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 Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.