So once again the cause of independence appears to be on the back foot. The Fraser of Allander Institute has raise doubts about the SNP leadership’s position on pensions and a new report on borders highlights a range of not-inconsequential complications.
Is this just ‘they’re all out to get us’ stuff? No – but for very specific reasons the interventions look like that, and the reasons are very much of our own making.
Let’s start with pensions. Last week the SNP leader and Leader of the SNP Group at Westminster both claimed that the UK ‘would continue to pay’ the state pension of Scots after independence. The Fraser of Allander report says ‘well, it’s a bit more complicated than that and is unlikely to play out in that way’. And that, again, makes us look ill-prepared.
Of course, this is the result of being ill-prepared. It is what happens when you are in the national media without a strong position to defend and when you then double-down after being challenged in Parliament.
We could have dealt with the issue in a much more effective manner if a little nuance had been afforded. Common Weal tried really hard to bring some serious analysis to the question of how to become independent and we went over this issue in some detail. What the Allander report contains concurs with what we concluded.
As it stands the UK Government really does have a commitment to pay the pensions of Scots after independence – but that is very unlikely indeed to be how it plays out. In fact, the independence movement shouldn’t want it to work out like that.
An independent country has to have a stable state pensions system which is entirely in its control and relying on payments coming from another country is significantly short of satisfactory, creating as it does both instability and endless complications.
Plus the UK Government is sovereign – it can simply change entitlement rules after independence. Would they get away with it? Presumably a test case would have to be taken in law to identify whether the existing, unambiguous position could be litigated. Someone who has paid NI contributions all their life would have to claim ‘breach of contract’. It would end up at the Supreme Court.
Who would win? I’m not a lawyer, but it is most certainly not true that there is no case for the UK to answer. The UK law would have to be made such that anyone in the UK who has paid NI contributions to an eligible level would have their pension paid if they leave the UK and live in any country in the world except Scotland. That is a pretty discriminatory position.
The answer to the question should have been “we will negotiate a substantial one-off contribution from the UK to reflect it’s obligation during financial negotiations and will then set up our own pensions system, and if the UK reneges on that obligation we will refuse to recognise any obligation to debt.”
The Allander report is also a blow to unionists – Common Weal has been in lengthy debate with These Islands (the pro-UK think tank) which is convinced that the entitlement is totally imaginary. An independent and reputable body has now made clear it isn’t.
But this is where the nuance comes in. Another position These Islands takes is that the UK’s debt is somehow legally owned by Scotland too, which also isn’t correct. This amounts to a position in which all UK commitments to Scotland are disposable but all Scottish commitments to the UK are inviolable. It’s not realistic.
The reality is that these are opposing cards which will be played during negotiations. If the UK says ‘we’re not paying a penny to pensions’, Scotland can say ‘we recognise your precedent and therefore shall not be accepting any aspect of the UK’s debt’.
And of course we’ll end up somewhere in the middle as lots of other issues of divisions of assets and responsibility are put on the table as well. This is what Common Weal proposed as the solution to this issue – the UK would be expected to reduce any proportion of debt Scotland shoulders to reflect some element of the pension entitlement and then Scotland would have to get on with its own pensions system.
In fact we made a reasonable assumption of what that reduction would be and, along with a range of other measures, is how we were able to close the deficit between public spending in Scotland and the rest of the UK. If we have no greater budget deficit, that specifically means that we can afford exactly the same pension in exactly the same way.
So the answer to the question should have been “we will negotiate a substantial one-off contribution from the UK to reflect it’s obligation during financial negotiations and will then set up our own pensions system, and if the UK reneges on that obligation we will refuse to recognise any obligation to debt.” And that (from 2017) is what the Allander report implies would be something like the result.
if you don’t know enough about the detailed reality of the policies concerned and instead resort to slogans, you paint us into a corner and it becomes inevitable that reality will intercede eventually
Something similar has happened with the border. Unrealistic and unsupported claims are being made about how quickly an independent Scotland could join the EU, and the inevitable implication is that there will be a customs border between Scotland and England. This is a much more complicated border to describe than the alternative.
But it’s not even what will happen after independence. If you’re incredibly optimistic you believe Scotland can join the EU within five years of meeting criteria. That means that there will be at the very least four or five years with no customs border.
From there the question of the effect on the border would become one of the factors which an independent Scotland would consider as it starts seriously to consider applying to join the EU.
It is so much easier to say that Scotland will have no ‘hard border’ (grinding my teeth again – there’s no such thing…) after independence and it would only be if we choose to rejoin the EU that we would need to consider one.
But just like no work has been done on pensions, so no proper work has been done on this question of customs borders (again, other than by Common Weal and now this paper from Katy Hayward and Nicola McEwan). Rather, the EU evangelists in the SNP have announced the result before doing any of the calculations.
Pensions will be sorted out during negotiations and Scotland will press hard to get financial compensation for the UK’s pension obligations to Scots and the border will be light-touch until such a point as the people of Scotland choose to rejoin the European Union’s customs area. These are clearly defensible positions.
But if you don’t know enough about the detailed reality of the policies concerned and instead resort to slogans, you paint us into a corner and it becomes inevitable that reality will intercede eventually.
I get a little weary of repeating this point and yet once again I must; all the solid research about the ten or fifteen per cent of the population who didn’t vote Yes but were definitely susceptible strongly suggests that the biggest barrier to them moving is a lack of confidence that the pro-independence side really knows what it is doing.
The message was a clear ‘in principle I like what you’re selling but every time someone asks you a question about the detail you either haver or say things that turn out not to be true and so I don’t think you can deliver what you’re selling’.
Winning independence – as with any big endeavour – requires lots of serious preparation. A failure to do that preparation but a desire to bluff your way through it anyway keeps getting us found out. To my mind, based on the public attitude research I’ve seen, this is the single biggest problem for the cause of independence.