Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland taking part in a live television debate from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, during the live television debate

Alex Salmond likes so many things about the British state that one wonders why the Scottish first minister has dedicated his political career to removing Scotland from it.

He wants to keep the Queen and he wants to keep what he calls the “social union” with the UK. The border between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK would, he says, stay fully open, with Scotland remaining in the common travel area with the UK and Ireland.

It is striking that the nationalists’ argument in the independence referendum campaign is unravelling over their commitment to another British institution: the pound. The abiding memory of this month’s televised debate between Mr Salmond and Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign, was the first minister’s repeated refusal to answer when Mr Darling asked what currency an independent Scotland would use if no sterling union could be agreed with the rest of the UK.

He underscored his unwillingness to engage on this issue when he dug in at first minister’s questions in the Scottish parliament, asserting simply that “it is Scotland’s pound and we’re keeping it”.

This is a nonsense, of course. It is no more Scotland’s pound than it is England’s. It is the UK pound. If Scots vote on September 18 to leave the UK they vote to leave the public institutions of the United Kingdom, including the pound. It seems highly unlikely the Scottish government could then renegotiate its way back into a currency union with the rest of the UK, given that the chancellor of the exchequer, the shadow chancellor, the chief secretary to the Treasury and the permanent secretary to the Treasury have each ruled it out.

Mr Salmond’s stance on the currency is in keeping with his overall approach to independence. When he talks about an independent Scotland acceding to membership of the EU, he does so as if Edinburgh will magically inherit the same terms of membership as those currently enjoyed by the UK: with an opt-out from the euro and from the Schengen free-movement area, and with a share of the UK’s budget rebate. Such terms have been accorded to no recent accession state. Why member states with their own secession movements, such as Spain or Belgium, would consider it in their interests for the EU to create such a special package for Scotland has never been made clear.

If so much of the British state is attractive to Mr Salmond, one wonders why he has dedicated his political career to removing Scotland from it.

One might have thought that the nationalists, who want to establish a state separate from the UK, would be able to say what institutions that state would have and what purpose they would serve. Yet, paradoxically, only the unionists have articulated a coherent vision of how Scottish institutions should flourish and grow after the referendum.

All three main unionist parties – the Conservatives; the Liberal Democrats, the Tories’ partner in the governing UK coalition; and the Labour opposition – have published extensive plans for further devolution in Scotland. The details differ but the proposals cluster around the same main points.

First, Holyrood should have much more considerable tax powers than at present; and, second, it should have the authority to use its existing budget to vary aspects of Westminster’s social security legislation as it applies in Scotland. Were these powers to be devolved it would not necessarily follow that taxes or public spending would go up; one of the things we are learning about Scotland in the intensity of the referendum campaign is how conservative a country it still is.

Fiscal devolution is best understood not as the transfer of yet more powers from Westminster to Holyrood but as the devolution of responsibilities to match the formidable spending powers the Scottish parliament has exercised since its inception 15 years ago. One of the great failings of the unionist parties has been to underscore just how powerful the Scottish parliament already is. Since 1999 it has been responsible for more than 60 per cent of identifiable public expenditure in Scotland – a greater share than is enjoyed by the German Länder or the Australian states – but it is responsible for raising only a fraction of its budget. Most of Holyrood’s money comes through a block grant from Whitehall.

What Scots crave is a strong sense of autonomy: specifically, the ability to set their own course as far as their domestic affairs are concerned. Nationalists want to deliver that by severing Scotland from her southern neighbour, then seeking to stitch back together the bits of the tear they do not like. Unionists want to deliver it by empowering Scottish institutions within the union, understanding that a looser and more flexible union is likely to prove both stronger and more durable.

For much of the campaign, Better Together has been criticised for being too negative. But it is the unionists who have the positive vision for the future of Holyrood. The nationalists, meanwhile, are stuck trying to explain to a bemused public why Scotland should leave the UK if there is so much of it they want to keep.

The writer is professor of public law at the University of Glasgow


Letters in response to this article:

Unrealities that still surround the Yes or No debate / From Dr Martin Upham

More important than any party / From Mr Andrew Anderson

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