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.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.