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.

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital