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Prime Minister

This week we’ve been celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament…if celebrating is the right word. It is certainly the focal point for our current debate over independence, which boils down to the question: just how much power should the parliament have ?

The late John Smith MP Devolution "the settled will"

The late John Smith MP
Devolution “the settled will”

Almost everyone wants it to have more power. Unfortunately we are not being offered a range of powers in the referendum question, only a yes or no to independence. And looking back on it, this is one of the mistakes the Better Together campaign made at the beginning of this whole divisive affair.

John Smith, the Labour leader who’s death 20 years ago has been marked this week with the opening of a new Centre for Public Service at Glasgow University, once famously remarked that devolution was “the settled will” of the Scottish people. It has been anything but settled. John Smith may have started the ball rolling but Donald Dewar kicked it on with his famous remark – “devolution is a process not an event.”

So more powers are being devolved from Westminster all the time, the latest involves half of all income tax, landfill tax, stamp duty on house sales etc. The Better Together parties have promised still more powers, though, disastrously, they’ve not been able to agree on a detailed alternative to independence. Thus the referendum debate has become even more confused and uncertain.

Can David Cameron help create a "united front" against independence?

Can David Cameron help create a “united front” against independence?

The prime minister came to Glasgow on Thursday to try to forge a united front against independence, even invoking the spirit of John Smith. But Mr Cameron’s “sunshine” speech was not exactly helped by the Chancellor back at Westminster who repeated his warning that there can be no currency union after independence. And the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon was able to dismiss the spring offensive as a “Tory takeover of the No campaign.”

The referendum has however brought the dying tradition of the public meeting back to life. I was at a referendum debate in Edinburgh last Sunday afternoon – sponsored by the local churches – and every seat was taken. I could see steam coming out of peoples’ ears as they tried to keep their feelings under ecclesiastical control. The Church of Scotland – which holds its general assembly this coming week – has called for a service of national reconciliation in St Giles Cathedral in the immediate aftermath of the referendum in September.

It could be a humbling experience, if the campaigns turn nasty or if the result is close. Perhaps we Scots will be revealed as not the greatest practitioners of democracy in the world. After all, the parliament we have built over the last 15 years is not without its flaws. Its successes I think have included free personal care, free university education, the national parks, the smoking ban and being a national forum. But its failures are legion: the cost, the expenses scandals, its timidity over taxation, its failure to spread power down to local communities and its turgid and ineffective committee system.

Commonwealth Games Ticket fiasco

Commonwealth Games
Ticket fiasco

But parliaments are not the only things that can go wrong. The organisers of the Commonwealth Games suffered humiliation at the hands of their computer experts earlier this week. The sale of the last 100,000 tickets had to be suspended when the on-line and telephone systems designed to handle the stampede collapsed. Then our newest jail, HMP Grampian in Peterhead, which only opened in March, erupted in an old-style riot. Forty prisoners went on the rampage, beating up their new furniture and fittings. Police had to be brought in to restore order.

The brutal world of football also suffered a few shocks this week. The new owner of Hearts, Ann Budge, brought along her new brush on Monday morning and swept away the manager Gary Locke and eight other coaches and players. Instead she’s brought in a former manager Craig Levein and promoted Robbie Neilson to first-team coach. The Paisley club St Mirren have also promoted Tommy Craig from within. And in both cases, the new philosophy seems to be to nurture home-grown players rather than take part in the bidding war for outside talent. Not before time.

About the only place were tranquillity reigns is the European election. There are unlikely to be any riots or stampedes at the voting stations on Thursday. But we are all waiting to see if the SNP increase their number of seats from 2 to 3, whether Labour will keep their two seats and whether the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will hold on to their single seats or whether they will be taken by the Greens or UKIP. Who would have thought that democracy could be so exciting ?

By Michael Keating, University of Aberdeen; Chris Whatley, University of Dundee; Jo Armstrong, Glasgow University, and Trevor Salmon, University of Aberdeen

Scots would continue to use the pound as part of a formal currency union after independence, the SNP long argued. But Chancellor George Osborne ruled that out in a recent speech, following advice from Treasury civil servant Sir Nicholas Macpherson.

Since then the issue of currency has been the dominant one in the independence referendum campaign. And the SNP’s case appeared to be strengthened when Beijing-based professor Leslie Young criticised Macpherson’s claims and appeared to suggest that currency union was still viable.

Members of the Scotland Decides ’14 panel assess the state of the currency debate.

