Leaders: Ed Balls | Police stations

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls is playing genuine hardball when he says that the rest of the UK may not enter a sterling union with an independent Scotland.

Ed Balls. Picture: Ian Rutherford

If he becomes chancellor, which is a possibility in 2015, there is no guarantee Scotland can keep the pound as he finds it hard to envisage an agreement that works either for an independent Scotland or for the rest of the UK.

This tough talk could be dismissed as in character with Mr Balls’ innate aggressiveness, much less the words of a would-be chancellor than the campaign talk of a politician battling to persuade Scots to vote for the Union next September.

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There are, as the Scottish Government has claimed, reasons why the rest of the UK might find it in its interests to negotiate a sterling union deal – maintaining rest-of-UK exports to Scotland, and keeping North Sea oil wealth to underpin the robustness of sterling being the main two.

But there are also risks to the rest of the UK, not the least of which are the risks to its taxpayers of having to underwrite the stability of Scottish banks. Plus there is the probability, as Mr Balls notes, that if the rest of the UK demands such tough oversight of a Scottish government’s fiscal policies then effective independence does not exist.

Again, that might be dismissed as campaign talk. But there is an important political reality here – seven months after the referendum, a UK general election is scheduled to be held. If Scotland votes Yes, it is improbable that Scottish independence terms would be agreed before that campaign starts. And that raises an important question.

What would the UK parties be campaigning on in the election? Would they be saying: let’s be warm and generous to the Scots, even though they have decided they don’t want to share the same country any more? Or would they be saying: let’s drive a hard bargain and get the best deal we can for England and Wales?

On any analysis, the latter is far more likely. The parties would have no interest any more in appealing to Scottish voters, only in bidding for the backing of the people of England and Wales. And since it is safe to say that economic times will still be pretty tough in 2015, self-interest becomes people’s over-riding motivation, so any hint of generosity to Scotland is likely to be penalised.

Viewed in that light, Mr Balls’ comments could be interpreted as a private positioning for the 2015 election campaign on the basis of an even more private acceptance that Scotland will vote Yes. But that is perhaps too Byzantine even for the Machiavellian Mr Balls.

The pressing reality is that there is no perfect choice for an independent Scotland’s currency. In truth there are many options, but each has its pluses and minuses. While clarity would be welcome, it seems most unlikely it will emerge before next September.

Police stations play a public role

Police stations are not normally thought of as part of the essential “offer”, as modern marketing folk put it, of high street shopping. Perhaps, however, police stations do have a more important role to play in maintaining the high street as a centre of communities than many people realise.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) believes that to be the case. High streets, traditionally the locus of small traders and bustling crowds hunting for groceries and other everyday needs, are what many of its members depend upon.

But they are also, as is well-known, under threat from the out-of-town supermarket retail parks and their convenient parking. Recession, and the belief that most bargains are to be had from the big chains, has exacerbated that trend.

The FSB argues that the key attraction of the high street that remains is its variety within a relatively small space. An ingredient of that variety, it argues, is the police station and closure of many of these to public access will reduce that variety, as the closure of many courts did.

It is also possible to imagine that the presence of an accessible police station where annoying car alarms can be reported, or lost wallets and purses can be handed in and reclaimed is as reassuring to local traders as the presence of a bobby on the beat is to people in their homes.

Closure of police stations’ public counters will not be the critical factor in determining whether high streets survive or not. But the argument nevertheless highlights a perhaps overlooked aspect of this debate – that a police station open to the public is more important to community life than is commonly understood.