Scotland doesn’t benefit from British economic 'strength'

But the SNP’s lack of radicalism makes it difficult for the Yes campaign to capitalise.

Against expectations, the Chancellor’s visit to Glasgow last week was a success. Speaking to a gathering of Scottish business leaders, and armed with a hefty new Treasury report, George Osborne set-out a detailed critique of SNP plans for Scotland to retain the pound after independence, a key feature of the nationalists’ 2014 prospectus. But framing his specific warnings about the pitfalls of a "Eurozone-style" monetary union was a broader attack on the economics of separation: the size and scale of the UK’s economy shields Scots from the "rapids of globalisation" – leave it and Scotland could be exposed to ameltdown of Irish, Greek or Cypriot proportions. This is a powerful line, repeated with brutal efficiency by unionist campaigners. The problem, however, is that it simply doesn’t stack up. In fact, Scotland’s vulnerability to global economic shocks is amplified by its continued membership of the UK.

Two recent reports – The Mismanagement of Britain by the Jimmy Reid Foundation and The British Growth Crisis by the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) - shatter the notion of British economic strength. The former, written by Scottish economist Jim Cuthbert, out-lines the long-term decline in the competitiveness of the UK economy. Cuthbert argues that the growing deficit in the UK’s trade in general goods and services from the 1970s onwards was disguised first, in the ‘80s, by high North Sea oil tax receipts and then, during the ‘90s, by revenues from an increasingly dominant financial services sector. The underlying deficit became more pronounced as successive Westminster governments, Conservative and Labour, allowed Britain’s manufacturing base to erode. Ultimately, this made the British economy over-reliant on a handful of large financial institutions operating at the heart of the international financial system.

In The British Growth Crisis, Professor Colin Hay explains how Britain, as one of a group of deregulated economies including the United States and Ireland, felt the effects of the 2008 crash earlier and more powerfully than other Western states with smaller and less globally integrated banking sectors. As the crisis developed, spreading out from its Anglo-American epicentre, international trade went into free-fall. This tightened the squeeze on British manufacturing, which by now was in no condition to prop-up the UK’s public finances as they grappled with recession. The subsequent loss of taxable economic activity, as well as the huge cost of the bank bail-outs, sent the economy into a prolonged slump and precipitated an explosion of British debt.

Coupled with Osborne’s austerity strategy, the structural imbalances in the British economic model described by Cuthbert and Hay account for the severity of Britain’s downturn (the worst since the 1930s) and the weakness of its recovery (the slowest on record). While growth is beginning to return to France, Germany and even the US, the UK remains more or less stagnant. None of this happened by accident. It was the result of decisions taken by two or three generations of British political leaders which viewed state intervention in the market as a barrier to prosperity. The consequences for Scotland, which has one of the worst social records in the developed world, have been profound. Scots might be entitled to feel doubly aggrieved given the origins of the current crisis lie, to some extent at least, in the liberalising policies of the Thatcher governments they repeatedly rejected. That Scotland’s oil wealth was used to fund the implementation of a number of those policies only adds insult to Scottish injury.

Yet, despite the efforts of the pro-independence left, the threat to Scotland’s economic security posed by British financial instability does not feature as heavily in the constitutional debate as it might. This is because the SNP, for both political and ideological reasons, accepts much of the neo-liberal settlement which has dominated British public life for more than three decades. The clearest illustration of this can be found in the party’s support for the current UK-wide system of financial regulation (described by SNP finance secretary John Swinney as a "solid framework") to remain untouched following the break-up of the Union – a position which reflects the closeness of Alex Salmond to Scottish finance capitalism over recent years. The SNP’s controversial commitment to cut corporation tax provides further evidence of its free-market tendencies.

The political significance of the nationalists’ economic conservatism was laid bare last week, widely (and correctly) perceived as a particularly bad one for the Yes campaign. The economic case for independence should be among the SNP’s strongest cards: the British laissez-faire experiment has proved a spectacular failure, leaving ordinary Scots facinga futureof falling living standards and deteriorating working conditions. Moreover, what remains of the Scottish welfare state - protected from the most radical of New Labour’s reforms by devolution – has come under sustained assault by an unpopular Tory-led government determined to turn a crisis of neo-liberalism into one of social democracy. But, in its current state, the SNP can’t make any of this work to its advantage.It may require some awkward policy U-turns and a degree of ideological repositioning, but Salmond has to start explaining just how serious a hazard the UK represents to Scotland’s economic health.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond gestures 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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.