Thank you. It’s a pleasure to speak here in Carlisle on St George’s Day.
Sir Walter Scott, who married Charlotte Carpenter in the Cathedral here, once wrote that “there are few cities in England which have been the scene of more momentous and more interesting events than Carlisle”.
He was referring to your position at the centre of some of the – tussles, shall we call them – which used to break out between Scotland and England. This city changed hands three times during the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries. One of the great Scottish kings, David I, died in Carlisle Castle in 1153. Our greatest king, Robert the Bruce was actually excommunicated in the cathedral. Every candle was extinguished, to symbolise Bruce being cast into outer darkness.
I don’t anticipate the candles going out tonight! Instead, I anticipate reflecting on the modern links between Cumbria and Scotland - which for centuries have been ties of culture and commerce, trade and travel, family and friendship.
And I’m going to emphasise two points. The first is that the ties that bind the nations of these islands will continue and flourish after Scotland becomes independent. You will remain Scotland’s closest friends, as well as our closest neighbours.
And the second point I want to make is that Scottish independence wouldn’t just be good for Scotland; it would be good for all of the nations of these islands - and it would create opportunities for co-operation and partnership which would benefit the north of England more than anywhere else.
Scotland’s future is for the people who live and work in Scotland to determine. However I understand that our constitutional debate is of great interest to many of you.
I was struck by a speech made at Westminster a couple of months ago by Rory Stewart, the MP for Penrith and the Border, which had some links to the ideas in his two recent television programmes. He was urging opponents of Scottish independence to link arms along Hadrian’s Wall in July, and ended by saying that “what matters is not the wall that divides us but the human ties that bind us”.
What Rory Stewart should reflect on is a line from Julius Caesar – “the fault…is not in our stars, but in ourselves”. The problem for the north of England is not an independent Scotland. It’s Westminster MPs like Mr Stewart who have failed to establish a fair system which works for every part of the country.
Let’s take transport spending. A couple of years ago the Institute of Public Policy for the Regions published a report – “On the Wrong Track”. It found that public spending on major transport Infrastructure amounted to £2,700 per head in London– and £130 per head here in the in the north west of England. That’s a twentieth of London levels, but it’s still better than the North East – spending there was £5 per head.
Perhaps more time should be spent on programmes which highlight the imbalance in spending on transport in different parts of the country, and how the Westminster model has manifestly failed the north of England.
In any event, the ties between Scotland and England have never depended on the existence of 650 MPs at Westminster – they are based instead on links of family and friendship that are facts of geography, not acts of parliament.
And the reference to a wall was irrelevant. There will be no border posts along the M74, just as there are no border posts between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
We have just feted the President of Ireland, Michael Higgins, who made a highly successful visit to the UK just two weeks ago. When the Queen spoke at the banquet in his honour at Windsor Castle, she pointed out that “there is today no closer working relationship for my Government than that with Ireland.”
In 1949 the UK Government passed the Ireland Act, which specifically states that Ireland is not to be regarded as a “foreign country”.
Scotland will not be a foreign country after independence, any more than Ireland, Northern Ireland, England or Wales could ever be “foreign countries” to Scotland.
Scottish independence would not change many aspects of the day to day life of other countries within the UK.
Carlisle would still have strong economic links with Scotland, and as a senior UK Government Minister revealed to the Guardian just a few weeks ago, “of course there would be a currency union”.
People would still live in Annan and work in Carlisle, or live in Penrith and work in Lockerbie. Friends and family would continue to visit each other. We would still watch many of the same television programmes. People from Scotland and England would still celebrate personal unions – by getting married in Carlisle Cathedral, like Sir Walter Scott and Charlotte Carpenter, or perhaps by going to Gretna instead!
On Monday, there were gun salutes in Stirling, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Hillsborough and London to mark the Queen’s birthday. That would continue, since we would still share a monarchy with the rest of the United Kingdom – just as we did as independent countries for a century before the Parliamentary Union of 1707, and just as 15 other Commonwealth countries do now. We have seen over the last two weeks how Australia and New Zealand have welcomed Prince William, Kate Middleton and Prince George.
And we would co-operate on the many issues where we share common interests and concerns.
You can see day to day examples here in Cumbria. Carlisle City Council and Cumbria County Council work with Dumfries and Galloway to agree management plans for the natural beauty of the Solway coast. You also work together on the Solway Firth Partnership, which is based in Dumfries, and which considers issues such as fishing, energy and environmental protection.
