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.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”