Professor Michael Keating, University of Aberdeen

The nationalists have lost the currency union argument because if the Treasury and the Bank of England don’t want to share the currency, they don’t have to. This is not to say that Scotland could not continue to use the pound. It could do so without the consent of the UK but this would mean accepting monetary policy made in London for the rest of the UK.

It’s really not convincing for the Scottish Government to say rUK [the remaining UK] will give way and share the currency with us anyway. It leaves them in a weak position in negotiation if they do not have a fall-back. It also rules out the euro, which nobody wants to talk about at the moment but many want to leave open for the future.

I have not seen many outside the SNP on the yes side who think that currency union should be the only option on the table. There are several other options. One is to opt for a Scottish currency, at least in the longer term.

Another is to leave things open and say it will be up to a future Scottish Parliament to decide, although this would be risky politically.

The SNP argument that it’s as much Scotland’s currency and so London has no right to say it belongs to them is more of a moral argument than a legal one. If you withdraw from the state, you withdraw from the currency.

But the SNP’s threat to not take on any UK debt is certainly a counter argument. The UK has already said it will pay the debt and then ask the Scottish Government to pay their share. That allows the Scottish Government to say they will withhold their share, which puts them in a stronger position. That might give an independent Scotland a battering in the financial markets, but it might only be temporary.

Having said that, it’s a kind of nuclear weapon, because it might invite all kinds of retaliation and open up conflicts in other fields.

Professor Jo Armstrong, University of Glasgow

The Leslie Young report was useful because it neatly highlights there is more than one set of answers to the questions posed (and then answered) by Sir Nicholas MacPherson on the key issues surrounding Scotland joining a formal currency union with the rest of the UK.

The key questions were: “Are the fiscal rules that will be required and the monetary conditions sufficiently tight that an independent Scotland would be able and willing to comply?”

Young implies that the fiscal and monetary rules would need to be sufficiently tight, or the markets would react negatively against Scotland. Hence a key reason against Scotland formally sharing the pound, he suggests, falls away.

But using his article as evidence in support of sharing the pound runs counter to the idea that Scotland wants to have its own fiscal levers, particularly around corporation tax. Would the Bank of England be comfortable with that? Macpherson’s letter suggests not.

Macpherson also highlighted that Scotland’s banking system is too large for Scotland to be able to provide the necessary guarantees, and would need to rely on the rest of the UK to provide such insurance, which would not be desirable to London.

Young suggests this banking issue will not be a problem as he envisages the banking sector in Scotland will become smaller, if the lender of last resort is the Bank of England.

Given limited fiscal manoeuvring and a largely local banking sector, it is somewhat unexpected that the Scottish Government is arguing this paper cuts a swathe across the Treasury’s arguments for not having a currency union. Is the Scottish Government really arguing for a formal sterling currency union based on Young’s propositions?

Professor Chris Whatley, University of Dundee

Some say the English are bullying the Scots with issues like the currency union, but I don’t think so. George Osborne and the Treasury are entitled to say: “If you guys and girls go for independence and separatism, that’s fine, but these will be the consequences.” This is just stating the facts of economic life.

It was exactly the same in 1707. The Scots knew that there would be consequences from not being in the union. One of the reasons why some Scots went into the union in the first place was because there was a threat that England would close the border to Scottish goods or increase the taxes on them, which was actually already happening.

There has always been that animosity, that contest and even dislike between England and Scotland. Now that rivalry is re-emerging. There were sensible people around in 1707 who recognised that it wasn’t good for either country.

Will the pound save the union?
The Laird of Oldham, CC BY-SA

That was one of the reasons why some people supported the union in the first place, including the then monarch, Queen Anne. We seem to be slipping back and reopening some of those festering wounds. It’s not a good place to go to.

So if there’s caution about independence this shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as being “feart”. It’s about being prudent, asking whether an entire breach of the union is worth the dislocation this will cause.

Professor Trevor Salmon, University of Aberdeen

If we go for currency union, an English Government that agreed to it would lose the next election. People in England have high antagonism towards the Scots and Alex Salmond. It’s not going to be equal partners negotiating.

I don’t think Alex Salmond quite understands what the English think of him and Scotland. Too much debate is intelligent and rational, but at the end of the day it’s perception that counts.

The perception is that the Scots are getting about £1200 more per head than England. The more concessions that the prime minister makes, the more support he will lose among the voters.

