What would an independent Scotland look like?

I want to imagine that independence could be a success - but grubby, difficult questions about money, jobs and services are not going away.

I want to imagine a world where Scottish Independence is not the disaster some think it will be. I want to imagine a world where it is a success.

Imagine that Scotland enters a phase of unprecedented economic growth, spurred on by the oil revenues that have been diverted from it for all these years. Coupled with the lowest corporation taxes in Europe, the Scottish economy is thrumming along with luxurious healthcare, free education up to and beyond graduate level, a supportive welfare state and pensions that are the envy of the world. Tax revenues from oil and corporation tax help the budget deficit stay in check. Even though there is a heavy dependency on the oil price, the markets give Scotland the benefit of the doubt – the sovereign credit rating of Scottish government debt is higher than the UK and their government bond yields trade well below that of the UK gilt market.

Meanwhile, in England and the rest of the United Kingdom, the government badly miscalculated the benefits Scotland brought to the Union. Bereft of trade and oil revenues the provision of local and national services has gone into a rapid generational decline. Taxes are high for individuals and businesses in a vain attempt to balance the budget, which is continuing to rise to record levels, while the cuts to government spending only serve to exaggerate the decline.

People and businesses have been voting with their feet for some time now. Migration from the once prosperous South of England is increasing at an alarming rate; both businesses and the most talented people are leaving in their droves, sending English property prices, which peaked just before the referendum in 2014 into a long-term secular decline. Meanwhile, Scottish property prices continue to make new highs each month. This is causing problems not least of which is the increase in inequality of wealth distribution in Scotland as house building can’t keep pace with the growing population.

The Scottish government is struggling to control the effects of house price appreciation because it has retained the pound and tied itself to UK interest rates. Much as Hong Kong experienced when tied to the US dollar and it had US interest rates and Chinese growth rates, Scotland now has a high growth rate and generationally low interest rates. Inflation differentials are rising between Scotland and the UK; inflationary Scotland habitually has a cost of living much higher than the deflationary UK. Broad money supply is growing at an uncontrollable rate. There are concerns over Scotland’s financial institutions. There are dark mutterings about the “Darian Scheme” – the financial disaster that drove Scotland into the arms of the English in 1707.

At the same time South of England immigration is having a profound impact on the political landscape; the history of Scottish voting patterns since the Second World War shows that Scotland hasn’t always been a centre-left country as some assume. There was a time when it was split 50/50 between Labour and the Conservatives (see graph). The latent conservatism of Scotland has now been unleashed mainly because it is dissociated from English conservatism but also because the new immigrants have a tendency not to vote for Labour or Scottish Nationalists. Scotland has become Conservative while the UK, because of its problems, now habitually votes Labour, a reversal of the pre-referendum status quo.

Scotland had been exporting some 30,000 people annually until the late 1980s. However, this tailed off and as the referendum approached Scotland had already become a net importer of people. Official estimates of population growth had already expected the Scottish population to rise above 6m in the years following the referendum. But global recognition that “Scotland has done something right” has led to an influx of Scottish talent that left the country in the thirty years prior to the referendum. First and second generation Scots have returned and converted their nationality from Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and US back into Scottish passport holders, further pressurising housing shortages and claims on the state. Scotland population swells from 5.3m in to nearly 8m in just fifteen years...

It’s quite good fun to do this; to go into a world of utopian Scotland and a dystopian UK, and one could go on for some considerable time. We haven’t even imagined a Scottish financial system (would it cheapen the argument to be the first to call for the Scottish stock market index to be called the SNP500 or their government bonds Scottish Guilts?) But what does emerge is that if you think independence can be seen merely as an exercise in democratic extension, that it isn’t about grubby things like money and jobs and services, then you should think again. A fully independent Scotland will have profound effects on the very nature of Scotland for generations to come, not all of which were obvious at first sight or, ultimately, a price worth paying.

The headquarters of the Yes campaign in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.