And there are upcoming Scottish Government announcements to promote research and science in Dumfries which will also be of great interest to the North West of England.
There is already a British Irish Council, whose secretariat is based in Edinburgh. It has representatives from the Irish and UK governments, the three devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the three Crown Dependencies of Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man. At its last summit, in Jersey, the Council discussed youth employment. That body will not look massively different with three independent states rather than two. Three independent states, two devolved nations, and three Crown Dependencies.
So a great deal would remain the same after Scottish independence. But some things would change, and they would change for the better – for Scotland, and for England.
In particular, an independent Scotland will be an economic counterweight to London and the south-east.
One of the reasons the “No” campaign is floundering is their ridiculous argument that an independent Scotland would struggle economically. In fact, it would be the 14th wealthiest nation among the developed countries in the Organisation for Economic co-operation and Development. Scotland has contributed more in taxes, per person, than the rest of the UK for every single one of the last 33 years.
We have more universities in the world top 200, per head of population, than any other country on the planet; we have huge expertise in engineering and life sciences; an astounding cultural heritage; immense energy and natural resources; and a skilled and inventive people.
That helps to explain an interesting paradox. At Westminster, and in Scotland, MPs say that an independent Scotland would struggle. Up here, some people argue that the north of England would struggle, because an independent Scotland would be so successful! Indeed, academic research from the University of Northumbria – which I’ll refer to again– raised as a potential concern the fact that “It is not difficult to imagine a resurgent Scotland posing a threat to economic development south of the border.”
Actually, the real danger for both Scotland and the regions of the UK lies with the current system. We’re part of a UK which has become profoundly imbalanced.
There’s a strong consensus that the economy of this island has become overly dependent on London and the south east. David Cameron argued before he became Prime Minister that “an economy with such a narrow foundation for growth is fundamentally wasteful and unstable.”
The UK Government’s Business Secretary, recently called London “a kind of giant suction machine, draining the life out of the rest of the country.”
Now, I’m much more moderate in my views than Vince Cable – but he is clearly right that the attraction of capital and talent to London is now one of the defining features of the UK economy.
Prof Tony Travers of the London School for Economics has said: “London is the dark star of the economy, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy. Nobody quite knows how to control it.”
Now, let me be clear. In my view London is a great world city. But there is a real issue here – one I’ve spoken about before. It’s an issue not just for the North West of England, but for every part of these islands.
Economic disparities between different parts of the UK have grown significantly in recent decades – in fact, the UK now has the highest levels of regional inequality of any country in the European Union.
And although the UK Government recognises the problems caused by regional disparities, there’s little evidence of any change whatsoever. Indeed, the disparities are accelerating. Last week, the latest figures for house price changes came out. In London, they rose by 18%; in the north west of England, they rose by 6%.
Since 2007, London’s economy has grown approximately twice as much as the rest of the United Kingdom’s. And growth is again being driven by consumption rather than investment; by a housing bubble as opposed to the real economy.
Much of the reason for the financial troubles of recent years is that the UK’s model of growth was unsustainable. Income inequality increased; regional imbalances grew; manufacturing capacity was hollowed out.
But it’s as though nothing has been learned. We are seeing the start of another London bubble - before other parts of the country are fully recovered from the last recession.
Devolution has helped Scotland to mitigate some of the effects of this imbalance. We have developed an economic strategy which focuses on the key growth sectors of the future, and which recognises the importance of equity and geographical cohesion.
Our economic inactivity and unemployment rates are lower than the rest of the UK; our employment rate is higher. When the Scottish Parliament was created, we were the fifth wealthiest area of the UK, out of 12; now we are third, behind only London and the south-east. But that’s an average. What that conceals is the vast disparity between London and the rest of the UK.
But we don’t have the key economic levers we need over employment, workforce regulation or taxation.
We need those powers if we are transform our country: by sustainably and wisely developing our vast but finite hydrocarbon reserves; by harnessing the renewable energy resources which will last forever; by investing in childcare to unleash the full potential of all of our population; by boosting productivity and competitive advantage; and by sharing our wealth properly, across all parts of the country.
We need independence to use our natural and human resources for the wellbeing of all of our people.
