Feb. 2nd, 2014

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So, at our book club yesterday we discussed Scotland’s Choices: The Referendum and what happens afterwards.   This revealed a range of opinions on the independence question in our group, from “I’m British, not Scots, and I don’t want to split my country”, to “I want a country that isn’t chasing the USA model and independence seems the best way to attain this”.  One person wasn’t born in the UK and wondered whether they should vote at all.

The book looks at the question from a practical, administrative, viewpoint.  It considers matters such as how much control the Scottish government has and will have over various aspects of its finances, how welfare in Scotland relates to that in the UK as a whole, and how an independent Scotland will relate to various international bodies such as the EU and NATO.  It devotes a chapter to the impact of North Sea oil, the options that were missed (the Thatcher government could have set up a sovereign wealth fund but chose to spend the tax income on balancing the budget instead), and the choices that would face an independent Scotland as the income from oil reduces.

As well as independence, the book considers options for further devolution, starting with the implications of the 2012 Scotland Act, which will come into force in 2016 (if independence doesn’t make it redundant).  This gives useful context, for example comparing scenarios with more devolution “devo-plus” or “devo-max” against the most likely form of independence, constrained by a currency union with either the UK or the EU.  I wasn’t aware of the 2012 act and its implications, so this part of the book was particularly interesting.

As our discussion pointed out, the book doesn’t address broader concerns such as, what sort of society do we want?  Would we rather live in a more equal society even if the overall GDP per capita was less?  Are there benefits from having our political leaders closer to home where we can influence them and oversee them more directly, compared to a remote leadership in London?  Would an independent Scotland encourage our “best and brightest” to stay in Scotland rather than head to the major world city of London just 350 miles south?

Away from the main issues, the authors also spend some time discussing the various options for managing referendums, which seems a bit redundant given that the terms of the referendum are now set.  A review of voting methods was probably of no interest to many readers, while those of us who are interested in that topic were already familiar with the issues.  A chapter on the history of unions and independence movements in the UK was more interesting, especially concerning the history of Irish “home rule”, which I knew little about.

For me, the book reinforced my existing concerns about the independence “offer”.  The big question for me is what extra powers, will independence give us, compared to devolution, to allow Scotland to generate a more dynamic and still more successful economy?  The authors didn’t address this – perhaps because at the time they wrote it, the Yes campaign had not presented its case.  We did note that since the book was published, two of the authors have joined the “no” campaign, which seems unsurprising given the material presented in the book.  I’m not accusing them of setting out to write a biased book – it’s far more informative than most of the media chatter – but their analysis is consistent with a “no” conclusion and other analysts might reach different conclusions.
 

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