The Conversation

Michael Keating receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.

Chris Whatley, Jo Armstrong, and Trevor Salmon do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Technical discussions about a currency union

When making their minds up about how to vote in this year’s Independence Referendum, the question of what currency Scotland will use in the event of a “Yes” result is not necessarily at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Indeed, in a recent survey those asked indicated quite clearly that it was well down their list of priorities.

The Scottish Government wants to keep the pound

The Scottish Government wants to keep the pound

However, this is one of those seemingly technical issues which will be causing many civil servants and politicians to have sleepless nights. In its White Paper published last year, the Scottish government indicated a clear preference for keeping the Pound. Its argument was simple and focused on the fact that it would be in the best interests of both countries for the existing arrangements to continue.

By contrast, a number of those ‘experts’ based in London have insisted that such a currency union would be at best difficult and at worst impossible! They point out that a future government in an independent Scotland would in effect be handing power over its currency to a foreign state – in this case England. This would mean that Scottish ministers did not have, as they’ve long desired, full control over the “levers of economic power”. They’re also worried by what might happen if a left-leaning government in Scotland adopted economic policies at odds with a right-leaning government in Westminster.

Mark Carney Governor of the Bank of England

Mark Carney
Governor of the Bank of England

The arrival of the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, to speak at an event in Edinburgh has helped to focus minds. Mr Carney had travelled north at the invitation of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry. He was keen to stress that the final decision would not be his but would be taken by the Parliaments of the two countries – but he went on to emphasise that this would require careful consideration as part of what he described as “the necessary foundations for a durable union.”

He pointed out that failure to agree such foundations would be fraught with risk, adding that the problems faced by the Eurozone clearly illustrated what could happen. “The euro area,” he said, “is now beginning to rectify its institutional shortcomings, but further, very significant steps must be taken to expand the sharing of risks and pooling of fiscal resources. In short, a durable, successful currency union requires some ceding of national sovereignty. It is likely that similar institutional arrangements would be necessary to support a monetary union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK.”

John Swinney MSP

John Swinney MSP

Scotland’s Finance Secretary, John Swinney, argued that the Bank of England would implement whatever monetary arrangements were agreed, adding that the benefits of a currency union were clear for both sides “…in terms of issues like promoting investment eliminating transaction costs, reducing borrowing costs and facilitating the movement of labour and capital, and we welcome the Governor’s recognition of these benefits.”

What Mr Carney has agreed to do is to continue a dialogue started by his predecessor, in which the Bank will provide “technical analysis” of the issues affecting the final decisions over the currency before the referendum. Before his speech, he had a private meeting with First Minister Alex Salmond who later described the outcome as having gone “extremely well”.

In a statement, the Prime Minister’s office said it was “no surprise” that the Governor had wanted to set out his views on such technical issues. It went on to acknowledge that the issue around currency was an important part of the debate currently going on in Scotland, adding that the people of Scotland would want to be as well informed as possible before taking the decision in September.

Food prices have been falling

The UK’s inflation rate fell to the psychologically important level of 2% in December, down 0.1% from the month before. It’s the first time inflation has been at or below the government’s target of 2% since November 2009 and means that Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, can breathe a sigh of relief.

Mark Carney Governor of the Bank of England

Mark Carney
Governor of the Bank of England

The news that the Consumer Prices Index had fallen to a new low was welcomed by Prime Minister, David Cameron. He turned to Twitter, writing that it was “…welcome news that inflation is down and on target. As the economy grows and jobs are created this means more security for hard-working people.”

This is the sixth successive month that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has reported a drop in inflation. The reason is that food prices have been falling – indeed, the change in the price of both food and non-alcoholic drinks was the smallest it had been since 2006. Discounts in the run up to Christmas also helped, with the prices of toys and computer games falling faster last month than they had a year ago.

By contrast, there has been a slight increase in the cost of road fuel; and the recent increases in domestic gas and electricity prices were announced after the latest data had been collected..

The new rate is still well above the growth in average earnings. However, some economists predict that this situation may end later this year when average pay rises start to rise above inflation. They also believe that the latest news will ease pressure on the Bank of England to raise interest rates in the light of the recent recovery in the economy.

Labour’s Treasury spokeswoman, Catherine McKinnell, said that the fall in the inflation rate was welcome, “but with prices still rising more than twice as fast as wages the cost-of-living crisis continues. After three damaging years of flat-lining, working people are on average £1,600 a year worse off under the Tories.”

