From Skintland to a United States of Britain

The hysterical debate around Scottish independence is harming independents

The Economist this week caused a bit of a stooshie north of the border by wading into the murky waters of the independence debate with a front cover that labelled an independent Scotland as "Skintland". Whether the SNP’s irate response to the article was individual petulance or co-ordinated political manoeuvring, we’ll probably never know.

What the Economist does spell out is that the hyperboles of neither side are true. Scotland has excellent resources and would not be an "impoverished backwater". Equally, there are not boardrooms full of investors waiting eagerly on the edge of their seats for Alex Salmond to usher them into his socio-democratic paradise.

If the economics are just about even, then, why all the fuss?

Because secessionist movements are not economic. A recent book by two MIT Economists concludes that the optimal size of a country is a trade-off between the benefits of being big (not enough of the current debate has focused on this) and the costs of heterogeneity. Voters want a government who represents their cultural and social beliefs. It is clear that a large number of Scots have felt disenfranchised by sneering, plummy Westminsterites for generations; but this narrow view disregards those many Scots who are proud to be both Scottish and British and who want to stay a part of the Union for the same non-economic national pride that the Nationalists claim a monopoly on.

The debate – an ideological one hidden behind the false pretence of economics – is reminiscent of the USA’s recent primaries, where king-making independent voters are forced to listen to months of diatribe before getting down to the (hopefully) more rational Presidential election.

And just like in America, voters who would prefer a pragmatic, economic solution for the UK are instead being offered two increasingly polarised options.

But there is an alternative.

Of the SNP's "seven key strengths" plan – released hastily in response to Skintlandgate – all seven would be attainable under devo plus/max, yet there is no mention of these options in the Economist article.

Most independents (a poor choice of word in this case) would probably welcome further fiscal powers for Scotland within the Union, preserving the benefits of size and free movement of goods and labour whilst allowing the Scottish Government to provide a more tailored basket of public goods. Indeed, fiscal decentralisation in Scotland offers a rare opportunity to make many better off without making others worse off. But the rub with this can be found in another Economist article two weeks previous:

Scotland, given the power to lower corporation tax. . . will suck investment and jobs from below the border.

There is evidence that this "beggar-thy-neighbour" approach is already happening, with companies such as Amazon awarding large contracts to Scotland over north England thanks to the good (generously funded) work of Scottish regional development agencies (RDAs), which were abolished in England to its detriment. Provided UK growth policy continues to focus on the South East – the SNP’s main, justifiable argument – devo plus/max will breed resentment and inequality in the rest of the UK’s peripheries. For this reason, a fiscally decentralised four-state solution would also be unfeasible.

What is required is a bottom-up model for the UK: Further fiscal decentralisation of the four nations alongside the regions of England; elected regional assemblies with tax-and-spend powers and well-funded RDAs; all backed up with the monetary largesse of the British State and the safety net of central transfers to underperforming regions. In short, a federation. This would allow Britain to rebalance via a productivity-driven, regional-growth model whilst maintaining an historic 300 year old Union and – although no-one seems to mention it – avoiding a costly, messy secession.

It is fitting, then, that as the polarised rhetoric on both sides of the independence debate begins to emulate American politics, the best solution for our constitutional future might lie in a United States of Britain.

The Economist "skintland" cover, which was in no way deliberately provocative

Dom Boyle is a British economist.

Photo: Getty
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We know what Donald Trump's presidency will look like - and it's terrifying

The direction of America's 45th president plans to take is all too clear.

Welcome to what we may one day describe as the last day of the long 20th century.

“The Trump Era: The Decline of the Great Republic” is our cover story. “Now the world holds its breath” is the Mirror’s splash, “Protesters mass ahead of Trump's presidency” is the Times’, while the Metro opts to look back at America’s departing 44th President: “Farewell Mr President” sighs their frontpage.

Of today’s frontpages, i best captures the scale of what’s about to happen: “The day the world changes”. And today’s FT demonstrates part of that change: “Mnuchin backs 'long-term' strong dollar after mixed Trump signals”. The President-Elect (and sadly that’s the last time I’ll be able to refer to Trump in that way) had suggested that the dollar was overvalued, statements that his nominee for Treasury Secretary has rowed back on.

Here’s what we know about Donald Trump so far: that his major appointments split into five groups: protectionists, white nationalists, conservative ideologues,  his own family members, and James Mattis, upon whom all hope that this presidency won’t end in global catastrophe now rests.  Trump has done nothing at all to reassure anyone that he won’t use the presidency to enrich himself on a global scale. His relationship with the truth remains just as thin as it ever was.

Far from “not knowing what Trump’s presidency will look like”, we have a pretty good idea: at home, a drive to shrink the state, and abroad, a retreat from pro-Europeanism and a stridently anti-China position, on trade for certain and very possibly on Taiwan as well.

We are ending the era of the United States as a rational actor and guarantor of a degree of global stability, and one in which the world’s largest hegemon behaves as an irrational actor and guarantees global instability.

The comparison with Brexit perhaps blinds many people to the scale of the change that Trump represents. The very worst thing that could happen after Brexit is that we become poorer.  The downside of Trump could be that we look back on 1989 to 2017 as the very short 21st century.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.