The political storm over Scotland’s currency

What can be learnt from the recent intervention of George Osborne, and why Westminster continues to inadvertently undermine the case for union.

James Mitchell Gerry Hassan
14 February 2014

While storms, both natural and political, lash the southern Tory heartlands of Britain, another major public storm erupted in the northern uplands, the near-completely Tory free zone of Scotland.

Chancellor George Osborne with the backing of Labour Ed Balls and Lib Dem Danny Alexander laid down the law to the Scots with regard to independence: you cannot have a currency union and keep the pound. This from the political class which crashed the British economy, believed light-touch regulation was the solution, and that the UK had the right to lecture the world on the merits of ‘the British economic miracle’. It will be noted that there was no sign of contrition from Osborne and Balls on these fundamentals.

Last week Prime Minister David Cameron pronounced on how much the rest of the UK wanted to keep Scotland in the union. This week George Osborne played bad cop, warning that independence would mean the end of a currency union. Leaving aside the irony of having an SNP Government seeking to maintain an important feature of the union while a UK Government adopts a separatist stance on the currency, there are a number of troubling aspects to a position that seems motivated more by campaign demands than serious considerations of government.

While politicians in campaign mode engage in adversarial hyperbole, the statecraft and art of government requires compromise in which interests supersede the high octane rhetoric of the campaign trail.  We are to believe that the rUK would be willing to abandon the existing currency union because it would be unable to accept uncertainty, banking risks, a lack of symmetry in risk sharing, and different fiscal priorities, according to the Treasury's top civil servant, Sir Nicholas Macpherson, in an unusual public intervention.  

These are valid concerns, though the notion that agreement could not be reached or that the risks are quite so asymmetrical may not be convincing.  Does the UK’s Treasury’s record inspire confidence? Has it stopped being part of the problem of the UK’s long-term economic problems which predate the recent crash?  The Treasury intervention has become part of the politicisation of the Whitehall civil service in this referendum.  

This has no equivalent amongst Scottish government officials who operate within the normal constraints of knowing that an opposition party might emerge as political masters at some stage in the future.  The absence of this constraint appears to have given Whitehall bureaucrats free rein to engage more publicly in this referendum in a manner we can assume will not be repeated in any future EU referendum.

There can be little doubt that a currency union would significantly limit the Scottish room of autonomy.  There is scope for serious debate on the implications of a currency union.  Can this even be described as independence?  If Scotland were to vote No, is it possible that the SNP’s proposal to have a Scottish voice at the top table worth considering?  There are a multitude of issues yet to be considered before we start thinking about a Plan B, not least as Plan A – a common currency, remains the most likely post-Yes scenario.

The regimented forces of the metropolitan establishment have pronounced but where are the voices of other parts of the UK? The Welsh First Minister made an intervention, largely ignored if even noticed, which offered nothing new but what of the North of England and the silent voices of the other English regions outside the South East?

If a future UK Government were to find it impossible to negotiate on this, the North of England would surely suffer.  There is evidence of border economic effects but these are not absolute and the North of England now has much to fear if campaign rhetoric becomes public policy.  A trip over the border will become somewhat more cumbersome after independence thanks to a decision, we are told, which will be made by whichever party is in government not by a decision made in Edinburgh.  

Discussions have been taking place in recent times between public bodies on either side of the border, supported or at least not opposed by the Scottish government.  It seems that London is where the problem lies.  But our friends in the North of England have long understood this.

Campaign rhetoric often gives way to a mature form of politics but the heightened claims coming from London will leave a legacy.  If the strategy is to force Scots to remain in the union by suggesting that London will do its utmost to make independence unworkable, it will leave a sour taste.  

The tone of Cameron’s speech was positive.  Osborne’s has been menacing.  It will be the Chancellor’s words, especially as these are echoed over the coming months, that will be remembered.  If victory is won by opponents of independence, they will have it at a heavy price and one that will have sown the seeds for another round of constitutional debates within a few short years.

These interventions beg the question of what kind of union it is where George Osborne with Labour and Lib Dem backing can lay down unilateral conditions. The tone, attitude and content is deeply worrying and damaging. The state of the British body politic and what passes for democracy are not exactly in robust health. Whatever the outcome of the September Scottish vote, Osborne has just dealt another significant blow to the union of the United Kingdom that he so fervently supports.

It is time for a different kind of union to be proposed by pro-union politicians, but that requires a different kind of unionism from what we have seen of late. A union and unionism have to have a politics and vision of the whole union. At the moment we seem to have one which not only does not represent or understand Scotland, but the North and most parts of England as well.


Dr. Gerry Hassan is lecturer in cultural policy at the University of the West of Scotland. James Mitchell is Professor of Public Policy at Edinburgh University and ESRC Fellowship. They are co-editors of ‘After Independence’ published by Luath Press.

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