However my contention is, that this won’t just benefit Scotland; it will also benefit the other nations of these islands.
First, our approach is fairer, more sustainable and more resilient than the one being pursued at Westminster. It is a better route to long-term prosperity. And so it will provide a powerful example for those who are looking for a working model of how to change the current system.
Secondly, success for Scotland isn’t a zero sum game. A successful Scotland – which we will certainly see- will become a new growth pole to the north, shifting the centre of economic gravity of these islands. It often seems as though power, wealth and talent flow downhill to the south east. Independence for Scotland would cause a rebalancing of Britain - a northern light to redress the influence of Professor Travers’ dark star.
The Strategic Plan of Cumbria’s Local Economic Partnership already highlights the connectivity of the M6 corridor as a major asset for you – a major selling point in promoting investment. It will become even more important in the future, as one of the main links between England and Wales and a prosperous independent Scotland.
I was quite taken by a description I saw recently by David Southward (South-Word), from Cumbria County Council, who spoke about making the most of Cumbria’s geographic location. He said that “if you were to spin a map of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England on your finger, then your finger would be under Cumbria.” I like that way of looking at things. It sees these border lands as hubs –at the centre of the trade between the nations of these islands.
The University of Central Lancashire has adopted a similar vision. It is developing the Irish Sea Rim project - building connections between the Isle of Man, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales, South West Scotland and North West England. The project will promote innovation in transport, higher education and energy across an area which covers 26 higher education institutions and almost half a million businesses. It is potentially of significant benefit to Cumbria and to South west Scotland.
But that vision - of these border lands as hubs - requires the transport connectivity to link Scotland and the north of England more effectively together.
The UK’s current plans for high speed rail lack high ambition - for Scotland and for the north. They also lack speed – they may not reach Manchester and Leeds until 2032. And Carlisle? Well maybe, to quote Burns, when the rocks melt wi’ the sun. Indeed even Sir David Higgins, who is in charge of delivering the project, has expressed his frustration about that current timescale.
But since 2007, rail travel has increased by 144% between London and Glasgow; by 191% between Manchester and Scotland; and by 261% between Birmingham and Scotland. Demand for freight is also increasing, but line capacity is severely constrained.
It’s interesting to think about some of the history here. There’s an assumption now that high speed rail will start in the south and very gradually ease its way north. But the first railway line to come to Carlisle didn’t come from London, it came from Newcastle, in 1836. Carlisle station itself was a joint venture between the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway company, which was building the line south, and the Caledonian Railway, which was building the line from Carlisle to join up with pre-existing lines in central Scotland. We didn’t have to wait for railways to be built from London before we developed other connections.
But by the time high speed rail first came to the UK, when the Eurostar link was completed, the regions weren’t served at all. There was no further development of services beyond London. In fact, a report by the House of Commons Transport Select Committee pointed out that “The acquiescence of Members of Parliament to the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 depended on the provision of regional services.” Its view was that “The regions have been cheated.”
And we have seen in the last ten years that the major upgrade to the West Coast Main Line focused on Southern parts of the line. We then missed the opportunity for faster services to the north because the UK Government’s procurement process for the InterCity West Coast franchise collapsed. That piece of incompetence cost taxpayers £50m. At the moment, we may have to wait for refranchising in 2017 to see a significant improvement.
To summarise, under Westminster control, High Speed rail won’t come to Carlisle for decades, if at all. The west coast line doesn’t get upgraded, and the franchise process collapses. The east coast line has seen consistent failures of operators – and when they do have a public operator which works, their answer is to change the franchise!
By comparison, I am pleased to report that the two rail franchise procurements in Scotland are proceeding well and on schedule. And we’re keen to get on with making major improvements to connectivity.
We are already working with the UK Government to prepare joint plans for high speed rail links between England and Scotland. Initial findings from this review are due in the summer. And we are taking the initiative within Scotland – detailed planning is being undertaken for a high speed service between Edinburgh and Glasgow, which could link to high speed lines from England. The business case for that Edinburgh to Glasgow link will be sent to Scottish Ministers in just a few weeks’ time.
An independent Scotland could do much more. Rather than paying our share of the borrowing costs for High Speed Rail, as we wait decades for it to spread up from the south, we can use that money to build High Speed rail from the north instead.
