Why independence will disappoint the tartan libertarians

Scotland will not be forced to adopt a scorched earth approach to public spending if it leaves the UK.

The publication earlier this month of the first report by the Scottish government’s Fiscal Commission Working Group, into the macro-economics of independence, was met with a surprising degree of approval from an unlikely source. Writing for the conservative website Think Scotland, right-leaning journalist Alex Massie praised the report's apparent endorsement of austerity as the most effective economic strategy for Scotland should it leave the United Kingdom in the next few years: "[These findings] add weight to the notion that Scotland's future lies as a low-tax, flexible, nimble, enterprise…it seems quite probable that cutting public spending - for one reason or another - will be one of the first tasks facing an independent Scotland."

The idea that independence will provoke a shift to the right in Scotland, rather than to the left, as is commonly assumed, has been touted by a number of Scottish commentators for a while without having gained any real traction in mainstream debate. It tends to be composed of three parts. The first is that SNP leader Alex Salmond and his finance secretary John Swinney are closet Thatcherites who, despite their soft-left posturing on welfare and social issues, advance an aggressively neo-liberal economic agenda, as illustrated by their support for lower corporation taxes. The second is that an independent Scotland, carrying an inherited share of UK debt amounting to between 70 to 80 per cent of its GDP, will be under heavy pressure from the international financial markets (credit rating agencies, essentially) to demonstrate a commitment to ‘fiscal credibility’ in order to maintain low borrowing costs. And the third is that SNP plans for a currency union with the rest of the UK will tie Scotland to a fiscal stability pact which imposes severe restrictions on Edinburgh’s capacity to borrow, precipitating a reduction in debt-fuelled Scottish public expenditure.

Under these conditions, nationalist visions of an independent Scotland replicating the social achievements of high-spending Nordic welfare states would have to be abandoned. Instead, as Massie contends, the first independent Scottish government would need to observe strict budgetary constraints and take steps to liberate enterprise in an effort to soak up necessary public sector job losses. In this sense, independence would act as a disciplinary force against the prolifigate Scots, prying them away from their longstanding addiction to big government. (Something, ironically, successive Westminster administrations have failed to do.)

But the assumptions on which this libertarian fantasy rests are grossly exaggerated. To begin with, although there is a strong neo-liberal streak in SNP economic policy (hence the party’s position on corporation tax), Salmond and Swinney are not the Friedmanite ideologues some make them out to be. Indeed, in his repeated calls for increased capital expenditure as a means of growing the Scottish economy out of recession, the First Minister’s response to the financial crisis has followed a clear Keynesian logic. Likewise, Swinney’s decision to levy a charge on large supermarket retailers suggests a willingness to challenge commercial interests not commonly associated with free-market enthusiasts. The SNP’s aim of cutting Scottish defence spending and redirecting the savings towards more socially productive industries provides another indication of the nationalists' underlying loyalty to traditional centre-left principles.

The right’s insistence that, with independence, ‘market realities’ will amplify Scottish austerity is similarly unconvincing. According to the commission's report, between 2006 and 2011, including a geographical share of North Sea oil and gas output, Scotland’s average deficit was 5.1 per cent of its GDP. This compares favourably to the UK’s deficit of 6.4 per cent over the same period (p.158). What’s more, the report points out that by 2017, Scotland's population share of UK public sector net debt will be equivalent to 72 per cent of its GDP, five per cent lower than the UK’s anticipated share (p.170). By the standards of equivalent European countries, this represents a substantial debt burden. But it certainly isn’t unmanageable, nor does it make additional, radical cuts to public expenditure inevitable. At any rate, any future Scottish government, having witnessed the failure of the current coalition government’s deficit reduction strategy, will be acutely conscious of the effects austerity has on economic recovery.

The report also questions right-wing claims about the likely consequences of monetary union. While it concedes that any fiscal stability pact agreed between Edinburgh and London would have to enforce "discipline and sustainability" in the management of Scottish public finances, it simultaneously acknowledges the need to provide space for "national discretion to target instruments of fiscal policy to address key local challenges and take advantage of new opportunities" (p.132). In line with the lower debt and deficit levels Scotland is likely to enjoy outside the UK, this could allow for a limited programme of deficit-financed capital expenditure, with any subsequent increase in borrowing costs covered by the new sources of revenue independence would make available. These might include the aforementioned defence savings, a permanent tax on bankers’ bonuses (something Salmond has indicated he is sympathetic to) or a clamp down on tax evasion and avoidance, among other options.

Of course, the fact that Scotland’s overall fiscal position may improve slightly with independence doesn't mean an independent Scotland would escape ongoing economic difficulties. A heavy reliance on diminishing natural resources, massive inequalities of wealth and income and a burgeoning demographic crisis ensure Scotland, like the rest of the UK and most of the developed world, will be subject to severe financial pressures in the years ahead. There is, however, little to suggest those pressures are best alleviated by a scorched earth approach to public spending, and less still to back up the assertion that such an approach is necessary or unavoidable. The chances of independence transforming Scotland into some sort of socialist nirvana are slim; the chances of it turning Scotland into a libertarian paradise slimmer yet.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond holds up the signed agreement for a referendum on Scottish independence during a press conference in St Andrews House in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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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.