So Westminster will deny the pound to an independent Scotland? Two can play at that game
Iain MacWhirter Columnist Sunday 28 April 2013
Will ye no come back again, Franz, Duke of Bavaria.
The Kirk dropped a constitutional bombshell into the referendum campaign last week by suggesting monarchs should be crowned in Scotland after independence. The last king to have been so invested was Charles II in 1651, who was a Catholic. Directly in line through the Jacobite succession today is one Franz of Bavaria, an amiable octogenarian who may not fully appreciate that he is King over the Water.
The Restoration didn't end too well for the Presbyterians. It led to the Killing Time of the 1680s – when thumbscrews and the gallows were the penalties Presbyterians suffered for holding their open-air "conventicles" (services). The Act of Settlement in 1701 prevented Catholics from becoming monarchs ever again, and we are still signed up to that – much to the frustration of Alex Salmond, who has been trying to get the act changed so that it no longer discriminates against Catholics.
Which might be why the Kirk also called last week for the Church of Scotland to be called the National Church of Scotland. If the Jacobites got their hands back on the throne, Franz might be minded to bring back thumbscrews for Protestants – and then invade England.
What does all this mean? Well, almost nothing, since no-one seriously takes issue with the Hanoverian succession these days, and few of us are members of any church. But it provided another perplexing constitutional issue for Scots to worry about as they await the referendum – or should that be "referendoom" – in September 2014. There is the threat that Scotland's bank notes may be taken away, as alleged by the UK Treasury's latest broadside against independence. Not content with oor pandas, they will even take oor poonds.
Scottish pensions may be insecure too, according to a shock report last week from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, which also dominated the front pages. This warned that, under EU rules, unfunded pension liabilities cannot be held in funds that cross borders. Now, like me, you probably haven't a clue what that means. All I know is that what I laughingly call my pension seems to be worth less every year, indeed every month. However, all this unfunded funding certainly sounds scary – which is the general idea.
The Scottish Government insists that there is nothing unusual in unfunded private pension liabilities being held in funds that cross borders. Apparently there is one with Ireland. But I'm not going to pretend that I fully understand this, let alone the operation of the EU Pensions Directive. The underlying problem, as I understand it, is that the UK Government has run up about £1 trillion in pension liabilities for public sector workers without putting any money aside to pay for it. I don't see how this becomes a uniquely Scottish problem after independence, but I couldn't guarantee that it wouldn't happen.
It's the same with the national debt. We are told that Scotland will have to bear the "crippling" cost of up to £120 billion, taking a population share of the UK liabilities. But since the UK debt is £1.2tn, I don't see how this is an independence issue. In fact, since Scotland would have access to North Sea oil assets, it would arguably be in a better position to service its debt than the rest of the UK, which has lost its AAA credit status. But then, as Cabinet Secretary John Swinney himself conceded in the leaked Cabinet minute last year, there is no guarantee that the price of oil will not fall. There are no guarantees in life, we all know, except death and taxes – and referendum scares.
It's not pretty, but Better Together's campaign against independence is
proving to be highly effective in sowing proving to be highly effective in sowing seeds of doubt about almost every aspect of the policy. It has managed to co-ordinate a succession of issues – EU membership, monetary union, Nato and pensions – which the Scottish Government tries to explain, but can't. This is not necessarily because it doesn't have any answers, but because in many cases no-one does.
To answer these questions about pensions, the UK and Scottish governments would have to get together now and work out what transitional arrangements would be needed to secure pension rights after independence.
That is actually what the accountants were calling for last week. However, this is not going to happen for the very obvious reason that the UK Treasury doesn't want to appear to be smoothing the path to independence.
But that's politics, after all, and the SNP just have to deal with it and find some way of speaking over the heads of the media as they did in 2007 and 2011. But perhaps the party should start moving the debate on to its own terrain. The trouble is that they have repeatedly been left on the back foot, responding to the scare agenda set for them by the Unionists. We have been promised a series of papers from the Scottish Government on issues such as pensions.
The report of the Fiscal Commission last year argued for monetary union, and there is to be a white paper in November. But by then the argument may be over, and lost. The iron law of rebuttal is that you have to kill stories in the first 24 hours if you don't want them to become fact.
Last week, the Treasury also warned, again, that Scotland couldn't take for granted that it would be allowed to use the pound sterling after independence. The Scottish Government wants to stay in the sterling zone so Scots don't have to change money at the Border.
Now, it is inconceivable that monetary union would be rejected by the UK Government, the Treasury or the Bank of England: UK banks, businesses and individuals won't want to have to go to the trouble and expense of changing money whenever they deal with Scotland.
The threat, however, is that Scotland will not be allowed to use the pound unless it accepts regulation and financial control from London. The Bank of England may want to control government borrowing in Scotland, as well as interest rates, and could even demand a say in Scottish taxation.
The comparison is with the European single currency zone, where delinquent members such as Greece have been forced to accept draconian public spending cuts, the privatisation of public assets and all manner of impositions by the European Central Bankers, who take their lead from Germany.
But Scotland is not like Greece. Its economy is not decades behind England, but level-pegging, so there is no particular reason to expect a sovereign debt crisis here.
However, if England really does want to play rough, and tries to refuse the pound, then perhaps Scotland should answer in kind. It could say: well, if you don't want a monetary union, you won't be wanting Scotland's share of the national debt. After all, Ireland didn't pay when it left the UK. That £120bn could pay for a lot of Scottish bank notes. Perhaps instead of Churchill, you could put Franz of Bavaria's mugshot on them?