The White Paper – a substantial document

So now we know – or at least those who are willing to wade through 670 pages of text will know – what the SNP Government believes the benefits of independence will be. There are promises of better childcare and education along with a reformed, fairer tax system.

Scots would be better off under independence, says Alex Salmond

Scots would be better off under independence, says Alex Salmond

In his presentation of this ‘blueprint’ for Scotland’s future, First Minister, Alex Salmond, claimed that each Scot would be £600 better off after a split from the UK. As he’s claimed elsewhere, he repeated that Scotland’s public finances were “healthier than those of the UK as a whole”. The paper insists there would be “no requirement for an independent Scotland to raise the general rate of taxation to fund existing levels of spending.” By contrast, the Treasury’s analysis suggests that independence could cost the average Scot £1,000 in tax.

The document identifies “three overriding reasons” for Scotland to leave the UK by creating a more democratic, prosperous and fair state. In Mr Salmond’s view, his vision is “of an independent Scotland regaining its place as an equal member of the family of nations. However, we do not seek independence as an end in itself, but rather as a means to changing Scotland for the better. We know we have the people, the skills and resources to make Scotland a more successful country. What we need now are the economic tools and powers to build a more competitive, dynamic economy and create more jobs. This guide contains policies which offer nothing less than a revolution in employment and social policy for Scotland, with a transformational change in childcare at the heart of those plans.

“Our proposals,” he added, “will make it far easier for parents to balance work and family life, and will allow many more people, especially women, to move into the workforce, fostering economic growth and helping to boost revenues – which will in itself help pay for the policy. With these policies, we can begin the job of undoing the damage caused by the vast social disparities which have seen the UK become one of the most unequal societies in the developed world.”

But will Scotland be able to keep the pound?

But will Scotland be able to keep the pound?

In a policy that has been widely discussed, the paper discusses plans to keep the pound in a currency union with the Bank of England. It states that the pound “is Scotland’s currency just as much as it is the rest of the UK’s” adding that an independent Scotland would also make a “substantial contribution” to a “sterling zone”. However, opponents have stated several times that there was no guarantee that the rest of the UK would accept such an arrangement.

Under the proposals, Scottish Independence Day would be March 24, 2016, assuming the people of Scotland vote for independence in a referendum next year. This date was chosen for historical reasons (as many of the dates in the recent past) because it was on March 24, 1707, that the Act of Union, which joined the parliaments of England and Scotland, was signed.

Blair Jenkins, chief executive of ‘Yes Scotland’ said that the White Paper addressed “the questions and concerns that matter to the people who live and work in Scotland, from childcare to how the country will be rid of Trident and the nuclear weapons of mass destruction. It is a very informative and easy-to-understand guide and it will open a new dimension in the debate about Scotland’s future and the choice we face next September over the opportunity to make our own decisions according to our own needs, priorities and aspirations or sticking with a Westminster system that is simply not working for Scotland.”

Alistair Darling Who would set mortgage rates?

Alistair Darling
Who would set mortgage rates?

But the leader of the ‘Better Together’ campaign, the former chancellor, Alistair Darling, accused Mr Salmond of asking people to buy a “one-way ticket to a very uncertain destination”. He added that the SNP Government had “ducked the big questions like on currency: how can we guarantee to keep the pound and if we don’t what currency will we use, will we have our own or will we join the Euro? Debt, defence, welfare, pensions: they haven’t answered any of those questions and you would have thought that at this time we would get the answers we are entitled to.”

He asked what currency Scotland would use and who would set mortgage rates. He also asked who would pay pensions and benefits in future, adding that the paper provided no clear answers. “It is a fantasy,” he argued, “to say we can leave the UK but still keep all the benefits of UK membership. The White Paper is a work of fiction. It is thick with false promises and meaningless assertions. Instead of a credible and costed plan, we have a wish-list of political promises without any answers on how Alex Salmond would pay for them.”

In the view of Scottish Secretary, Alistair Carmichael, today’s White Paper contained no answers, only assertions, to key questions over currency, pensions or the cost of independence. “Rarely have so many words been used to answer so little,” he said. “This was their chance to level with people. They have chosen a different path and people will judge them on that.”

Prime Minister David Cameron’s official spokesman said that the white paper “doesn’t really answer the big questions around currency, fiscal sustainability and Europe, just to take three of the major issues”.

