequality. We should be more ambitious. We should reach for a unifying goal that targets the need to promote both growth and equality as two sides of the same coin of success. One of the most startling criticisms the No camp has to answer is the growing body of evidence that the status quo it defends produces one of the most unequal economies in the world. And that inequality is getting worse not better.
So the Fiscal Commission is a substantial step in the right direction and sets a content standard the other side in this choice will need to step up to. In the end we may well find that the prospectus for Scotland we are asked to vote Yes for secures many of the shared institutions and open relations so many current doubters value at present. That is the reality of modern “independence” after all.
I, for one, agree that sovereignty must be shared but on the basis of having it to share in the first place, rather than scrapping for crumbs of it that fall from the master’s table. Nickel and diming the status quo to peel off “concessions” is no solution. We need to reset the relationship.
What’s not in doubt is that the way we govern ourselves can and must be modernised and transformed. Some always oppose this tide, but they tend to be those who have lived high on the hog of things as they are. Funny that.
We may find that, cometh the hour of choice, progressives on both sides of this debate find very little water between themselves and a whole continent of common ground to rest upon. And then we must choose between polarising ourselves in defeat or unifying in one more confident step along “the journey that has no end”. I choose forward. «