The Salmond Problem
Amidst the disputed ComRes survey for The Independent on Sunday, Matt Chorley and Brian Brady have produced the best (only?) credible broadsheet analysis of Scottish politics by an English paper (‘Westminster has no answer to the Alex Salmond effect’). See full article here.
“The two parties in coalition in Westminster have differing views on what to do about the “Salmond problem”: the Lib Dems’ blueprint for a federal Britain at the last general election pledged to “increase the powers of the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament”, but the Tories baldly pledged to “strengthen the union”. One Lib Dem cabinet minister bridles at the word “unionist” and insists that “you won’t find anyone on our side using that word”.
However, in the absence – thus far – of a coherent political or emotional plan to “sell” the union to the Scottish people, the Westminster government has devised a scheme to lay bare the price of going it alone. The new, aggressive approach to the SNP, detailed in The IoS last month, centres on a campaign to drive home the costs of independence to wavering Scottish voters. Ministers have targeted areas where Mr Salmond is seen to be vulnerable, notably on the economy and welfare, for a more rigorous examination of how an independent Scotland would stay afloat – and bankroll its huge pensions and benefits bill without raising taxes.
Ministers in London have seized the opportunity in recent weeks to warn of a looming economic catastrophe. David Mundell, the Scotland Office minister, claimed Scotland would not have survived the banking collapse had it been independent, while Nick Clegg last week said the uncertainty over the referendum was “very unsettling for the business community and [would not do] the Scottish economy any good”.
But the most drastic intervention came from Danny Alexander, whose calculations led him to warn of a “catastrophic” £122bn cost of independence. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury told business leaders that Scotland’s share of the national debt last year would have been £65bn, while the cost of recapitalising the two major banking groups, RBS and HBOS, would have added a further £57bn to the burden.
That gloomy assessment is inevitably rejected by the SNP, but it has also been questioned by a number of economists. Professor Andrew Hughes-Hallett, of St Andrews University, calculates that, on the basis of income over the last five years, Scotland is a net contributor to the Treasury – and that an independent Scotland would be financially better off.
“If you were to take account of what is spent in Scotland and what is raised in Scotland – and that would include North Sea oil – then in 2008 Scotland was in a mild surplus,” he said. “So you could say the subsidy is the other way around. I think critics in England have only one side of the story.”
In an attempt to force Mr Salmond on to the back foot, David Cameron and Nick Clegg want MPs in Westminster to agree to block Scottish MPs from voting on English issues before the SNP referendum. The coalition agreement pledges to establish a commission to consider whether to bar MPs from devolved nations from all but UK-wide votes, first raised by Tam Dalyell in the 1970s when he was Labour MP for West Lothian.
A senior Lib Dem source said: “The Government is confident we can get the commission out before Salmond has a referendum, but it is hard to say because Salmond has not been brave enough to come forward about when he will hold it or what the question will be, and he continues to avoid telling the Scottish people what he has planned for their future.”