Ewan Crawford: Economic imbalance no laughing matter

Ewan Crawford
Ewan Crawford
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Even for voters who live in England, the benefits of remaining in the UK appear to be increasingly exclusive to London writes Ewan Crawford.

THERE are two possible campaigns those of us who favour independence can now follow: the one the No side wants to drag us into or the one most people in Scotland are hoping for.

The first path is tempting but will prove to be fruitless and should be resisted.

The second campaign will be harder but holds out the real prospect of engaging voters.

There were many significant events last week related to the independence referendum which highlighted the possibilities of both approaches, but of all these it was a seemingly banal footnote in a less than thrilling document that proved the clincher for me.

The campaign I suspect those in the Better Together campaign are hoping for is a narrow, polarised contest which will turn-off most normal people so that the whole idea of independence can be dismissed as a distant argument between politicians who really don’t like each other.

The potential for this kind of campaign was given an unwitting boost last week. A cartoon was published in the liberal Guardian newspaper suggesting the question on the independence referendum ballot paper should ask voters if Scotland should go away and, er, do something to itself.

This was followed up by some commentators depicting those who objected to, or who were offended by, this apparently brilliant satire, as chippy Scots intent on destroying freedom of speech.

All in all it was an inadvertent sideshow but a decent row nevertheless for those seeking to keep the debate on the margins.

The real deal I suspect for this approach came in these pages last week from the former Labour minister, Brian Wilson, who called for a political strategy to “isolate” those Scots who supported independence.

Independence supporters are, according to Mr Wilson an ideologically-driven minority who need not just to be defeated but isolated from their fellow citizens when it comes to deliberations about Scotland’s future.

Later in the week the head of the Better Together campaign, Alistair Darling, was telling another newspaper that: “Anyone who knows anything about the nationalists will know that they’ll chance their arm, if you like.”

In a House of Commons debate, Anas Sarwar, the deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party has even dismissed the Scottish Parliament as “not a democratic place in the conventional sense” and the SNP government as a dictatorship.

The language here is extraordinary and, frankly, deserves to be ignored. Responding in kind will not help the Yes campaign.

That is because, fortunately, we know most people are not interested in such a divisive debate.

The Electoral Commission report into the conduct of the referendum, published last week, attracted most publicity for its recommendations on the wording of the question, campaign funding arrangements and the suggestion that the UK and Scottish governments should seek to reach a joint agreement on some practical steps that should be taken following the vote.

But the most revealing part of the report was the section that dealt with public understanding of independence. Participants in a research exercise “had lots of questions about the potential outcome of the referendum that they wanted answers to before being asked to vote for real in the referendum”.

These questions were about what would happen both in the event of a No vote and a Yes vote.

Helpfully, a footnote (number 18) explained that the key policy area most people wanted information on was the economic impact of independence.

Now, whenever I hear a comment about “isolation”, or “dictatorship” or “nationalists chancing their arm” I am resolved to count to ten while repeatedly and calmly whispering “footnote 18” to myself.

This is the debate that people are entitled to hear. Nothing should divert the Yes campaign from this task.

The commission demonstrated there was a desire for unbiased, objective information. Although in a political debate most information will be contested, it is the strength of evidence-backed arguments that will be crucial.

It is here that the independence side should be confident of its position.

An interesting discussion on the Good Morning Scotland programme at the weekend highlighted research from academics, with no obvious interest in Scotland, which demonstrated that the idea of a single UK economy and social settlement has in effect broken down.

In England, private sector job creation has been concentrated to an astonishing degree in London and the South-East.

The researchers argue that in the north of England and in the West Midlands in particular the only significant supplier of new jobs for many years has been the state. But that public sector employment is now being withdrawn and social security protection is also being aggressively cut.

The geographical imbalance in terms of job creation is now so great that even a general UK-wide fiscal stimulus, they say, is only likely to significantly benefit the London area.

Scotland, because of our natural resources and other advantages, has fared better despite this shocking geographical inequality.

But without the normal economic powers – the job-creating powers – of independence, it will become increasingly difficult to counter the consequences of this ever-growing Westminster-inspired imbalance in the future.

Independence then is not a nice aspiration but an essential step to securing a sustainable economic future for our country. This is a debate from which no-one should be isolated because the outcome will affect us all.