However, Alex Salmond insisted that Scotland’s future was now in Scotland’s hands “It won’t be decided by me,” he said. “It won’t be decided by our opponents. It won’t be decided by the media. It will be decided by the people.”

How ‘accountable’ are our politicians?

If you are to believe the politicians, then politics is about openness, accountability and trust. The problem today however is that all too many people don’t believe their politicians. Now the magazine, Computer Weekly, has provided at least some evidence to support that view. It’s reported that the Conservative Party has attempted to delete all of the speeches and press releases that have been published online in the past 10 years – even attempting to remove any record of them from search engines. The speeches include one in which the Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised to use the Internet to make politicians “more accountable”.

David CameronAccording to the magazine, the Tories have used what is known as a “robot blocker” which in effect asks any search engine to stop looking and indeed go away! In an uncharacteristically frank comment, the magazine suggests that the party was trying to hide these speeches in the same “secretive corner of the Internet as those that shelter the military, secret services, gangsters and paedophiles”. At least one commentator has described this as an “outrageous subversion of democracy”, pointing out that the whole point of putting people into power is to hold them to the promises they make. If they break those promises, they risk getting punished the ballot box.

The party stands accused of trying to delete all record of the promises made before the last election. For example, they include the “Big Society Manifesto” which was part of the party’s central platform back in 2010. Then there is the promise to make the Internet more transparent in order to “bridge the gap” between the government and voters – also gone! Then there was the promise by George Osborne back in 2006 that a future Tory government would increase state spending by 2% the following three years.

Lord Prescott (Creative Commons)

Lord Prescott
(Creative Commons)

The interesting thing is that the Conservatives have made no attempt to hide what they’re doing – and don’t seem in the slightest embarrassed at having been found out. It insists that the changes to its website were simply an attempt to clean it up. As a spokesman explained, “we’re making sure our website keeps the Conservative Party at the forefront of political campaigning. These changes allow people to quickly and easily access the most important information we provide – how we are clearing up Labour’s economic mess, taking the difficult decisions and standing up for hard-working people.”

Others are much more cynical! Lord Prescott, the former Deputy Prime Minister, took to Twitter and asked “how do Tories stop being accused of breaking election promises? By DELETING all pre-2010 speeches and press releases!” And the Labour MP for Edinburgh East, Sheila Gilmore added that it would “take more than David Cameron pressing delete to make people forget about his broken promises and failure to stand up for anyone beyond a privileged few.”

The oil refinery to remain open

It was not a bluff. The owners of Grangemouth, the Swiss-based multinational Ineos, have confirmed that the petrochemical plant at the facility is to close. It follows a bitter dispute which pitted the pay and conditions of the work force against proposed future investment. The firm had put what it described as a ‘survival plan’ to the workers only to see half of them reject it. The plant will be placed in the hands of liquidators within the next week.

The Scottish Government is already looking for a buyer

The Scottish Government is already looking for a buyer

What happens next however could well be in the hands of the politicians. The Scottish Government has already announced that it was speaking to potential buyers for the site and talks are already under way between the Scottish and Westminster Governments about what to do next. That raises the question of whether the plant could be temporarily be nationalised as happened a few days ago with Prestwick Airport – though Grangemouth would be a rather different proposition.

The decision to close the petrochemicals side of the complex will affect around 800 people; however, it’s understood that the oil refinery at the site is likely to remain open. This is important not just for the security of fuel supplies to Scotland, the north of England and Northern Ireland but also for the flow of North Sea Oil through the Forties pipeline. BP’s Kinneil terminal depends on the steam and power from Grangemouth to keep the oil flowing.

Ministers’ minds will surely be focused not just on the jobs that will be immediately lost but on the thousands which depend on Grangemouth – as many as 10,000 people work either directly within the complex or for associated contractors. The local economy is reliant upon it. More people work in manufacturing in Grangemouth that in the whole of the rest of Scotland. As Scotland’s biggest industrial site, it’s also worth about £1 billion a year to the Scottish economy.

Ed Davey MP "even at this late stage, the government urges them to continue dialogue"

Ed Davey MP
“even at this late stage, the government urges them to continue dialogue”

One question which must be asked is who would buy the plant? It wouldn’t be BP as it sold Grangemouth back in 2004. Any potential buyer would have to carry out due diligence to find out the actual financial state of the operation. Ineos has insisted that the plant was losing £10 million a month; investment was badly needed and the changes to pay and conditions were the only way to secure its future. But the union’s independent adviser questioned this.

