Brian Wilson: Currency plan is height of stupidity

Jim Sillars is calling SNP proposals for a currency union stupidity on stilts. Picture: AFP/GettyJim Sillars is calling SNP proposals for a currency union stupidity on stilts. Picture: AFP/Getty
Jim Sillars is calling SNP proposals for a currency union stupidity on stilts. Picture: AFP/Getty
Sillars breaks ranks to speak out against the folly of Nationalist plans for a sterling union, writes Brian Wilson

NO OPPONENT of independence could be more pungent in their critique of the “shared sterling” wheeze than Jim Sillars, formerly deputy leader of the SNP, who has briskly dismissed it as “stupidity on stilts”.

Just in case the point was missed, Sillars described the core economic assumption in the (official) Nationalist case as “weasel words, spoken by someone who doesn’t realise what a currency union involves” – or does realise, he might have added, but can’t afford to admit it.

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Sillars is, of course, correct in his critique. Anyone who has read not only Bank of England Governor Mark Carney’s speech but also Professor Brian Quinn’s brilliant demolition job on the shared currency proposal cannot seriously believe it could be acceptable to the state we had walked out on or beneficial to a supposedly independent Scotland.

Those in the high command of the pro-independence campaign who share Sillars’ view on the currency then take refuge in the comfort zone of further confusion. They remain true to the cause because, again in Jim’s words, voting for independence is “not an endorsement of Alex Salmond and his white paper”. Circle squared!

But what about the rest of us? The whole rationale of the white paper, assembled by hundreds of civil servants at public expense, was to provide “all the answers”, which the electorate would then be invited to endorse. If one of the most fundamental answers of all is so open to friendly fire, then what are we to make of the rest of them?

Whatever Jim Sillars might wish for, it is indeed the “weasel words” prospectus on which Scots are being asked to stake their jobs and pensions – rather the remote prospect of “Salmond and his white paper” being usurped by more enlightened forces as epitomised by himself. Small wonder that this choice between “stupidity on stilts” and a Plan B not yet on offer is creating the uncertainty highlighted yesterday by Bob Dudley of BP and, I suspect, many more to follow. It almost beggars belief that we have reached this stage in the run-up to a referendum with the question of which currency an independent Scotland would be using in two years’ time still a matter of total confusion, both inside the Nationalist campaign and beyond.

The Nationalists’ disarray on this crucial question highlights an important point. The rocks on which the independence case deserve to founder have little or nothing to do with the powers held by Holyrood. It is by exposing the weakness of the Nationalists’ position on these fundamental economic and structural issues that their opponents can blow away the bluster and groundless assertions that their case is built on.

All sorts of reviews and commissions will spring up around the September referendum with a view to obtaining stability in the longer term and the Liberal Democrats set the pace yesterday with the appointment of Sir Menzies Campbell to look for the basis of “a stable constitutional settlement”. He has an honourable record on the subject and I wish him well.

However, the big trap for all of these commissions and reviews is to confuse “increased powers for Holyrood” with stability, enhanced democracy or progressive politics. According to each of these tests, the terms are far from synonymous.

In any crude auction of powers, the Nationalists will always be the highest bidder – because they want all the powers and trappings for reasons that are impervious to what others may regard as rational argument. Nationalism is a fundamentalist creed and those who uphold it will always see concessions as stepping-stones rather than stabilisers.

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In the past, they have boycotted and mocked the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which provided the basis for Labour’s devolution legislation. Equally, the Calman recommendations which greatly extend the devolved powers have been assimilated without a word of appreciative acknowledgement. Anything less than the whole cake will be treated in the same way – take and exploit while demanding more.

That is their perfect entitlement as Nationalists with only one over-riding objective. However, others are under no obligation to embrace the same assumptions. Any review which seeks to achieve better, more accountable government for Scotland should not take “more powers” as its starting point. Rather, it should be asking – what works best and where? The answer will not always be Edinburgh or indeed Westminster.

One of the under-reported truths of the past few years is that devolution under the SNP has actually meant less decision-making and local accountability in large parts of Scotland. On every front, its strategy has been to centralise power in Edinburgh as close to ministerial control as possible. It is true of local government, quangos, public services and, of course, the huge resources that go with them.

Restoring respect for local democracy, and a dash of genuine devolution down to the regions and communities of Scotland, might be as popular a theme as giving more powers to Holyrood, if the question was ever asked. It never is, because it does not fit with the constitutional obsession.

Looking in the other direction, it is far from clear that Scotland would benefit from many of the powers and responsibilities currently exercised on a United Kingdom basis being left to Edinburgh alone. We are constantly invited to ignore or discount the benefits that have flowed from the size and scale of the UK from which Scotland has been a substantial beneficiary.

One obvious and recent example was the bailing out of our banks which, if left to Scottish taxpayers alone, would have led to a catastrophe several times the scale of the one that has afflicted Ireland, with economic stringency far beyond anything we have seen here as well as youth emigration on a tragic scale.

The difference between Scotland and Ireland was that we had the strength of a large state behind us, while it was left to the tender mercies of Europe’s central bankers. Small wonder that this is one power that the (official) Nationalists wish to leave in London – the power to bail us out if ever the need arises. And equally small wonder that others hear that only as “weasel words”.

Any review of where powers should lie must make the case for what has been shown to be in the best interests of Scotland. Some things are best done at a UK level, some at a Scottish level and some more locally. All power to Edinburgh from all other directions is, to borrow a phrase, “stupidity on stilts”.

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