Ed Miliband visits Standard Life on November, 11, 2013 in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband ties Salmond to Cameron in attack on "race to the bottom"

The Labour leader uses the Scottish First Minister's weapon of choice against him.

If the Union is to survive, it will be up to Labour save it. With just one MP in Scotland (out of a possible 59), the Conservatives recognise that they cannot speak with authority on the country's future. By contrast, even in the baleful circumstances of the 2010 general election, Labour held onto all 41 of its seats north of the border (indeed, its vote actually rose by 2.5 per cent). With the Lib Dems' support in freefall owing to their decision to enter coalition with the Tories (the psephologist Lewis Baston recently predicted that they would lose all but one of their 11 Scottish constituencies), Labour is now the only one of the three main Westminster parties that can credibly challenge the SNP.

For this reason, Ed Miliband and his team recognise that the independence referendum is a significant political opportunity for him. With David Cameron publicly conceding that he lacks appeal in Scotland, Miliband can step forward as the man to prevent the break-up of Britain. 

It is this that he will do in a speech at the Scottish Labour conference today. When Alex Salmond delivered his New Statesman lecture earlier this month, he argued that Scotland could serve as a "progressive beacon" for the rest of the UK by pursuing the kind of social democratic policies shunned by Westminster. But in his address, Miliband will turn this argument on its head by declaring that rather than leading a "race to the top", the SNP would trigger a "race to the bottom". While Labour has pledged to increase corporation tax from 20 per cent to 21 per cent in order to fund a reduction in business rates for small firms, Salmond has vowed to reduce it to 3 per cent below the British level. Alongside this, he has refused to match Miliband's commitment to reintroduce the 50p tax rate (see his response to my question at the NS event) on the grounds that it could undermine Scotland's competitiveness. 

In recent weeks, Salmond has sought to present Labour as Tory stooges after they joined forces with George Osborne against a currency union. But Miliband will use the First Minister's weapon of choice against him by arguing that his stance on tax means he would join David Cameron in a "race to the bottom". Here's the key extract: 

Think how hard it would be to stop a race to the bottom happening if, on one island, we had a border running along the middle so we were divided in two. It would be two lanes in a race to the bottom - with David Cameron and Alex Salmond at the starting blocks - in which the only way they win is for you to lose.

If Scotland was to go independent, it would be a race to the bottom not just on tax rates, but on wage rates, on terms and conditions, on zero hours contracts, on taking on the energy companies, on reforming the banks. Those who can afford it will be paying less, while hardworking families across Scotland will pay more and see their services suffer.

Alex Salmond who claims to be a great social democrat would end up running the same race to the bottom that the Tories have embarked upon. The SNP talk about social justice but they can’t build it - because they can’t be narrow nationalists and serve social justice at the same time.

While Salmond will point to his stances on welfare, inequality and foreign policy as evidence of his commitment to a centre-left agenda, the problem he faces is that Miliband has embraced such policies himself. He has pledged to scrap the bedroom tax (which, like the Poll Tax, has become a symbol of Conservative callousness in Scotland), to reverse the privatisation of the NHS, to invest more in early-years education and childcare, to spread the use of the living wage, to rebalance the economy and to increase infrastructure spending. He has condemned the invasion of Iraq (which so alienated progressives in Scotland and elsewhere), prevented a rush to war in Syria and pledged to pursue a foreign policy based on "values, not alliances". Finally, he has denounced the rise in income inequality (which, as Salmond rightly laments, has made the UK one of "the most unequal societies in the developed world"), and has made its reversal his defining mission.

The core argument he will make today is that if the UK elects a Labour government next May, it won't need Scotland to serve as a "progressive beacon". Rather, it will become a more progressive country through its own means. 

The SNP want to tell you that there is a progressive Scotland and a Tory England. There isn’t. There are millions of people across every part of our country who want a better future for all our young people; who say it is just wrong that so many people in work find themselves in poverty, who want to be part of a country that is more just, more equal, more fair.

Let’s rebuild all of o‎ur country in the cause of social justice. Together, not alone; as neighbours on this island, not as strangers; as friends, not as competitors; in a race to the top, not to the bottom.

 Two decades on from the death of John Smith (whose wife recently made a rare intervention in support of Miliband's party reforms), he will also call on Labour to honour his legacy by successfully defending the Union. 

John Smith was a man who passionately believed in social justice in Scotland - and in the United Kingdom.  Twenty years on, that flame of social justice still burns. And we can honour his legacy by winning the fight for Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom.

In addition, according to Labour, he will "talk about his own family’s links to Scotland which saw his father train in the Royal Navy during the Second World War at Inverkeithing."  

For obvious reasons, it is Miliband, far more than Cameron, who has a political interest in the Union enduring. While the belief that an independent Scotland would consign the rest of the UK to permanent Conservative rule is exaggerated (on no occasion since 1945 would independence have changed the identity of the winning party and on only two occasions would it have converted a Labour majority into a hung parliament), the loss of 41 MPs would make it far harder for Labour to achieve majorities in the future. 

Were a Labour (or Lab-Lib Dem) government to be formed on the basis of support from MPs north of the border, the right-wing media and many Tories would denounce it as an illegitimate imposition on the rest of the UK. Miliband, meanwhile, would face the prospect of losing his majority less than a year after becoming prime minister. As a Labour MP recently put it to me, "If we lose Scotland, we could be completely buggered." 

With the polls narrowing significantly, Miliband will hope that today marks the start of the fightback. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.”