The closure was the subject of an urgent question in the House of Commons today, raised immediately after Prime Minister’s Questions. The Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, said it was “regrettable” that the two parties in the dispute were unable to reach a deal. “Even at this late stage, the government urges them to continue dialogue”, he added. “Fuel supplies are continuing to be delivered as usual. The government is working on contingency plans to ensure that disruption is avoided in future”

He went on to point out that petrochemical plants in Europe were all facing economic pressures. “Their margins are very narrow, in part thanks to people switching from petrol to diesel,” he added, before concluding: “We need to make sure that our response is strategic and based on evidence.” Whatever that ‘strategic’ response may be, the message from Downing Street is that there will be no bailout for Grangemouth, and that it was up to the company and the trade unions to resolve the dispute.

Ringing the changes at Westminster

Michael Moore must be thinking today that politics can be brutal. As Scottish Secretary, he thought he’d done the job “pretty effectively” – but all he gets is the thanks of his party leader and the long walk to the back benches, the only cabinet minister on the Lib Dem side of the coalition to lose his job. He is replaced by the party’s former chief whip, Alistair Carmichael. Understandably, he’s “very disappointed” at the decision but has the grace to wish his successor well.

Michael Moore Former Scottish Secretary

Michael Moore
Former Scottish Secretary

The reasons for the change are explained in the letter from Nick Clegg. In it, he praises the MP for not only having “successfully piloted through legislation to enable Scotland to take a major step towards the party’s long held goal of Home Rule, but you have also ensured that the referendum next year will give the Scottish people a clear and decisive question on which to cast their vote.

“It should be recognised that you secured both the Scotland Act and the Edinburgh Agreement in the context of a majority SNP government at Holyrood, and against a backdrop of an external political narrative that often suggested the legislation would fail and a referendum agreement could not be secured.”

Alistair Carmichael MP The new Scottish Secretary

Alistair Carmichael MP
The new Scottish Secretary

But he went on to say that he believed that the party and indeed the coalition now needed “to draw on different experience in the final year running up to the referendum itself and I am keen that just as we have benefited from your formidable skills over the past three years that we take advantage of other experience within our ranks during this period.” Mr Moore was appointed Scottish Secretary three years ago.

After the news broke, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted her “best wishes” to Mr Moore. “A tough opponent but always pleasant,” she said. “He can take pride in the achievement of the Edinburgh Agreement.” This was the deal, reached exactly a year ago, which set out terms for next year’s independence referendum. It was signed with much fanfare by both the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, in Edinburgh.

Alex Salmond and David Cameron signed the Edinburgh Agreement last year

Alex Salmond and David Cameron signed the Edinburgh Agreement last year

The exact reasons for Mr Moore’s dismissal aren’t clear at the moment. However, the BBC’s The BBC’s John Pienaar told Radio 5Live that Mr Carmichael was very popular amongst other MPs and was considered to have “a louder voice and bigger boots” than his predecessor.

The change takes place on a day when the Coalition’s leaders are ringing the changes in their teams. David Cameron, a prime minister who is admittedly reluctant to make reshuffles, is trying to broaden the appeal of the Conservative party. In particular, this means offering a higher profile to women and MPs from Northern England. For example, Esther McVey, MP in the marginal Wirral West seat, has been appointed the new employment minister.

Ed Miliband, Labour leader, will also change his shadow cabinet. In anticipation of this, Anne McGuire has already announced that, after five years as first the minister, then the shadow minister for the disabled, it was time to allow someone else to take on the role. The MP for Stirling said she would continue campaigning against an “unprecedented attack” on the disabled by the Government and parts of the media as a backbencher and co-chair of the all-party disability group.

The Two Leaders have sometimes reached some agreement

In a letter to First Minister, Alex Salmond, the Prime Minister has confirmed he will not take part a TV debate on Scottish independence. David Cameron insisted that the unionist cause in any debate should be presented by Alistair Darling, who chairs the pro-Union campaign group Better Together. The response from Mr Salmond can be summed up in one word – Feart! He believes the prime minister is afraid of facing him in a live political debate.

Alistair Darling chairs the 'No' Campaign

Alistair Darling chairs the ‘No’ Campaign

The correspondence between the two men was started by Alex Salmond. He urged the Prime Minister to take part in a televised debate, insisting that Mr Cameron was central to the campaign to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom. A refusal, he argued, would be neither consistent nor credible.

