Jonathan Sher: Independent Scotland would have a better special relationship with US

This article originally appeared in Monday’s Herald and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.

The 11th-hour bid by the No camp to offer the possibility of new powers to Scotland absolutely does not include devolving powers over foreign, military and nuclear affairs.

Instead, Scottish voters have been threatened that independence will mean exclusion from the “Special Relationship” between Washington and Westminster. However, upon closer examination, being freed from that suffocating embrace would be a blessing.

As a New Scot from the United States who has moved from undecided to Yes, I understand that Scotland can develop a much fairer, mature relationship with Washington. Independence will create the opportunity to move beyond being the tail of the British dog that consistently follows the lead of the American alpha male.

The US satirical TV show Saturday Night Live featured a character called The Church Lady. Her hyper-pious, condescending response to other people’s views and actions was usually a withering “Well, isn’t that special?” – with “special” meaning awful, ill-informed or simply not in line with her preferences.

I heard the echo of The Church Lady in Resolution 713 tabled within the US House of Representatives. It invokes the “Special Relationship” between the US and UK and encourages continuing the status quo (while expressing “deep friendship toward the Scottish people” and “respecting the right of the Scottish people to make their decision” in the referendum).

On the one hand, it is perfectly reasonable for Washington to assert its own interests by continuing a relationship with Westminster it heavily dominates. On the other hand, it is just as reasonable for Scotland to pursue its own interests in what will inevitably remain a friendly set of connections with America. Profound family, historical, musical, academic and trading ties between my two nations provide a firm foundation upon which we can and will build.

The difference with independence is that our new relationship can become more mutually beneficial at the political level. Scotland is very likely to end up with far greater attention paid by Washington to what the Scottish Government and Scottish people actually want, need, believe and prefer.

While growing up, I wanted to hang out with my much bigger brother and his big friends. Chuck was kindly disposed to me and often allowed his wee brother to tag along. While I could express my opinions, they were never decisive. Inevitably, I ended up following whatever path the big boys chose. One of the joys of maturing and becoming independent was being able to create new connections with my big brother and his big friends on a more equal footing.

The transition from shadowing my brother to being (and being treated as) a real person in my own right – whose voice, vote and choices mattered – did not happen overnight. However, it ended up feeling liberating and brought benefits to all concerned.

Scotland, too, has the chance to escape its tag-along status in favour of a healthier partnership with Washington. AsSeptember 18 draws near, it is worth remembering that our decision about independence carries with it as many certainties as uncertainties. For instance, a No vote absolutely ensures that Scotland will remain subject to, and an afterthought within, the US/UK “Special Relationship”. The illusory “new powers” that might possibly be gifted to Scotland by Westminster, if we vote No, certainly do not include powers over military affairs, foreign policy, nuclear weapons or anything else agreed between Westminster and Washington.

Alistair Darling said “everything that makes sense to decide here” will be in Scotland’s hands, but this conspicuously did not include defence and other international matters “reserved” for Westminster. A majority of Scots may oppose whatever future foreign adventures and military conflicts the US and UK jointly undertake. But, without independence, we will still be dragged into the ones for which Scots have no appetite.

Post-independence, the personal, cultural, tourism and other business ties that bind America and Scotland will inevitably continue and grow stronger. But, it would be Scotland’s own relationship, not a second-hand one via Westminster. That is yet another good reason to vote Yes.

Jonathan Sher was a US citizen who chose to come and live and work in Scotland.  He assumed British citizenship to allow him to vote Yes in Scotland’s independence referendum. He is Scotland Director of WAVE Trust but writes here in a personal capacity.

What a panic’s in their breastie!

What a different two (or three actually) polls make.

First, the Panelbase poll conducted by the Yes campaign shows a record high of 47% support for independence among women with the gender gap virtually closed.  Hurrah for us!  And especially Women for Independence who right from the onset – even before Yes Scotland was formed actually – realised that women would take longer to make their minds up, that women needed to be listened to rather than talked at in this campaign and be offered space beyond traditional political hierarchies in which to engage. Our instincts have proven to be spot on.

Second, the sensational YouGov poll for the Sunday Times putting Yes ahead for the first time in the campaign.  It’s a slender 2 points but the momentum is all ours.  A wiser owl than me told me of recent Irish referenda experience.  In each and every one, the vote started shifting in the last few weeks.  Once it does, it doesn’t stop: all the other side can hope to do is slow down the shift enough to prevent it reaching the finish line.  It looks like the efforts the No campaign have made in the last week to achieve this have failed.

But hard hats on and heads down (though our tails are clearly up).  To coin a phrase, there is no room for complacency.  There’s a lot to do and everyone who wants to see Yes win the day on 18th September must redouble their efforts, continuing to target the key voter groups of Labour supporters, working class voters, women and people aged under 40.  According to Peter Kellner at YouGov, these are the voters who have shifted the most in the last few weeks.  Everyone in local Yes and grassroots groups must focus on reaching more of them, each and every day between now and the 18th.

