Better Together campaign leader, Alistair Darling, took part in a live webchat yesterday on The Scotsman website to discuss the arguments in favour of a no vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
Question from Laura Rayner: Do you think that the cost of independence is just £1?
Response: Last year the SNP said that Scots would be about £500 a year better off under independence. This figure is said to come from looking at Scottish public expenditure, taking the years when oil prices were especially high. The SNP argument was that Scotland was somehow being short-changed. The Treasury figure put out yesterday cast doubt on those assumptions pointing out that over the last few years Scotland has always had its fair share of public expenditure. This is an argument about the difference between what Scotland gets in and what it pays out. It has nothing to do with independence. Our argument is not that Scotland couldn’t go it alone, most countries can, but as the Independent Institute of Fiscal Studies has shown public spending in Scotland is about £1,200 a head higher in Scotland and we are very dependent on revenues from North Sea oil which are very volatile. The argument about independence turns on whether you think Scotland would be economically better and stronger as part of the UK and whether you consider the risks and uncertainties that come with independence are worth it.
Question from David Kelly: Why does Alistair think that Tory rule from London is preferable to Home Rule from Holyrood? If Scotland were independent, she could well be governed by a progressive Labour government. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
Response: Tory rule is never preferable either in Westminster or Holyrood for that matter. We’re not talking about electing a government for the next five years. We are deciding whether or not Scotland is stronger and better as part of the United Kingdom.
Question from Vincent McWhirter: If Scotland is best staying within the Union, why have we consistently for 70 years since the end of WWII had higher unemployment than the rest of the UK, an economy that struggles more than the UK, a lower economic growth rate than the UK, poorer health, poorer housing, higher emigration with our young having to leave the country taking their skills to Canada, Australia etc. These symptoms are of a failing country, not of a successful country. All this has happened during a 30 plus year period of Trillions of pounds being received from oil revenue from Scottish oil. Why if being in the UK is good for us has Scotland not grown and developed similar to other small European countries who now have a better standard of living and stronger economies?
Response: Firstly on comparisons with other countries, there are many small countries that are struggling. Ireland and Iceland for example (remember the Arc of Prosperity?). Secondly Scotland like many other countries has had to deal with huge changes to its economy, some of it has done well take Edinburgh and Aberdeen for example. Others have found it difficult. As for health it is totally devolved, and there is no reason why the current Scottish Government couldn’t take whatever action it thinks necessary to improve it. Much of this depends on the type of government which is elected. Not on the constitution. If the current SNP policy of a currency union with England is put in place, you are actually shackling Scotland to another country’s economic policy. Look at what is happening in the Eurozone. Freedom to do whatever you want would be severely curtailed by the demands of the other countries in the Union.
Comment From Simon: The separatists play heavily on Scottish patriotism, do you think it is important that the Pro UK campaign shows British patriotism too and encourages people to take pride in being British? What will Better Together do to promote that?
Response: Most Scots are proud to be both Scottish and British. We are fiercely patriotic and don’t have to or want to chose between the two.
Question from Kenny Paterson: Is it realistic to suggest that increased Border controls between Scotland and England would be put in place should Scotland become an independent country?
Response: Much of this depends on what the terms and conditions of Scotland being admitted to the European Union. Most countries are now in a common passport area in Europe. If we had a different immigration and asylum regime from the rest of the UK there would have to be border controls which most of us do not want. I can’t see the benefit of that. Scotland is part of one of the oldest political and economic unions in the world. I want to break down barriers between countries not put them up.
Question from Danny: In the event of seperation, do you think the UK will gladly hand over 90% of the oil like the SNP assert? Wouldn’t the UK argue that since it invested in Oil and Gas, it should have a larger share?
Question from Bill Laver: The SNP claim 90% of North Sea oil and gas revenues by virtue of geography but like EU Membership there is no Westminster/Holyrood agreement to back up this claim. As a UK asset that would need to be negotiated over in the event of Independence, then on a population basis Scotland may only be entitled to 10% What is your view on the share of North Sea oil and gas revenues that an Independent Scotland would legally expect ?
Response: Both of these questions are difficult to answer in that it would have to be subject to negotiations between Scotland and the rest of the UK. That’s not the only question. Who would meet the massive decommissioning costs in the North Sea, for example. This is an example of one of the many issues that could take some years to negotiate. Never mind the separate negotiations with the European Union.
Question from James Parker: How much more devolution does Better Together propose for Scotland? It must be more than status quo but will it go as far as Home Rule?
Response: Better Together is not a political party and obviously won’t be standing at the general election! Only the political parties contesting that election can put forward proposals. My personal view is that if there were to be major constitutional change, parties need to put that in their manifestos in the general election due to be held in 2015. At the moment there is no consensus on this but the first question we have to ask is whether we are staying in the UK or leaving it.
Question from Gordon Caldwell: The rural economy is important to the scottish economy, especially farming. Would the team from Holyrood not be better at representing Scotland’s farming industry at Brussels than a team from Westminster who diluted Scotland’s view with the views of the rest of the UK?
Response: I met some farmers this morning partly to discuss this and you’re right, in the rural economy farming and fishing is very important to Scotland. Two points. First in 13 years experience of attending European councils the larger countries tend to call the shots in Europe. We have more influence as the UK than we would as separate countries. Secondly, the fishery policies could easily become a matter for intense debate under any renegotiations.
