Leaders: Loose talk may cost No votes

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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AMID the often arcane debate surrounding the economics of independence, there is one question capable of catching the attention of even the most uninterested and jaded voter – what currency will I have in my pocket after independence?

This is why the unguarded comments by an unnamed UK government minister, quoted in a London newspaper yesterday, have the potential to be political dynamite. The minister – identified as someone who would be closely involved in independence negotiations in the event of a Yes vote – is said to have dismissed the UK government position that rules out a shared currency between Scotland and the rest of the UK in the event of independence. “Of course there would be a currency union,” this minister is quoted as saying – eight words that could prove to be a landmark moment in this historic campaign.

Politicians are not held in very high regard by the electorate, and what little trust there is can be a fragile thing. If the Yes campaign can persuade voters the UK parties have been telling them one thing in public while believing the opposite in private, then it could be a devastating blow to the credibility of those parties, as well as the Better Together campaign. Voters hate duplicity. The SNP knows this to its cost. Last year a leaked copy of a Scottish Government internal report on Scotland’s economic prospects, written by cabinet secretary for finance, John Swinney, showed SNP ministers were saying one thing in public and another in private. There is little doubt, however, that this weekend’s controversy has greater potential to make a significant mark, coming as it does on such a key issue, and at such a crucial moment in the campaign.

Could it decide the outcome of the referendum, come September? Based on the ICM poll for this newspaper last weekend, the Yes camp only needs a swing of five percentage points to win. With 15 per cent of the population still to make up their minds, closing that gap is perfectly feasible. Of these “don’t-knows”, one in five is leaning towards a Yes and one in five is leaning towards a No, but fully three in five have still to make up their minds.

Add to this the possibility of declared Yes and No voters changing sides (our poll found that 19 per cent of Yes voters say they might switch their vote, and 16 per cent of No voters too) then the fluidity of this contest is clear. Writing this weekend, Yes strategist Stephen Noon conceded that the UK parties’ firm rejection of a currency union had made it less likely that a small section of the electorate would vote Yes. The UK minister’s loose talk, he says, now brings those people back into play.

Will policy issues such as the currency and Europe really determine what people do when they are standing in the voting booth with pencil poised above the ballot paper on 18 September? Polls and analysts are very good at divining what people think about the multiplicity of issues in the campaign, from macroeconomics to access to Doctor Who on their TVs. What it is harder for polls to pin down is whether any of these have the capacity to be the issue that defines how someone will vote. And opinion polls are not the best tools to explore what many expect to be a defining factor on polling day – the politics of identity. What kind of Scot am I? Am I the kind who wants to take Scotland forward as part of the UK family of nations? Or have I lost all faith in the ability of Scotland to thrive within the UK? Should we govern ourselves alone, as a sovereign power, and stand on our own two feet? Or should we share sovereignty with the other diverse peoples of these islands, in common endeavour? These are the imponderables that will help determine the result in less than six months time. The real battle on this ground – the battle for Scotland’s heart rather than Scotland’s head – has not yet begun.

Single force must be accountable locally

FROM the first moment the idea of merging Scotland’s eight police forces was mooted, a consistent concern has been how a new single force would be accountable to the people it serves. Almost all of the response to this concern has been focused on how Police Scotland should be held to account at national level by the new Scottish Police Authority. Of course, this is a crucial relationship and it is important it works effectively. But far less attention has been paid to how local communities across Scotland hold Police Scotland to account for local policing.

As our political editor Tom Peterkin demonstrates in his news story today, one year after the creation of Police Scotland, local accountability is at best piecemeal, and at worst practically invisible. The old police boards – a long-­established mechanism through which local authorities scrutinised the work of local forces – were abolished when Police Scotland came into operation. It is extraordinary that the legislation establishing the single force did not provide a new infrastructure at local level. Instead, it has been left to councils to create their own new relationships with the force on an ad hoc basis. As a result, in many areas of Scotland there is no clear mechanism for the local community expressing its views about crime and law enforcement on its streets, or for the force to be easily held to account for its actions.

Compounding this problem is a lack of visibility of senior police officers in Scotland’s cities and regions. A year ago, many people had a vague idea of who their local chief constable was. Now, how many people could name the senior police officer responsible for their part of Scotland?

The inescapable conclusion is that Police Scotland has an accountability deficit. To remedy this will need concerted action between the Scottish Government, Police Scotland, the Scottish Police Authority and the councils themselves. We have allowed a situation to develop which is deeply unsatisfactory, and insufficient to hold power to account. It is in no-one’s interests for the citizens of Scotland to have the feeling that the policing of their streets is controlled by a national body far away over which they have little or no say or control. Policing has to be open, transparent and accountable. It has to enjoy the trust of the people being policed.