Who will lead the campaign to save the Union?

Gus O'Donnell is right to warn that the future of the UK is an "enormous challenge".

In a valedictory article for today's Telegraph, Gus O'Donnell, the outgoing head of the civil service, warns that the question of "whether to keep our kingdom united" will be an "enormous challenge". It may seem like an obvious statement but it is also a necessary one. Far too few in Westminster have considered what an independent Scotland would mean for England.

We all know who will lead the Yes campaign - Alex Salmond - but who will lead the No campaign? Not David Cameron, whose party holds just one seat in Scotland (the country has more giant pandas than Tory MPs). Canny as ever, Salmond will wait until the Tories are at their most unpopular before calling a referendum.

One option floated by some in Labour is for Gordon Brown, who retains immense respect in Scotland, to return to lead the charge against independence. Only the former prime minister, they say, would have the gravitas required to take on Salmond. But this discussion is taking place in far too narrow a circle. The threat of Scottish independence, which would deprive Labour of 42 of its 258 Westminster seats in a single stroke, should be near the top of Ed Miliband's in-tray.

At the very least, it is likely that Scotland will win full fiscal autonomy within the next five years. As Salmond has said, the referendum ballot paper will contain two questions: the first on full independence and the second on "devolution max" or fiscal autonomy. While the Scottish public remains divided over independence, there has long been a majority in favour of devo max.

Scotland would win complete control over spending, borrowing and taxation, leaving Westminster in charge of only foreign affairs and defence - a degree of autonomy comparable to that enjoyed in Spain by the Basque Country and Catalonia. The economic relationship between England and Scotland would be profoundly altered. What, for instance, would be the consequences for English business of Scotland adopting an ultra-low rate of corporation tax? If judged successful, would fiscal autonomy be extended to England and Wales?

O'Donnell's article is a salutary reminder that these discussions need to be had now.

Update: Salmond has responded to O'Donnell's comments:

I have always regarded Sir Gus O'Donnell as a model civil servant, who has been extremely fair in recognising and respecting the democratic mandate of the Scottish Government.

Sir Gus is right to recognise the importance of the constitutional issue, and the SNP Government are up for the challenge

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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