It’s time to take positive action. I can confirm today that the Scottish Government will build on the joint work we are undertaking with the UK Government. We will establish a feasibility study to explore in detail the options for building high speed rail from Scotland to England. In doing so, we will work closely with partners across the UK, especially in the north of England. Of course we can’t determine the route, until we undertake the feasibility study. But it is a statement of intent.
And we know that high speed rail isn’t the be-all and end-all. We want to make early improvements in journey times between Scotland and the North West of England, including Carlisle, on the existing West Coast Mainline. So we are funding the development of a business case for investment at Carstairs to add capacity, improve reliability and increase the speed of the line. And we are committed to advancing the regulatory changes which will ensure that there is a fairer distribution of benefits, to make such investment sustainable on this premium line.
I want to draw a brief comparison. In the north of Scotland, we are investing to reduce the time it takes to travel between Aberdeen and Inverness by rail. We’re doing that because we want to create a conurbation of connectivity across that part of Scotland. In a similar way, we can develop a conurbation of connectivity between Carlisle and the south west of Scotland.
That way, a prosperous Carlisle and Cumbria will benefit south west Scotland, just as a prosperous Scotland will benefit the north of England.
These rail projects could have the potential to bring huge benefits for all of us. But they require an initiative and impetus which is more likely to come from a Scottish Government whose main population centres are within 100 miles of here, than from a Westminster Government based 300 miles away.
Rail isn’t the only opportunity for collaboration. I know that many of you are keen to explore other areas for working together.
We saw an early practical expression of that in Peebles three weeks ago. Senior local authority members from Carlisle City, Cumbria, Northumberland, Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway developed a plan to take forward shared economic opportunities, for example in enterprise, tourism and transport. They are due to meet again in the autumn.
These discussions followed academic research, which I mentioned earlier, from the University of Northumbria – which was commissioned by the Association of North East Councils and Cumbria. The “Borderlands” report recommended “collaborative working across the local authorities on both sides of the border.”
The practical co-operation which we’re starting to see under Borderlands is – rightly – being taken forward primarily by local authorities. But any independent Scottish Government would support it wholeheartedly. This Government, if elected as the government of an independent Scotland, will work with local authorities to establish a borderlands economic forum. And we will nominate a lead minister to work with such a body.
I want to make a further commitment which can take effect in 2014 rather than 2016. The Scottish Government has a national economic forum which meets twice a year. It brings together government, businesses, the third sector, the wider public sector and the trade unions.
We know that there is a fund of goodwill for co-operation between the north of England and Scotland. We also know, and understand, that there may be sensitivities, particularly in some councils, about such initiatives taking place before September.
So the first National Economic Forum after the referendum will focus on rebalancing the economy, including co-operation with the north of England, and we will invite representatives from local authorities and business organisations in the north of England to participate. It is a practical demonstration of co-operation and partnership between us; a partnership which will be strengthened further by an outward looking, prosperous and independent Scotland.
Ladies and gentlemen, I quoted one of Scotland’s greatest writers, Sir Walter Scott, at the start of my speech. I’ve also quoted Shakespeare and Burns – once each. However given that it’s St George’s Day, and the 450th anniversary of his birth, I want to close with another line from Shakespeare. That makes it 2-1!
And I want to close with a line which is relevant to this location and this speech. In Richard II, the Bishop of Carlisle is one of Richard’s advisers. And there’s a scene in which he says “wise men ne'er sit and wail their woes/ But presently prevent the ways to wail....”. In other words, it’s better to do something positive than to complain about what’s happening to you.
It’s a good motto. The Scottish Government doesn’t want to lament decisions being taken at Westminster. We want to use the powers of independence to transform our country, rather than mitigate other people’s mistakes. We want to get on with building a better Scotland; becoming a fairer and more prosperous country.
That will be good for Scotland’s neighbours, as well as for Scotland.
It will help to change the centre of economic gravity of these islands. And the initiatives I’ve referred to today –high speed rail, west coast main line improvements, an economic forum focussed on cross-border co-operation – will benefit both Scotland and England.
They will strengthen the links between the communities on both sides of the border. They demonstrate the fact that the north of England has nothing to lose, and much to gain, from the establishment of a successful independent Scotland.
So happy St George’s day. I look forward to a future of close collaboration between an independent Scotland and our closest neighbours – in a partnership which will be good for Scotland, good for the north of England, and good for all of the nations of these islands.