Scottish independence: five unions

The Scottish Government has been working hard so as not to startle the horses.  The White Paper reads less like a blueprint for independence, more like an election manifesto: policies are incremental and specific.  One of the big selling points, the provision of better child care, is widely seen as something that the Scottish Government could do now.   The approach of the White Paper may be a mistake.  The problem is not that the policies are bad; it is partly that the current government cannot bind an independent Scotland to follow its pledges, and partly that those policies have been shaped by existing policy in the UK.  A programme for independence has to consider powers, not a shopping list of policies.

First Minister Alex Salmond has promised the maintenance of five unions:  the currency, the monarchy, defence, Europe and the ‘social’ union.   And there is effectively a sixth union being considered: the union of benefits administration across boundaries, including a commitment to maintain existing pensions entitlements which will take the best part of a century to unravel, and to principles which mirror the distorted priorities of the Conservative/New Labour consensus on ‘welfare reform’.

The monarchy is (perhaps surprisingly) uncontroversial – several independent Commonwealth countries have the British Queen as their head of state, and the arrangement has the great merit of stopping local politicians from claiming the authority instead.   The negotiation of terms with Europe may be difficult, but as the White Paper says, a greater risk of being forced out of Europe is posed by the UK’s coming referendum.   The ‘social union’ is vague, but there are many ties and they are not going to disappear overnight.

The other unions are problematic.  The idea of a currency union is unsound; it would subject a supposedly independent Scotland to the economic direction of London.  (Several countries simply use other countries’ currencies.  I lean to the principle of free use of exchange currencies – the Euro, the pound or the dollar – coupled with an obligation on banks to hold accounts on the same terms for any exchange currency.)   The ‘defence union’ would have to be about more than NATO, but it seems to me that a Scottish Defence Force cannot sensibly be erected from the residuum of three distinct armed services – it has to be reformed in an appropriate administrative and operational structure.

The union of benefits administration also seems unwise.  Pickling the existing benefits system in its present form  has the advantage that people will not be worse off, but they will not be better off either; and in many ways, including coverage, stability, equity, information management, avoiding poverty and social protection, the present system is not performing well enough for people of working age.

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