Alex Salmond delivers his speech to delegates at the SNP's spring conference on April 12, 2014 in Aberdeen. Photograph: Getty Images.
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On the economy, the SNP is starting to sound Osborne-esque

Like the Chancellor, the party has a vested interest in convincing voters that the crisis is over. But it isn't.

The SNP has made a concerted effort recently to emphasise the “strength” of Scotland’s economy and the apparent resilience of its post-crash recovery. In the last few weeks alone, I’ve received a series of press releases highlighting how employment in Scotland has reached “record” levels, how Scottish output will soon “surpass its pre-recession peak” and how “business optimism” is steadily returning.

At first, this struck me as an odd strategy for the nationalists to pursue so close to the referendum. Why should Scots vote for independence if even the Yes campaign (or a large part of it, at any rate) thinks Scotland is thriving within the UK?

But it’s actually consistent with the psychology of the party. It’s no coincidence that support for the SNP boomed in the 1970s following the discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea then crashed in the 1980s as the UK entered a severe downturn. There is a relationship (albeit an inexact one) between how confident Scots feel, economically, and their enthusiasm for constitutional change. SNP leaders understand this, which explains why they are so keen to persuade voters that Scotland’s economy is in such good health.

The problem, however, is that Scotland’s economy is not in such good health. It is, in fact, in a pretty bad state.

Take the report published in the Guardian last week suggesting that just 30 per cent of the Scottish economy is domestically owned. If true, this means Scotland is essentially being asset-stripped by foreign capital, as a significant proportion of the wealth generated by Scotland’s key industries - from North Sea oil to whisky and finance - is channelled down south or overseas.

Equally troubling is the STUC’s estimate that as many as 120,000 Scots are currently employed on zero-hours contracts. This reflects the growth of insecure work in Scotland over recent years and confirms Scotland’s status as one of the lowest pay economies in the OECD.

Then there’s the complicated issue of Scotland’s public finances. Scottish spending is not subsidised by English taxes, nor are oil revenues declining as rapidly as some claim, but Scotland’s overall fiscal position is still relatively weak. Even with a geographical share of North Sea oil, Scotland’s 2012/13 net fiscal deficit was a massive 8.3 per cent of GDP, while its national debt remains upward of 60 per cent of GDP, which is substantially higher than that of many other small northern European countries, including Denmark and Norway, the poster-boys of Nordic social democracy. 

This is not an attempt to “talk Scotland down”. Scotland’s unemployment rate is lower, by about 0.4 per cent, than the rest of the UK’s, until recently its economy was growing slightly faster and its trade balance is considerably stronger. (As Craig Berry, a research fellow at the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, told me in January: “Primary responsibility for the UK’s £30bn balance of payments deficit lies with southern England, whose main contribution to Britain’s export base - financial services trade - is far too dependent on the crisis-hit Eurozone”.)

But the SNP’s insistence that Scotland’s economic prospects are brighter than the evidence suggests is beginning to look Osborne-esque. Like the Chancellor, the SNP has a vested interest in convincing voters that the crisis is over, even if the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis, from finding permanent work and to paying household bills, tell them it definitely isn’t.

The Yes campaign’s narrative is not, of course, exclusively economic. A couple of weeks ago, Yes Scotland rolled out a new poster campaign highlighting levels of child poverty in Scotland, and the SNP itself regularly criticises the coalition’s “heartless” spending cuts and welfare reforms. But these attacks don’t sit easily with the Scottish government’s panglossian account of Scotland‘s economy: either Scotland is being devastated by Tory austerity or it’s heading for another boom - I’m not sure it can be doing both at the same time.

Last year, Alex Salmond told the Observer that independence would be won on the back of a “rising tide of expectations”. The question nationalists have to ask themselves now, with less than four months to go until the vote, is this: how far are people’s expectations likely to rise when their lives are being ruined by a failing and dysfunctional economy?

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity