Leaders: Game changer in prospect | Overdue but welcome

Will scepticism about Scottish independence hold out once the advantages are spelt out? Picture: Robert Perry
Will scepticism about Scottish independence hold out once the advantages are spelt out? Picture: Robert Perry
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MUCH of the criticism of the SNP’s role in the referendum campaign has centred on the party’s attempts to sell the notion that after independence not very much would change.

The Nationalists’ desire to emphasise continuity – retaining the monarchy, the pound, links with Nato, etc – have attracted criticism from some Yes campaigners who see independence as a radical break from the way we are governed at present, offering radical changes to the way we live our lives. Well, Alex Salmond and the SNP will this week answer their critics in the most dramatic manner, making a promise that looks certain to be one of the key issues in the campaign as we head for 18 September, 2014. The commitment to examine the issue of retirement age in an independent Scotland is of a different order to anything that has passed for political debate in recent months. Arcane arguments about oil revenue volatility and the distinction between debt and deficit leave most sensible people cold – they have lives to lead, after all, and Scotland’s date with destiny is still 12 months away. But the possibility that independence might allow many Scots to retire earlier is something every person who holds down a job can readily understand. And the SNP will move heaven and earth to ensure this thought is front and centre in people’s minds as polling day approaches.

It is a tantalising offer that exemplifies one of the dilemmas voters face over the coming year. Should the possibility – and at this stage it is still couched as a possibility – of an earlier retirement date be taken at face value? Such a move could certainly enhance the lives of hundreds of thousands of Scots. Or is it, to take the opposite view, a desperate gambit by a party that is willing to make irresponsible promises as it struggles to achieve the political goal that is its raison d’etre?

Recent polling makes it easy to understand why the SNP thinks this is a promise that could narrow the gap between it and the Better Together campaign. An ICM poll for our sister paper The Scotsman last week showed that if people think they will be £500 better off under independence it radically changes the dynamic of the campaign. What, then, if people think they will be freed earlier in their lives from the shackles of work? We can expect other such promises – on child care, perhaps, or parental leave, or free school meals. Opponents of independence were last night effectively briefing that the pension gambit was a bribe. Not only that, a bribe that flies in the face of the realities faced by all Western governments as they come to grips with a calamitous collision of demographics and economics. Good governments take tough decisions for the common good. This move, say critics, shows the SNP to be opportunistic purveyors of retail politics. It is, say No campaigners, a clear sign the Nationalists cannot be taken seriously.

The reality is that both ways of looking at this policy promise – one, that it is an inspired piece of political bravura, and two, that it is a cynical appeal to voters’ self-interest – carry more than a grain of truth. Like many issues in the independence debate, and Scottish politics more widely, the question here is whether Scotland can afford it, and whether it is the right priority.

Current polling evidence suggests voters are sceptical about grandiose promises of what advantages independence might bring. But once those advantages are spelt out specifically in eminently understandable and attractive terms, will that scepticism hold?

Overdue but welcome

ELSEWHERE on this page today, Kenny MacAskill, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, makes the case for the use of tags and satellite technology to keep tabs on some of the most violent and predatory people in Scotland. His argument is most persuasive. Given that the available technology has been in existence for some years now, it is arguably overdue; but it is welcome nonetheless.

Such use of GPS technology will go a long way to answer some of the public’s most persistent criticisms of a criminal justice system that struggles to ensure that dangerous people are effectively supervised once they are released from jail.

But GPS tagging is not just useful for the most headline-grabbing offenders, such as rapists and paedophiles. It could also be extremely effective in cases of domestic abuse and stalking, where court orders are imposed on people to keep their distance from their victim.

Such orders are notoriously difficult to enforce. The person they are intended to protect has no way of knowing whether their abuser or stalker – whose judgment cannot be relied upon as rational – intends to abide by these orders. This means the victims – usually women – are rarely reassured by such measures. Enforcing exclusion orders for such offenders by means of GPS tagging would be a significant step forward.