Nicola Sturgeon launched a quiet little smart bomb into the independence debate yesterday. It has created very little stir, but then that’s what it was designed to do. This is a smartbomb whose payoff will come during the next Scottish elections and during the next official campaign for independence. It is nothing less than proof that the British Government is denying Scotland the ability to protect and build its economy as the world starts to recover from the pandemic.
The preliminary findings of a report by a group of advisors to the Scottish Government was announced yesterday during the daily press briefing. The Advisory Group on Economic Recovery (AGER) has called for an accelerated timetable for Westminster to deliver more powers to Holyrood in order that the Scottish Government has control of all the economic levers it requires for Scotland to make an economic recovery from the epidemic. The AGER has found that the Scottish Government needs considerably greater powers to borrow than the £450 million cap which is currently imposed upon Holyrood by Westminster.
Benny Higgins, the former chair of Tesco Bank, presented the report to the press. He pointed out that it’s likely to take 4% of economic output in investment to stimulate the economy in order to ensure that Scotland recovers properly in the months and years ahead. That works out at some £6 billion. The current cap on borrowing comes nowhere near that figure. The aim, he said, was to build a strong and resilient Scottish economy which is prepared for the next crisis, and not just to recover from the last one.
The report said that allowing the Scottish Government greater borrowing powers would benefit both Scotland and the rest of the UK. It would allow the Scottish Government to design a recovery programme tailored to the specific needs and requirements of the Scottish economy, and build much needed flexibility into the over-centralised British system.
The plan would see broadband delivered to every home in the country, a significant increase in capital investment, a guarantee of a job for 16 to 25 year olds, and investment in Scotland’s natural environment. It’s an ambitious plan, but it’s well within the capabilities of Scotland to deliver it.
Of course the details can be quibbled about. The plan is not exactly to everyone’s liking. The Greens for example want it to go further, faster, and to ensure greater emphasis on renewables and sustainability. Others have complained that there’s no provision in the report for a universal basic income scheme. Others consider that it’s too timid and too conservative. There is a great deal about the plan that doesn’t please everyone.
However if we were an independent nation, there is no question that although some details may differ this plan represents the sort of route that our government would be pursuing in order to deliver a recovery from the economic shock of the pandemic. Whatever the details of that plan, it would certainly involve borrowing requirements. And it’s those borrowing requirements which Holyrood lacks as a devolved parliament. That’s the key point here. It doesn’t really matter what plan the Scottish Government’s experts present to it if the Scottish Government as a devolved administration lacks the powers in order to deliver it.
We are not an independent country. This report was presented to a government which doesn’t have the economic, legal, or financial powers to implement it. It’s like a plan to install a ladder in order to climb out of a deep pit which is presented to someone who has both hands tied behind their back. Scotland is dependent upon the willingness of the British Government to take off the handcuffs. There’s no indication that they are disposed to do so. They like keeping Scotland locked up. They are afraid of what we would do if we were unleashed. It just might convince people in Scotland that this country is after all perfectly capable of dealing with its own issues, and that would never do. Scotland must be kept dependent, and it’s only by tying Scotland’s hands that the British nationalists can continue to insist that Scotland is incapable.
There are few things that are certain in this post-covid world. Except that is that Ant n Dec will continue to pop up on every single ITV programme, Love Island contestants will continue to be as airheaded as a Scottish Conservative backbench MSP only considerably less malign, and that the British Government won’t give any extra powers to Holyrood, never mind on an accelerated timetable. This is a British Government which has taken powers away from Holyrood. It’s not about to start strengthening a devolution settlement that it utterly despises. It’s not about to start treating a Scottish Government with respect when up until now it has shown nothing but contempt.
Johnson and his swivel eyed Brextremists are certainly not going to give Scotland greater financial freedom so that it can take a different path within the UK. When Conservatives talk about strengthening the union, what they mean is that Scotland must be compelled to adopt and follow whatever political decisions have been taken by England. They are not about to give up any power, far less power over the economy. It is noticeable that the Scottish Conservatives have yet to make any official response to the publication of the report. They’ve not had their instructions from Westminster yet. But it’s a safe bet that the response from Westminster to a demand from Holyrood for greater borrowing powers is going to be no.
That means that when we are campaigning in the next Scottish elections, and campaigning for independence, we will be able to show that being a part of the UK is holding Scotland back. Scotland is unable to make a full economic recovery from the virus because the British state refuses to allow Scotland the powers to do so. That’s a powerful argument in our favour. We will instead be dependent upon whatever rewards the British Government chooses to bestow upon the rich, the powerful, and those global corporations which have former Conservative politicians on their boards.
And this is why the report is really a smart bomb aimed at the heart of the British nationalists’ arguments against independence. It’s going to explode their claims that Scotland is incapable of recovering from the effects of the crisis without the UK to look after us. We will now be able to show that it’s the British Government which is preventing Scotland from having the means to recover from the crisis, and then telling us that we need it. There’s a word for that sort of behaviour, a word that has recently become very popular. That word is gaslighting. A Scotland where there’s already majority support for independence won’t take kindly to being told it can’t have the powers it needs to recover from the biggest global crisis since WW2.
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