The referendum debate is increasingly split along class lines. Photo: Getty
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Why the Yes campaign isn't winning the economic argument in "middle" Scotland

The Yes campaign is losing the economic argument – this could be more to do with establishment unionism than seeing through the SNP's "bluff".

The economic case for Scottish independence practically makes itself. Britain is in headlong decline. During the 1970s average economic growth in the UK was just shy of 2.5 per cent. Over the course of the last 14 years it has been closer to 1.5 per cent. In the early 1980s the UK had a trade surplus (due, in part, to the boost provided by North Sea oil). These days, its trade deficit stands at more than £20bn. Owing to the erosion of trade union power under successive Conservative and Labour governments, Britain now has the second highest rate of low pay in the OECD. Six years after the crash, average UK earnings are still some-way below inflation and won’t return to their pre-recession peak until 2020.

And it gets worse. For the last three decades, Scottish growth rates have lagged behind growth rates in the rest of the UK, as well as in other comparably-sized European states. According to one recent study, as much as 70 per cent of the Scottish economy is foreign-owned. Because of the high concentration of manufacturing jobs north of the border, Scotland has been particularly badly hit by successive rounds of (Westminster-imposed) deindustrialisation, while the increasing focus on London-based finance as the motor of UK growth has locked Scotland into a monetary policy regime which actively undermines its manufacturing exports. So anyone who seriously believes Scotland benefits from the UK needs to explain why, when it comes to Scotland’s economy (particularly its industrial economy), the UK has such an abysmal record.

Yet, despite all this, large numbers of Scottish voters remain unconvinced by the economics of independence. Earlier this month, a YouGov poll showed that just 27 per cent of Scots believe Scotland would be better off outside the UK, while 49 per cent think it would be worse off. Put simply, the Yes campaign is losing the economic argument – an argument it has to win if it is to stand any chance of securing a majority for independence in September. Unionists are acutely aware of this, which is why, on Tuesday, George Osborne challenged the SNP to lay out what independence would mean for Scotland’s deficit, for its oil and for its currency. “These are the questions that shape all our lives”, Osborne said. “They dictate our mortgage and tax bills; the quality of our schools and hospitals; the safety of our jobs and opportunities of our children. Our economic security hangs on [the] answers.”

Although the SNP insists it has answered these questions, it’s clear that the broader nationalist message – which stresses the strength and untapped potential of Scotland’s economy – just isn’t getting through. But why? Better Together’s theory is that ordinary Scots see through the SNP’s “bluff”; that, as the “risks” of independence become clearer, more and more people are retreating back into the “safety and security” of the Union. There’s probably some truth to this. Many ordinary Scottish voters are still uncertain about what independence will actually entail and (ironically) seem hesitant about “gambling” on Scotland’s future while the effects of the financial crash still linger.

But there’s another theory. As most people now accept, the referendum debate is increasingly split along class lines, with poorer Scots disproportionately supportive of independence and wealthier Scots disproportionately opposed. For obvious reasons, voters who don’t own their own homes, run their own businesses or work well-paid jobs are keen on the idea of change, while those with relatively secure lives have a much greater stake in the status-quo. Better Together speaks directly to the self-interest of this latter group. Take Alastair Darling’s interview in the Daily Mail last week, in which the former Chancellor fretted about the effect independence might have on Scottish financial institutions, dismissed Nordic social democracy (“[it means] higher income tax and VAT up to 25 per cent”) and accused the SNP of “bullying” the CBI. This is establishment unionism in its purest form, completely detached from the sort of “progressive”, centre-left unionism the Labour Party claims to represent.

So far, the No campaign hasn’t had to work very hard to keep its affluent base on side. “Middle” Scotland hasn’t felt the rough edge of Britain’s post-war decline in the same way or to the same extent as “lower” Scotland has. In fact, even as the collapse of manufacturing devastated communities in Scotland’s (now Yes voting) former industrial heartlands, the financialisation of the Scottish economy created a whole new sector for Scottish professionals to thrive in. Can the Yes campaign convince middle-class Scots, in what little time is left before September, to change their minds? Or will Scotland’s doctor, lawyers and bankers prove themselves every bit as petulant and conservative as their counterparts in other parts of the UK?

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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

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