As for the No campaign?  Well, you can promise jam today, jam tomorrow and jam the next day but it won’t wash.  Like dodgy market traders with a palette of shop-soiled goods to offload before they perish, they are frantically trying to cobble a “more devo” offer together.

Like the offer they should have allowed to go on the ballot paper from the start.  Or even the offer they should have made months ago.

But then, they promised us more devo at the start of this campaign.  And Messrs Naw, Nay and Never managed to come up with competing claims that amounted to a begrudged attempt to hold on to as much as they can and give away as little as they thought they could get away with.  Who’ll believe them now? The Scottish people are not buying I’m afraid.

The hard hats are needed because we are also going to be assaulted with an aerial bombardment of fear and smear like no other.  The British establishment is fighting for its continued grasp on power and control.  The Labour party is fighting for its very political existence in Scotland, if not elsewhere.  David Cameron is possibly fighting for his job.  What is about to rain down on us will be unprecedented in its severity, weight and virulence.  So this is a time for cool heads, calm hearts and onwards, forever onwards.  One doorstep at a time.

That’s presuming of course that they can stop fighting like ferrets in a sack.  It’s already started.

Unnamed backbench Conservative MPs have started calling for Cameron’s head on a plate:  “If Lord North went in 1782 for losing the American colonies, I can’t see how Cameron can stay, frankly.”  Note the language there:  it betrays how they really view Scotland.

Cameron is being blamed for allowing Alex Salmond to out-strategise him by one former Minister, especially on the timing of the referendum.  Again, betraying that they understand nothing of what is going on in Scotland right now.

And also, that it is still all about them.  Secret talks are apparently being held to force a leadership contest by parachuting Boris in through a parliamentary by-election.  The calculations on what happens if Scotland votes yes are all about shoring up their rump and being in a position to hold onto their seats at the UK election in 2015.

But the Tories are not just fighting among themselves – they’re turning their fire on their erstwhile Naw partners, Labour.  Apparently, it’s all also Labour’s fault for failing to deliver its vote.  Which again mistakes that this is about parties and even, as I opined here, that Labour has a core vote these days in Scotland.  The Scottish Tories are rock solid – but then that was to be expected.  It’s Labour whose support is haemorraghing.

Poor Douglas Alexander is the one coming under fire with particularly nasty personalised attacks.  Why him?  He isn’t the leader of Better Together – Alistair Darling is.  Many other Labour figures, including Scottish ones, have played much more senior roles.  The attacks on him whiff of jealousy, of score settling and of seeing off his credentials as a Labour leadership contender.  Yet, if any senior Labour figure has tried to create a positive narrative for the Naw lot, it’s him.  At various points, he’s been pushed out of the picture by others jostling to lead the front line.  With very few following his messaging.  Why?  Because they all thought this would be a skoosh and it was a platform for them to see out their twilight years basking in shared glory or from which to jettison them into the limelight and potential leadership roles. It seems to me that he and Brown are the two working their hardest to retrieve the situation.

But therein lies part of the problem.  For all that Gordon Brown is still a respected political figure in Scotland – and revered by the media to embarrassingly gauche levels – he is still yesterday’s man.  He may understand UK politics but having served his entire career on that stage, he is out of touch with the dynamic of Scottish politics.  He – and others – do not get us anymore.  That is at the heart of their problem.

As it is for the whole Naw movement, as Rory Stewart – he of the failed attempt to create hands across the border and build symbolic cairns and other irrelevant nonsense – attests. “A Yes vote would represent a failure of the entire political class. I think it’s the greatest constitutional issue we have faced for 300 years and it has not been treated like that. In the 19th century, this would have been like the great reform act. It would have engaged the whole nation and its politicians for years.”

Yet, the debate that Scotland has been having has been like our own great reform act, our own democratic renewal, with people of all ages enthused, engaged, debating and deliberating.  It has captured our imaginations and our attention.  The whole nation has been enthralled.  If the rest of the UK (but primarily England, for this is what they mean when they say “we”) failed to notice, or care, or contribute positively, that’s its problem.

But “we” as Scotland, as a nation, have awoken and to tar us with the brush of indifference is inaccurate and unfair.

Our political class – on the Yes side at least – have not been found wanting.  There is no failure of leadership here.

But it’s not actually about them.  What has happened in Scotland isn’t about them, but about us.  All of us.

There’s no failure, simply success.  To get to where we are today, with Yes leading by two points twelve days before the vote, having had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at us from on high by the British establishment, big business, world leaders, the UK Government, the British media, rich people with deep pockets, and all those with their hands currently on the levers of power, is little short of astonishing.

It’s not a failure but a triumph.  Of the will of the Scottish people to stand up and say no more.  No more waiting.  No more empty promises. We want this one opportunity to create a better life for everyone who lives here.  And most especially of all, we want the chance to create a better future for our children, our grandchildren and the generations yet to come.



