The divide between Scotland's people and its political class has never been greater

While the SNP obsesses over independence, voters are more concerned with an unemployed population the size of Dundee.

The 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England was described by Daniel Defoe as one "of policy" and "less [a] union of affection". The author of Robinson Crusoe was arguing that the economic benefits for both countries were what sustained the Union. Last week, Alex Salmond was inadvertently trying to reverse this settlement. But if he proved anything, it was not that there is a policy-based case for independence, rather that he deems such issues to be esoteric.

One of the big economic arguments unveiled last Tuesday to entice Scots to vote for separation was to acquire "economic levers" such as corporation tax, which they would subsequently reduce by 3% in order to undercut the UK rate. This 3% cut, the SNP claims, would increase productivity by over 1% and create 27,000 jobs after 20 years. So vote Yes in 2014 and then wait 20 years.

Even if you ignore the moral arguments about a race to the bottom in corporation tax, or that Joseph Stieglitz, one of the Scottish government's own economic advisors opposes the idea, or the fact that this modelling was based on a 3% reduction when the UK rate at the time was 26%, or the fact that the British government now plans to cut the main rate of corporation tax to 20% by 2015, the idea that 27,000 jobs after 20 years, around the same amount of time it took to build the Taj Mahal, is some sort of economic lever worth ending a 300-year-old Union for is clearly absurd.

This is best highlighted when you consider the economic problems facing Scots. For example, in the past fortnight we’ve seen that unemployment in Scotland stands at around 199,000, which is greater than the population of Dundee, Scotland’s fourth largest city. The dole queue in Scotland is so long that if it was assembled in one straight line it could stretch from Edinburgh to Glasgow. The suggestion that voting for independence in 2014, so that by 2034 this figure would still continue to be larger than the population of Dundee is simply laughable.

It is not surprising to discover that unemployment, not independence, is the top concern among Scots in numerous polls. In Scotland, as in most parts of the UK, constitutional issues like referendums, rank low among most voters’ concerns. Well-respected pollsters like Peter Kelner have observed that separatism is a "minority passion north of the border".

Only at the start of the year, the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found support for independence at its lowest since devolution – it’s barely changed since. In fact, support for independence is so low that when separatist campaigners get even within 10 points of the opposite camp, not only do the SNP see this as a "boost" but they also send out a press release. I honestly can’t imagine any other mainstream party highlighting the fact they are so far behind their rival in a political race.

Nevertheless, when one considers that Scottish public’s opinion on separation has barely moved any further in the last 12 months than it has in the previous 168, it becomes clear that the divide between the people and the political class in Scotland could not be any further apart. All the referendum is doing is providing a Scotch Mist that conceals the real issues afflicting Scots.

20 years from now, if the referendum outcome is as all the polls suggest, Scots will not look back and count the 27,000 jobs announced last week. They will instead wonder why, when their country’s politicians were confronted by a city’s worth of unemployed Scots, they chose to ignore the public’s main policy concern and focus on their antipathy towards the Union.

James Mills is a Labour researcher and led the Save EMA campaign

Alex Salmond speaks at the launch of the Scottish independence White Paper last week in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.