Thursday, 11 September 2014

Tweaks and Pique

The University of Ulster's Alan Trench has penned a long and rather melodramatic article on negotiations in the event of a "yes" vote — with the focus perhaps unsurprisingly on what he sees as the dire uncertainties of independence.

But do independence-supporters really have grounds to get worked up? For example, Prof. Trench asks why the UK should continue to dole out pensions to Scottish citizens after independence, it being borne in mind that UK pensions are of course not paid out of a pensions fund, which would be far too sensible, but rather from the proceeds of general taxation.

Presumably in this case he is talking about the administration of pensions payments to those living in Scotland rather than the right of Scots citizens to receive them in England; if the UK's arrangements with Ireland are anything to go by, Scots are likely to be retain all the rights of British citizens under the law. Indeed, for many people on both sides of the border, the choice of nationality will, as in Northern Ireland, merely be a choice of passport.

Prof. Trench claims that "the obligations of the UK Government to its citizens living in Scotland are not ended immediately, but they are attenuated". But could the UK Government simply stop administering the pensions of people living in Scotland regardless of the fact that Scotland has had no chance to establish a pensions system of its own and is willing to finance them? They certainly couldn't if Scotland, as most neutral observers expect, remains in the EU. Nor could they realistically do something so obviously against the interests of natural justice. After all, Scots pensioners have paid national insurance too, and many of them will have worked in England at some point. And while people living in Scotland do not have a vote, almost half of Scots have relatives on the other side of the border. Suppose the UK Government did stop administering pensions to people living in Scotland. The English 10% or so, along with many others, would probably move south, and the UK Government would then have to pay for them until they died. Indeed, the likelihood is that legally any Scot would have the right to move to Berwick-upon-Tweed and receive a pension there.

Another hole in Prof. Trench's argument is to assume that independence-supporters actually want a common currency with England and membership of NATO. Indeed, some of them may not even wish to be part of the EU. The Blether Region is not part of the "yes" campaign and not privy to its thinking, but one cannot avoid the conclusion that at their heart these are referendum stances aimed at winning over the doubters. Once the referendum has been won, they become far less pressing. It has been stated, for example, that a common currency would entail limits on borrowing and perhaps tax rates, and that, while Scotland and England are currently an optimum shared currency area, their economies would be likely to diverge, eventually causing the kind of stresses seen in the eurozone. It may, therefore, be attractive only as a temporary solution, allowing Scotland the time to prove its fiscal rectitude as an independent state and England to do something about its huge balance-of-payments deficit — which Prof. Trench signally fails to mention.

There is also obvious potential to tie the issue to that of Trident. Prof. Trench is absolutely correct when he points out that the SNP has little room for manoeuvre when it comes to the ultimate aim of removing the subs; suggestions to the contrary from some quarters are pie-in-the-sky stuff, since the party would split if it tried to strike a long-term deal on English nuclear weapons. If England could bring itself to suffer a currency union for ten years or so, however, Trident could stay that long too, which would at least enable them to adapt Milford Haven or Falmouth (both, incidentally, on the Celtic fringe). The alternative for Restukanien would be bleak: it would be perfectly legal for Scotland to start laying mines around Faslane on the day of independence. As many independence-supporters don't want Scotland in NATO, there would also be scope to link negotiations to the country's continued membership. No currency deal, no NATO, and some very angry Americans for England to deal with. After all, Scotland has no enemies — except, perhaps, as readers of Prof. Trench's blog might well infer, the auld one.

Nor have even the staunchest Unionists suggested that Scotland would be permanently shut out of the EU. If England is so hard on Scotland in negotiations, what likelihood is there that Scotland will not veto its constant childish demands for opt-outs and re-negotiation at EU level? Is it not therefore in England's interest to have a fair settlement? And is England's only concern that Scotland not become a failed state? Surely it is also in England's interest to protect its trade links — and part of that will mean avoiding recession in Scotland.

He also raises the issue of a common travel area, which he states is "much more marginal to rUK, and much more important to iScotland". Living as he does in Northern Ireland, Prof. Trench must surely be aware that a common travel area with Scotland is hugely important to people here, both economically and socially, and much more so than vice-versa. But as usual, the North seems to have fallen off the radar. In any case, if Scotland remains in the EU, there would be much less of a case against a common travel area, since any Scots citizen would be entitled to work in England anyway (indubitably so if, as expected, they retain the right to UK citizenship).

Similarly, Prof. Trench doubts that the BBC would agree to the re-broadcast of its services in Scotland. It currently allows the Irish to watch for a small charge. Presumably Scotland would be required to pay only slightly more. The Scottish Government has suggested that Scotland and England allow each other their programming for free, which would be an even better deal for England. Even in the unlikely event that there were no deal, it's worth remembering that many supporters of independence in any case now have serious misgivings about the BBC and, if there is a "no" vote, may soon stop paying their licence fees. For those who do not share their concerns, there are always satellite dishes.

Overall, Prof. Trench's analysis smacks of wishful thinking and pique, perhaps conditioned by the fact that his lucrative work as a planner of "enhanced devolution" — or "tweaks" as one might also say — will be severely curtailed by the advent of independence. Creating an imperfect and unstable devolutionary settlement well short of devo max and in periodic need of review and reform, on the other hand, is clearly in his interest.

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