Friday, 13 May 2011

Responsible or reckless?

As usual Ben Thomson of the Campaign for Fiscal Responsibility makes a good rhetorical and theoretical case for more fiscal autonomy for Scotland in the Scotsman, but it's never precisely clear what's meant in practical terms by arguments regarding such concepts as responsibility and accountability.

However, it's perhaps instructive that in relation to "tailoring taxes to improve economic growth" Mr Thomson mentions Dublin. Perhaps by accountability he thus means going cap in hand to the EU or IMF when a nation state nearly collapses under a sea of debt?

And post-devolution Scotland's politics seem to have been dominated by public spending profligacy contributing to UK public borrowing, with the SNP blaming London for the belt tightening necessitated now that the bills for all this have to be paid.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that a fiscally autonomous Scotland would combine things like no income tax increases, slashed fuel duty, lowered corporation tax and council tax frozen for nearly a decade on the one hand, with free prescriptions, free higher education and numerous other costly spending pledges and freebies on the other.

Of course, the circle would be squared in the form of borrowing powers, but hence the danger of another Brown-esque debt mountain, which would be consistent with the barely credible spending commitments made during the recent Holyrood election campaign, thus perhaps more fiscally reckless than responsible.

And with Alex Salmond steering the SNP towards abandoning the cash cow oil industry in favour of the subsidy-junkie renewables sector, the danger of another Ireland or Iceland seems more likely than the prudence of Norway.

Of course, all this is consistent with crude Nationalist rhetoric about having more economic powers to "grow the economy", as if some magic wand could be waved to overturn the laws of economics and world experience if only the SNP were given the chance, which is redolent of the again Brown-esque economic alchemy of "no more boom and bust".

For example, does the Nationalist endgame entail retaining sterling with interest rates set by the Bank of England, once considered by the SNP to be inappropriate for Scotland?

Or is the party still wedded to the idea of euro membership, with monetary policy decided by bankers in Frankfurt and which has been instrumental in crippling the economies of some eurozone member states?

And the latter two points relate to one facet of the question regarding precisely what independence for Scotland entails - if indeed dominant SNP opinion desires a degree of greater autonomy that could even reasonably be called independence - which will of course become increasingly prominent and vexed in the coming handful of years.

But when earlier this week Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman questioned Nicola Sturgeon on the choice between the sterling and euro alternatives as regards the currency and monetary policy, under pressure she eventually reverted to the "whatever's in Scotland's best interests" response. (And as regards what the concept of independence would mean for Scotland it's perhaps instructive that a purely Scottish currency isn't even mentioned any more.)

And when SNP MSP Linda Fabiani was grilled by Newsnicht's Gordon Brewer a few minutes later on the efficacy of one of her own party being elected to the position of Holyrood's presiding officer and on the question of scrutiny and accountability generally in a unicameral legislature with a majority governing party, she too defaulted to the "best interests of Scotland and its people" reply.

Roughly translated that probably means "we havnae got a clue" or "cannae think o' a credible answer"!


Anonymous said...

What rubbish.

By all means follow the Paxman logic which assumes that all characteristics of an Independent Scotland must be defined at the outset and remain constant thereafter.

But, in the real world, the point is that Independence allows people living in Scotland to determine these matters IN THEIR BEST INTERESTS as the world evolves.

It doesn't matter what the SNP want as a currency or whether the SNP wants to be in or out of NATO or in or out of the monarchy. Independence is simply about moving from the passenger seat to the drivers seat and every political party will have their opportunity to take the wheel.

Stuart Winton said...

"What rubbish"

Boo hoo.

Actually, your point about the real world represents the essence of the problem, because the presumption in your world is that an independent Scotland ipso facto will be better off than as part of the UK.

That simply isn't logical.

It may well be better off, but if the SNP can't answer fundamental questions like what currency it will adopt and thus who will decide monetary policy (London or Frankfurt) then how can we evaluate what a independent(-ish) Scotland will be like?

It's reverting to the stock "what's in the best interests of Scotland" response that's "rubbish", if you want to put it that way.

And you don't think the public's view on independence will be influenced by whether we would be in NATO or retain the monarcy?

For example, I dareasy many people's support for independence is predicated on dumping the monarchy.

Anonymous said...

Well I don't know how you manage to survive from one day to the next if you have to know every last detail before you make a decision.

The attraction of Independence isn't about whether we dump the monarchy or not, it's about being able to decide whether we dump it or not. So, even if your final assertion is true and despite the official SNP preference, Independence gives such people the prospect of a republic. It is perfectly possible a Republican party will evolve post-Independence with that objective in mind.

All the SNP is doing is identifying what it believes are the priorities for a post-Independence Scotland. I agree with them that the question of currency is not a priority because having all the fiscal levers is much more important than the monetary levers that the Bank of England has. I suspect there will be a time when Scotland starts to outperform the rump UK economy that such an arrnagement will start to hold us back and at that time it would be sensible to explore the alternatives.

Finally, I take it as read that if I make my own decisions I am going to be better off than if my neighbour makes them for me. If you can't see the logic in that then there is probably no hope for you.

I look forward to political debate in Scotland when parties can present their alternative visions for the future of our country knowing that, upon election, they will actually have the powers they need to realise them.