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Scotland's future Parliamentary debate: the battle lines are drawn

The Scottish Parliament today debated the SNP's white paper on the future of an independent Scotland. Adam Ramsay went along...

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
27 November 2013
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The debating chamber at Holyrood/wikimedia

I just sat through the Scottish Parliament debate on the SNP's white paper “Scotland's Future”. After the launch of this historic document, I wanted to see the discussions. The tone was remarkable. On the one hand, SNP MSPs moved by a sense of the history (that word again - we've been hearing it a lot recently) they have made finally unfolding. On the other, a familiar dirge from Labour MSPs so lacking in passion – for the most part – that you wonder if they believed what they said. The Scottish Labour paradox is that they have talked of little else but the risks of independence for a decade, but have always hated doing so.

Whatever else we say about the white paper, it has drawn the battle lines in the independence referendum. Let me outline them.

First, Alex Salmond was given fourteen minutes to speak to the paper (in Holyrood, speeches are limited). He focussed on one subject. Child care. Specifically, the First Minister explained that the White Paper included a commitment to £700 million spending on new care for children. This would be funded, he said, out of the increased participation of women in the workforce resulting from the investment (an expected 6% increase, he says, in line with Sweden).

It is no surprise that the SNP are putting this policy centre stage. It is women who are most skeptical about independence so far, and women who will most benefit from an expansion of childcare. And this policy highlights what is, perhaps, the core of the SNP's case for independence. In a Parliament which spends but does not tax, you can't invest, because the proceeds don't come to you. The response from Labour was “if childcare is so important, why aren't you doing this now”. But Salmond's response – because we couldn't afford to – is a reasonable one. Their case for independence, to put it another way, is largely Keynsian.

The policy is also revealing about the ideology of this White Paper. Back in 2010, I made for myself a T-shirt, written across it “public spending, it pays for itself”. The point I was trying to make is that public services – such as care services – are vital pieces of economic infrastructure. Tories see them as a cost (until they are privatised, then, miraculously, the same activities become 'wealth creation'). Even Brown often gave the impression that he believed public spending to be an economically harmful duty. The bankers made money, and he spent it (more generously than the Tories). The private sector is the horse, social justice the cart. The understanding that in fact care services are a vital piece of economic infrastructure is a crucial one.

There are important arguments to be had among feminist economists around whether monetising care work is the road to women's liberation. As Fiona Ranford has argued (and as many at last weekend's radical independence conference did) a Citizens' Income might be a better way to support people to do care work. But the fact that the SNP's core case is about the fiscal payoff from investment in social infrastructure is exciting in itself.

Next up was Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont. She focussed, as Better Together have for a while, and as Labour did at Prime Minister's Questions, on the question of currency. The White Paper says that Scotland will keep the pound in the years after independence. The criticisms thrown at the SNP on this are numerous. First, they say, what if the rest of the UK won't let us? Second, they say, that means that if our banks go bust, then we will be relying on them as a lender of last resort. Finally, this means that we can't be independent – that the interest rates won't be set for Scotland.

These criticisms are in one sense, nonsense. Let me take them one at a time. What if the rest of the UK says no? The pound is a currency free floating on the international market. If the Scottish treasury wishes to say that it is the currency it will accept taxes in, then it will be the Scottish currency, whatever the UK Treasury wants - just as Saddam Hussein was planning to adopt the Euro as a currency (though that's perhaps an unfortunate comparison).

On the question of lender of last resort, it's important to remember this: the UK bailed out Ireland's banks. And, more importantly, one of the greatest risks of staying in the UK is that the Treasury has entirely failed to properly regulate the financial sector. It is this failure which makes the risk likely in the first place. Finally, it may be true that Scotland will get no say in interest rates. That will be a matter for negotiation. But it is certainly true right now. Interest rates are set by an unelected and largely unaccountable group of men – largely former bankers – appointed by a Chancellor the vast majority of Scots didn't vote for. It is already a currency run for the city of London. Whilst I think a transition to a separate Scottish currency in the years that follow independence makes more sense, the criticisms that are made by Labour and the Tories hold little water.

It's also worth mulling over the fact that Cameron and Scottish Labour deputy leader Anas Sarwar, at Westminster, criticised the SNP for a monetary proposal based on assumptions about what they – Labour and Tories at Westminster – would do. It might have been more mature for them just to say what they would do.

The next critic up was Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories. She focussed on another clear battle line (it's almost as if Labour and the Conservatives are co-ordinating speeches): Europe. Would Scotland be allowed entry? This question has been addressed already in a post on OurKingdom today by our resident expert. But the response is a simple one: her party at Westminster has pledged a referendum on leaving the EU. Whatever uncertainties exist in the event of a yes vote (and I am certain we will find the international negotions, though perhaps laborious, to work out reasonably - international law bends to political reality) these uncertainties exist too in the event of a no.

Contributions from the back benches and the Lib Dem leader touched on a number of themes: oil, pensions, housing, climate change and renewables. The SNP MSPs were often moved to thank their predessesors. Most Labour MSPs expressed little emotion.

There is, though, a final thing worth noting about the debate. For all of the negativity of Scottish Labour here (and of some in the SNP), there is none of the venality found in Westminster. Almost every SNP backbencher who spoke criticised Westminster for its immigrant bashing. No one from the Labour party disagreed. In the ministerial question time before the debate, there was near universal condemnation of zero hours contracts and black listing. There was a sense that a Parliament can intervene in the market to make the world fairer.

I spent four years volunteering at Holyrood. But I've been away for a while. It's nice to be reminded that politics doesn't have to be like it is at Westminster. Green Party co-leader Patrick Harvie included in his speech a plea for the debate to be conducted in a civilised way, in the spirit of friendship. Coming up from the South East of England, my overwhelming sense is this: the politicians threw insults and blame at each other, not at the poor or the vulnerable. They argued over how to make the country better for everyone, not just the super-rich. They are frustrating, they are, lots of them, wrong. But they aren't nasty or currupt. This is a world away from Westminster.

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