Lesley Riddoch: Osborne misjudged mood on currency

No-one suggests ending the Union will be easy, but the Chancellor has badly misjudged the mood, writes Lesley Riddoch

Clarity on currency has not been coupled with clarity on matters such as defence or oil. Picture: Bill Henry
Clarity on currency has not been coupled with clarity on matters such as defence or oil. Picture: Bill Henry

George Osborne’s attempt at “clarity” over possible currency union seems to have roundly backfired. And that’s quite an accomplishment. The Scottish press is largely unionist, voters still lean towards a No vote and analysts have been correct to identify economics, currency and uncertainty about being better off, as the weakest part of the Yes argument.

But Mr Osborne is a Tory posh boy from the Home Counties – his defenders cry. The man was always going to be rejected in Scotland – the strategy was that over time his message would sink in. Lord Snootys are indeed easy to mock. But too much is made of the Scots’ visceral hatred of wealthy southerners. David Cameron’s speech from Mount Olympus was heard with wry amusement. His previous Edinburgh speech with that hint of further devolution was taken seriously. More fool us. Scots rail against the voice of privilege and authority but in private conformity, risk aversion and fear of authority are powerful constraints. So failure for posh George Osborne was not inevitable. And yet, within minutes of delivery, it was clear he had gaffed. Vox pops on BBC Radio 4 and 5 revealed young mums and a sober-sounding Edinburgh gent appalled at the Chancellor’s thuggish menace.

Former Labour first minister Henry McLeish said his intervention was “more about street-fighting than statesmanship”.

An online satirical site suggested an independent Scotland would not be allowed to use British oxygen and would have to return any such molecules drifting across the border.

If the Chancellor’s Edinburgh speech piled pressure on Alex Salmond to clarify his currency stance – and it has – it piled even greater pressure on Mr Osborne to prove his bona fides in the entire referendum debate. And for a Chancellor with austerity, food banks, Big Six fuel rip-offs and banking bonuses on his hands, that’s no easy task. So why make that speech now?

Better poll results for the Yes Campaign – maybe. Leaving time for the enormity of currency problems to sink in – perhaps. Proximity to the speech by the Bank of England Governor Mark Carney – undoubtedly. One thing’s certain. Last week was about the politics of possible fiscal arrangements on these islands – not the arrangements themselves.

And it was the politics that backfired. For one thing, most Scots had already drawn a very different conclusion on currency union from Mark Carney’s speech. Most Scots heard a reasoned and courteous speech pointing out that an independent Scotland would have to trade aspects of national sovereignty to thrive. No great news there. The Governor seemed to be saying, bankers can make a shared currency work if politicians want it. Down south though, the Chancellor and his Better Together “colleagues” heard something else – they thought Mark Carney had destroyed the fiscal case for independence and assumed an outwitted Alex Salmond would overreact to a robust, hard-cop performance by the Chancellor vetoing currency union.

If George Osborne thought he could provoke an angry, childish response from the Scottish Government, he was wrong.

Likewise the UK Government’s whole approach.

Like mechanical arithmetic – it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. The Scottish Government have used the past year productively, creating the idea of a post-independence settlement that should be good for everyone on these islands. That was the backdrop or prelude to the launch of their White Paper before Christmas. Unchallenged at the time, that mutual, reasoned vision had time to sink in and take root in the minds of voters north and south of the Border (to judge by opinion polls). Whether it proves to be the best solution or not, currency union has been allowed to appear reassuring and rather modern to Scottish voters while “splendid isolation” appears as old-fashioned and quasi-imperial as first past the post voting – set aside by almost everyone in Europe except dear old Blighty. By contrast George Osborne and Better Together failed to acknowledge the consensual approach being crafted north of the Border, wellied in too late with tackety boots and now wonder why the tough cop routine hasn’t worked.

It may be even worse for Better Together. Many aspects of statehood could theoretically be delivered within a highly devolved or federal UK. “Contributions” like George Osborne’s make it crystal clear that will never happen. The mutual respect, the place of reason and the importance of procedure aren’t in his outlook. They never will be. And the line-up of “progressives” who should know better – Danny Alexander and Ed Balls – demonstrates no prospect of bold, radical change under a different Westminster government, either.

Many supporters of devolution switched to independence because of the self-preoccupation of a London political elite and the grinding, girning slowness of constitutional change. With one brusque performance, George Osborne and his camp followers have reminded new recruits why they joined the independence camp – and has further unsettled the Undecided.

He has also opened Pandora’s Box. Now that he’s offered “clarity” on currency union how about clarity on the possible relocation or cancellation of Trident post-independence? Or clarity about Britain’s withdrawal from Europe? Or clarity about devolving income tax and oil revenue collection to Scotland?

Today, though, the heat is on Alex Salmond. Should he announce a Plan B in the knowledge the Three Stooges will line up immediately to declare it’s unworkable, too?

It might be wise to prepare Scots for a difficult time immediately after a Yes vote – and to remind them that independence offers the chance to create a country with different values and greater stability in the medium to long term. Stepping from a sinking ship into a lifeboat is a dangerous move for a short period of time. Alex Salmond could say currency union remains his preferred option but if there’s no co-operation, other options will be deployed.

George Osborne deployed the divorce analogy to say independence is more than just dividing the CDs. But the manner of his Edinburgh speech suggests something else. The Chancellor seems to believe that one partner in an unhappy marriage should stay because the family car will remain locked and no taxis will call. That may shut down the prospect of an easy departure. But it also reveals a controlling partner in his/her true colours, and makes staying untenable in the long-run and break-up inevitable.