The debate on Scottish independence has intensified over the summer with polls showing a drop in support for a breakaway from the UK. A referendum is expected in the autumn of 2014.
The campaign against independence is being led by Alistair Darling of the opposition Labour party. He recently launched the ‘Better Together’ movement, which brings together political opponents of separation. He spoke to euronews in Edinburgh.
Ali Sheikholeslami, euronews: Mr Darling you made a passionate defence of the United Kingdom when you launched the ‘Better Together’ campaign, what is at the heart of your argument?
Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign: I think that the heart of the argument is that Scotland is better together with the rest of the UK just as the UK is better with Scotland, we are more than the sum of the parts – not just on an emotional level but critically on an economic level -we have an economic union and at a time of deep uncertainty, to head off to a very uncertain destination with so many unanswered questions seems to me to be a very foolish course of action to take.
euronews: What is it that you’re opposing? Is it some dangerous, ugly nationalism? Is it football crowd politics like we will support anyone who plays against England?
Alistair Darling: “My argument is that not only are there emotional ties that most of us are proud to be Scottish, we’re proud to be British and we don’t have to choose, we don’t want to have to choose. We’ve got friends and relations north and south of the border and we don’t want to make each other foreigners so there’s an emotional argument, but the key argument I suspect in this campaign as it is in most campaigns: it’s the economy. We are part of one economic unit, a lot of Scottish businesses – the financial services industry for example – trades very heavily into England and the rest of the UK. Similarly in relation to our other large countries and just as we believe it’s in Britain’s interest to be in the European Union, I believe it is in Scotland’s best interest to join forces with its largest economic neighbour.”
euronews: When it comes to oil and gas resources, some difficult questions will be asked, for instance, the question about how much of the UK national debt should be passed on to a potential independent Scotland?
Alistair Darling: “Oil is relatively easy in that there are international conventions and laws that govern that, the problem is that it’s a finite resource and when it goes, it isn’t obvious where else you’d be going. But of course you’re right, there are all sorts of arguments on the economic front like how is our national debt to be apportioned? There’s a whole question of currency where the nationalists, having had 80 years to think about it, this year alone they’ve had three different versions of what they would do. The present policy means you’ve got to get agreement with the rest of the UK to have a currency union just at a time when the rest of Europe is finding that currency unions take you back to political union. So there are a lot of unanswered questions, membership of the European Union and so on, on which the nationalists have been very, very quiet. They simply assert that certain things will happen, but there’s absolutely no evidence to say that they will.”
euronews: “They have said on the currency side that they want to keep on using the pound and keep a monetary union with the United Kingdom. However, I believe they would not have any influence on the Bank of England’s policy would they?”
Alistair Darling: “Well if you have a currency union you need both sides to agree to be in it, and what you’d have to do is to persuade England, Wales and Northern Ireland to go into a currency union with Scotland, which would then be a foreign country. Now that would mean Scotland would have to submit its budgets for approval, as you’re seeing in the eurozone now, that isn’t freedom, it’s serfdom, it’s a ridiculous situation and also in relation to the Bank of England, the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee is not set up on a regional basis, it’s set up on expertise to target an inflation rate and there are questions for example: who would be the lender of last resort? Which central bank? You have to ask yourself, why would England, Wales and Northern Ireland agree to be the lender of last resort for what would then be a foreign country? Which is what the nationalists say would happen and none of this has been discussed with those other countries, let alone agreed and at a time when there’s so much uncertainty around in Europe and the rest of the world, I think it comes back to the same argument, I think we are better together than we are apart.”
euronews: “As you rightly mentioned, oil is not going to last forever, but after oil, how viable could an independent, Scottish economy be?”
Alistair Darling: “Well we don’t know what’s going to happen in any economy really in the next 20 or 30 years and there’s certainly oil there for some time to come. The question is, when it does run out then what do you do? Well their argument is renewables. Now at the moment, the renewables industry in Scotland is heavily dependent on a subsidiary from the United Kingdom which would presumably come to a halt if there were a break up of the UK. I think, the argument I have is that if you look at Scotland’s economy, parts of it are doing very well, but parts of it could be doing an awful lot better with the right approach. We are very heavily dependent if we separated away from North Sea oil and as we’ve seen recently when our financial services in two of our banks got into very serious trouble: RBS and HBOS, it was the strength of the UK that actually saved the day. When I was a Chancellor (finance minister), I could write a cheque to stop the entire system from collapsing, I couldn’t have done that with a much smaller economy.”
euronews: “Another question is whether the referendum will go ahead in 2014 and one, I think, pivotal question is what’s going to happen with devo max. Is it a straight question, yes or no, or is it going to be more powers or more independence for Scotland but not full independence?”
Alistair Darling: “Well I’m very clear and I think most independent commentators are clear that we need a clear question, are you staying together with the UK or are you leaving? If you’re staying then of course the question of, do you want further powers devolved to Scotland arise. The problem at the moment is that when you refer to terms like devo max and devo plus, nobody actually knows what they mean. Do they mean a little bit more devolution or as Alex Salmond would say, an awful lot more, everything but foreign affairs, let’s say foreign affairs or something and I don’t think you can put that on the ballot paper, a proposition that the voter doesn’t understand and if it were passed, no one would actually understand what it meant. Whereas I think people do understand what independence means and they do understand what staying in the United Kingdom means. That’s the question that ought to be put and you’d have thought that a nationalist party that’s been in business for 80 years – and that’s the only reason that it exists – would be only too pleased to put that question before people in Scotland, but they’re running away from it because they’re pretty clear they know what the answer would be.”
euronews: “You have been the Chancellor, what would be the advantage of independence for a Scottish economy?”
Alistair Darling: ‘Well, it’s difficult to see what the advantage would be, I mean the nationalists tell you that it would mean they could cut corporation tax but do you think for one moment that a much larger neighbour would allow that to happen? They’d cut their corporation tax too and find it rather easier to do it. So I think in today’s world, where it’s increasingly obvious that the economies are inter-dependent and that of course countries can do certain things on their own and certainly, we outside the euro for example have a greater freedom but the idea that a small country can buck the economic trend and can do something completely different from everywhere else is, you know.. The nationalists used to point to Iceland and Ireland, well they don’t do that very much at the moment, so I just honestly don’t see what the advantages would be, I see a lot of downside but I think there’s a great deal more upside if we stayed part of the United Kingdom.”