Jim and Margaret Cuthbert: Why there is no such thing as a Union Dividend

This is an article (previously published on Open Democracy) from Jim and Margaret Cuthbert summarising their detailed research critiquing the concept of a union dividend and effectively blowing out of the water, the UK Government’s analysis of Scotland’s income and wealth. It makes for compelling reading and if you are trying to persuade undecided voters of the economic case for independence, you might want to give them this piece or even the full analysis. It was published by Options for Scotland on 14th August and is available here 

On May 28th, the Treasury produced its report “Scotland analysis: Fiscal policy and sustainability” on the size of the union dividend which every Scot, it was claimed, received as part of the UK. According to the Treasury, over the next twenty years, every man, woman, and child would be £1,400 better off each year for staying in the union. 

One thing we found is that there are large technical flaws in the Treasury analysis and calculations: in particular, the model the Treasury used fails to account for various known features which will inevitably affect the future they are trying to predict. The identified flaws include, among others:

  • the Treasury’s failure to allow for the Barnett squeeze which, on the Treasury’s own growth assumptions will automatically begin and adversely affect the Scottish government’s funding under a continued union.
  • Failure to recognise that the funding model for the devolved Scottish government has no mechanism for making provision for a significant element for the extra costs associated with Scotland’s relatively ageing population.
  • Failure to allow for the implications of quantitative easing.

However, the problems with the Treasury’s approach go much deeper than these technical flaws. Its failure to model the way the Scottish government is funded under the union, allied to its failure to look at variant scenarios for UK public expenditure growth, means that the Treasury entirely miss the lose/lose situation which Scotland is in under continuation of the union.

On the one hand, if the Treasury’s optimistic growth scenario is realised, then there will be a Barnett squeeze. But on the other hand, in the very likely case of continued austerity, then the Barnett formula would mechanistically deliver increasing levels of per capita expenditure on devolved services to Scotland relative to England: in the face of universal austerity in the UK, this would make the continuation of Barnett politically impossible. Either way, Scotland loses.

The Treasury calculations also fail to allow for the adverse effects which are, in effect, baked into the UK baseline from which the Treasury attempts to measure its “union dividend”. These negatives include:

  • The very serious risks of a UK financial crisis.
  • Having successive Conservative governments which Scotland has not voted for.
  • Illegal wars.
  • Trident, which is based on the doorstep of Scotland’s largest conurbation, and which polls show is anathema to the bulk of the Scottish population.
  • The adverse effects of Scotland’s lack of direct representation in international bodies like the EU and the UN.
  • The inefficiencies in the operation of reserved functions in the UK, which means that Scotland has at times to seek permission to allocate part of its own budget to overcome deficiencies – and is on occasion even penalised for so doing. (A classic example of the latter was free personal care for the elderly, where the Scottish government hoped to use the attendance allowance of those in care homes to help meet the overall costs. The UK government refused to transfer the attendance allowance monies, so Scotland was penalised by over £20 million per annum).
  • The fact that Scotland has to take on board, without any option, divisive UK policies in areas like social security.

In effect, the Treasury approach is fundamentally and implicitly union-centric: so that the present state of the union is inherently regarded as being natural, beneficial, and risk-free. What should have taken place was a proper assessment of the pros and cons of the union, going into the risks and costs attaching to continued membership of that union.

And last, but not least, is the question of the assumption that the Treasury made about the independence scenario – in areas like start-up costs, oil, and debt. These assumptions have, rightly, been strongly challenged by others: see for example oil expert Donald MacKay in the Sunday Times on 6th July. While it is not the primary purpose of this paper to go into these areas in detail, there are good grounds for believing that the Treasury has chosen to be unduly pessimistic.

The Treasury paper is, of course, meant to tell us something about Scottish independence: but actually, what it does do is to indicate something very significant about what has happened to the Treasury itself. The two fundamental failings in the Treasury paper are the failure to take on board in their modelling known, and essential, features of the real world – particularly the funding arrangements for devolution: and the failure to produce a balanced view by addressing the risks attaching to the UK economy. These failings tell us that the once proud Treasury has become a thoroughly politicised organisation, and one where technical standards have badly slipped.

Overall, where does our critique leave the “union dividend”? Is it just a question of reducing the Treasury’s assessed dividend in relation to those technical mistakes that we have identified and which can be quantified? 

Absolutely not. What we argue is that the whole concept of a single figure “union dividend” is nonsense and must be abandoned. The decision that the Scottish people will take on independence involves many factors. To try to boil that decision down to a single monetary amount is basically meaningless: and when the method adopted essentially assumes away all the risks and costs attaching to staying in the union the result is not merely meaningless, it is intrinsically biased.

When the Treasury produced their results, their use of children’s lego men to explain their findings to the simple minded Scots was widely, and rightly, seen as insulting. In fact, the real insult was not in the use of lego men to present the results: but in the fact that the Treasury adopted a flawed and biased methodology in the first place.