But in his reply, while Mr Cameron agreed there should be television debates in the coming year, Mr Darling had been asked by all of the pro-UK parties in Scotland to lead the campaign. It was not up to the Scottish First Minister to decide who should lead for the No campaign. In his letter, he explained that it was “a well understood and reasonable principle that you get to pick your own team’s captain, but not your opponent’s as well.” He added that it was “time for the two campaigns and the broadcasters to meet and start working to make these debates happen.”

In his response to this rejection, Mr Salmond said that he had “noted the prime minister’s apparent unwillingness to take part in another General Election debate and I’m sure people will draw their own conclusions from that. Indeed, I believe his refusal to debate Scotland’s future with me can be summed up in one word – “feart”. He insisted that he had wanted to counter what he called the “spurious and unfounded claims” the Prime Minister had made about an independent Scotland.

The people of Scotland will vote in the independence referendum on 18 September next year. They will be asked the straight yes/no question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

We need to think not just about 2014 – but beyond

Are the “big guns” of British politics starting to enter the Scottish independence debate? Until now, it sometimes felt as though this was a question only for the Scots – despite the occasional foray north of the border by people like Prime Minister, David Cameron. But like it or not, next year’s referendum has implications reaching far beyond Scotland boundaries.

Douglas Alexander MP Copyright World Economic Forum, Creative Commons

Douglas Alexander MP
Copyright World Economic Forum, Creative Commons

Enter Douglas Alexander – the Shadow Foreign Secretary. He will deliver a speech in his constituency (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) in which he will accuse both sides of indulging in an “arid, acrimonious” argument which failed to address key social issues such as deep-rooted poverty and inequality. And he will urge the Labour Party in Scotland to consider looking at radical political reform, perhaps in coalition with the SNP, if Scotland chooses to vote no in the referendum.

Mr Alexander has already called for a “national convention” to look at what the post–referendum political landscape should look like. The tone of the speech suggests that he has become frustrated by his own party and its lack of progress towards developing a series of alternatives to independence. In it, he is expected to say that both the Tories and Liberal Democrats have expressed some interest in his thinking – but is also keen that any national convention should be all-inclusive, thus involving the SNP as well.

He will tell his constituents that such a convention would be “a very tangible answer to the question – what comes next if Scotland rejects separation in 2014? The deeper question as to what kind of Scotland we want will not be resolved by the answer given by the referendum,” he will say, adding that no-one appears to see this as a chance to take “the real opportunity to do something radically different” with the political structures of both Scotland and the UK.

Johann Lamont MSP

Johann Lamont MSP

His speech comes at an interesting time – just after the debate in the Scottish Parliament and just before the Labour Party conference. That debate had seen several references to critical comments made by a former senior adviser to Alex Salmond, Alex Bell, who resigned in July after spending two years working on the proposed White Paper on independence. In an interview for the BBC, Mr Bell explained that he had disagreed with Alex Salmond’s strategy of focusing on “simple messages” rather than any detailed analysis of key issues.

This was picked up in the Parliament by Labour leader Johann Lamont, who also drew attention to the fact that two leading international economists had also criticised his policies. As she said in the debate “if the first Minister cannot persuade those he hired to advise him of his case for independence, what chance does he have with the rest of us?” She went on to suggest that he should “really take things a little more seriously”, suggesting that the people across Scotland were finding him “increasingly deluded and unconvincing”.

While such comments can be taken are simply part of the hurly-burly of political life, they worry people like Douglas Alexander. In his speech he will warn that there is a growing danger that the debate will become bitter and divisive. He’s afraid that the aggression shown by both sides will last way beyond the referendum. As he put it, “in the last year alone, we seen a debate characterised all too often by shallowness, grievance and personal vitriol.

“There is a real risk that the vitriol, which at times has infected the debate, will simply not fade post-18 September 2014, and when people look beneath the surface of whatever numbers define the results, it will not be a pleasant view. Whatever the outcome of the vote, that cannot and would not be good for Scotland.”

In the Caledonian Mercury, we have said before that, whatever the outcome in 2014, the decision needs to be clear-cut and definite. The last thing we want is a year of negative and uninspiring sparring, not just between the two sides, but possibly even within the various camps. We can only hope that the arrival of this political heavyweight in the form of Douglas Alexander will start to raise the standard of debate and allow us to think about our future – whether within the United Kingdom or as newly independent state.