Question from Andrew P Gray: How can it be acceptable to hold a referendum on independence in 2014 when some of the key issues will remain to be negotiated with the UK Government after the result of the referendum has been determined?
Response: The SNP won a mandate to hold a referendum in this parliament. They’ve had 80 years to come up with answers to some pretty basic questions like which currency we would use and how it would work. They are making the proposition and they want us to vote on it. They shouldn’t be afraid when they are asked to spell out the detail of what it all means. As it is they say they can’t tell us until November less than a year before the vote. All we can do is to raise the big issues which people need to decide on.
Comment From Rory Scothorne: The Yes campaign has gathered a wide coalition of artists, intellectuals, writers, businessmen, activists and people from many other walks of life into a campaign that is undeniably built around autonomous, grassroots organisations (such as Women For Independence, National Collective and Radical Independence). Do you envisage anything of this sort emerging for Better Together?
Response: Yes. There is an equally wide coalition who believe that Scotland is stronger and better as part of the UK. I’m in the course of visiting many parts of Scotland this week and that’s increasingly obvious to me.
Comment From Daniel V: I recently spoke to someone from Quebec who remembers the independence referendum in 1995. They said they wouldn’t like to live through that again because the campaign turned very bitter and divisive with widespread intimidation. What can we do to prevent this campaign getting nasty?
Response: This is the biggest decision that Scotland will make in generations. It is important that both sides make their points in a reasonable and measured way. No one should be shouted down because of what they believe, let both sides make their case and then let Scotland decide.
Question from Neil Henderson: As a Labour Party activist and Better Together activist and contributor I am concerned that our campaign is being muddied by the Labour for Independence and the Conservatives for the Union groups, especially the former. I am willing to work with the Tories in our area on Better Together but refuse to be on a stall which may involve the latter group. As I understand it’s Labour Party policy to work with the Better Together campaign and, therefore, shouldn’t the Labour for Independence group be disowned and its members removed from the party?
In view of of both these concerns I would be interested to know how Alistair would deal with them so that Labour and the other parties are actually going to be “together” in the fight against nationalism.
Response: In 36 years membership of the Labour party I’ve never came across ‘Labour for Independence’ until a few weeks ago. I’m not sure there’s anyone to ‘disown’ as you put it. On the broader point I’m happy to work with any democratic party that believes that Scotland is better in the UK.
Question from Susan Bowie: I am quite worried about what will happen to my hard worked for public sector pension should there be independence ?
Response: Again, who accepts responsibility for paying pensions would have to be negotiated. Who for example would be responsible for paying the pension of a public sector employee who had worked in Newcastle and then retired to Edinburgh. Pensions is a really big issue on which the SNP have been strangely silent. Given the demographics in Scotland, pension funding generally is a very difficult problem. It’s much easier to face these pressures as part of a country with a population in excess of 60 million people rather than 6 million.
Question from Ruairidh Campbell: If Scotland is better of in the union then why do statistics show that if Scotland was independent it would have the 6th highest GDP per capita whereas Britain as a whole is only 16th?
Response: The statistics you refer to are produced by the Scottish Government and are not robust. They are derived using an assumption that nothing will change as a result of independence.
Question from Frankie Caldwell: As a former member of the Armed Forces (27yrs service) who has recently left, I think it is a disgrace that there is a chance that those currently serving maybe denied a vote in the referendum.
Do you think there should be a special case made to give our Scottish members of the armed forces who are stationed outside Scotland without an address in Scotland a vote in the referendum?
Response: It’s not just the armed forces, there are many people who consider themselves residents from Scotland who are working in England for a few years and fully intend to return. Ironically if they worked in Brussels or were ex-pats in Spain they would get a vote because they are overseas voters. Quite simply our electoral registration rules were never designed for a referendum like this. And whilst on the subject if we had a currency union for the rest of the UK, is the SNP going to ask the people of Wales, England and Northern Ireland what they think?
Comment From Kyle C: With the British Armed Forces being that of the United Kingdom’s, what will happen to the Scottish regiments of the British Armed Forces? An independent Scotland would not have a large military expenditure or investment as much as the UK puts into Scotland. Will a newly independent Scottish military mean an end to ship building and an over-all downgrade which may result in heavy job losses?
Response: On the regiments, this would partly depend on negotiation but critically on how much Scotland was able and willing to spend on the armed forces including naval shipbuilding. I cannot see how a country of our size could replicate what we have now especially as there would be other things to spend money on like health and education and pensions. I’ve just come back from Rosyth where they are building two RN aircraft carriers which will be maintained there for the next 50 years. Would Scotland be able to or indeed willing to do anything like that on its own? Surely sharing defence commitments makes sense to keep costs down? After all the SNP now wants to join NATO why does it want to break the alliance of its next door neighbour.
Question from Cameron Edwards: I’ve voted SNP all my life, and have never for a moment believed that Scotland would simply cease relationships with our neighbours! When will the Better Together Campaign STOP the fearmongering and be clear with people what this is really about? - a political settlement, entirely just, and relevant to the needs of Scotland.
Response: No one is suggesting that the relationship would stop dead but it will be different. After all if it isn’t what’s the point of independence? I really don’t think it’s scaremongering to ask where we would stand with the EU for example. After all simply asking the question revealed that contrary to what we’ve been told, there never was a legal opinion putting the matter beyond doubt. If you put a proposition so fundamental such as independence you shouldn’t be afraid of hard questions. Has the SNP really thought through the consequences of binding itself into a Euro-style currency union with the rest of the UK?