A report from the Federation of Small Business (FSB) has claimed that Scotland has the worst mobile coverage in the UK. Citing the Scottish government’s own research, the organisation wants the planning rules relaxed to allow development which would boost coverage.
Andy Willox Change the rules to improve coverage
Although the Government has said that it was “committed to improving mobile coverage in Scotland”, the evidence suggests that over a quarter of the country doesn’t enjoy adequate coverage. For the FSB, that isn’t good enough with Andy Willox, its Scottish policy convenor, insisting that good quality mobile phone coverage for businesses was not a luxury but a necessity.
“Too much of Scotland doesn’t have adequate mobile phone coverage,” he said. “Our members tell us that new technology will be vital to grow their business and our visitors tell us that they want to use their mobile devices if they’re in the centre of Edinburgh or on the Isle of Mull.
“We’re writing to the Scottish government backing their proposals to amend the planning system and improve Scotland’s levels of connectivity. But that can’t be the end of the story. Businesses and their customers across Scotland want better coverage and we must see bold action to ensure that no part of the country is left behind. It is unacceptable that a quarter of Scotland doesn’t even have a 2G signal.”
Coverage in some rural areas can be very poor
The evidence comes from a Scottish government report, published last autumn, which acknowledged that more than a quarter of the country had 2G coverage that was either “fair” or “poor”. What that means is that users would find the signal was “insufficient for good quality connection”. By combining data from a number of sources such the Scottish Ambulance Service and Scotrail, it also reached the conclusion that the majority of Scotland’s land mass lacked good quality 3G coverage.
Mr Willox went on to say that the figures suggested that “Scotland has the worst coverage amongst UK nations. We must get to grips with this problem before our businesses lose out to better connected competitors and visitors don’t come to Scotland for fear of being cut off from the rest of the planet.”
In a statement, the Scottish Government said it was “committed to improving mobile coverage in Scotland. Achieving widespread 4G coverage, whilst ensuring that the gap between those who do not receive 3G or even 2G services does not widen, is a priority. The proposals will encourage operators to make use of existing sites.”
There’s been a lot of discussion over the future of North Sea Oil during the debate on independence. The ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps clearly take partisan views on this valuable asset. It’s not often therefore that we see an impartial assessment – but one has just been published in a magazine called TCE (The Chemical Engineer).
Scotland would get 85% of North Sea Oil production, though there is a disputed area
The author, Sanjoy Sen, is not only a chemical engineer working as a consultant development engineer but he has also recently completed an LLM in oil and gas law at the University of Aberdeen.
As he points out, “A ‘yes’ in the referendum would see Scotland gain independence for the first time in 300 years. In the midst of a polarised debate on the need to split or stay united, there are questions to be answered on what effects independence would have on the North Sea oil & gas industry. If Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond is correct, Scotland could finalise its separation from the UK as early as 2016, leaving those in and around the sector with what would feel like two short years to address a number of critical issues.”
These ‘critical issues’ include working out exactly where the boundary between the Scottish and English sections of the North Sea would lie. They also include serious decisions for a future Scottish Government about how to deal with what he describes as ‘external pressures’. As he explains, “’It’s Scotland’s oil’ proved an emotive SNP slogan in the 1970s but in today’s debate, the Scottish government recognises the importance of stability. To encourage continued investment, the government plans to engage with industry and to honour existing licences post-independence.”
He goes on: “There is likely to be influence from outside of the UK as recent buyouts of Nexen and Talisman have given China control of 10% of UKCS production. Aside from profits disappearing abroad, concerns have been expressed over external political pressures. Investment decisions by multi-nationals, comparing projects across their global portfolios, could also have a major impact on Scotland. Government intervention helped to resolve the recent Ineos Grangemouth dispute and prevent the site from closing down. Post-independence, such infrastructure would become even more critical; industrial action, unplanned outages or severe weather could cause major disruption to the national economy.”
This is an important article and deserves wider attention. To read it in full, follow the link above.
We have spent much of this week discussing the Red Road flats. Should they be blown up as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer? At first people were stunned by the idea. Then they thought it might be an April Fool joke. Then came the public outcry against it. Then the defence. Then a hint that the organisers might be changing their minds. And finally a letter to the newspapers from the chief executive of the games David Grevemberg re-affirming the decision that the 30-storey tower blocks are to be brought down live in front of a world-wide television audience of millions.
David Grevemberg Chief Executive, Glasgow 2014
“By dedicating just a few moments of the opening ceremony to the extraordinary story of Red Road it is our ambition to depict Glasgow as a brave, confident and great city that is confronting the need for change,” he writes.
The trouble is that the story of Red Road is not a happy one, at least it does not have a happy ending…even before the place is blown up. The seven tower blocks were built in the 1960s and were supposedly the very latest in working-class luxury. However they soon rotted away and became the new slums. One block has already been demolished, five are empty and are ready for the explosives squad. One will remain, housing refugees and asylum seekers.
So the questions being asked this week are: is blowing up the Red Road flats drawing the world’s attention to Glasgow’s failures? Is it disrespectful to the refugees still living there? Is destruction what Glasgow is about or should it be re-building? Will the 15 second explosion sequence work? Will it be safe? Will it really be a spectacle if most people are only seeing it on a screen in the Commonwealth stadium or on television? And, since we are only seeing it on a screen, why not show a recording of it?
Must Glasgow be better than the Olympic spectaculars
There is also the whole issue of over-the-top opening ceremonies. Must we be better than the Olympic spectaculars? Must each show be bigger than the last, more shocking, more expensiv? ( The cost has gone up to £20m incidentally). What’s wrong with a parade and a torch-bearer to open the games? And, if we really want to push the boat out, a pipe band and a speech from the Lord Provost.
And talking of over-the-top showmanship, it didn’t come any better this week than ex-NATO potentate George Robertson’s declaration that Scottish independence would have “cataclysmic” consequences for global security. The break-up of the United Kingdom, he said, would weaken the West’s defences against “the forces of darkness.” This is surely “evil empire” stuff and a sign that Project Fear has finally lost touch with planet Earth.
There was another example this week from Ed Davey, the UK energy secretary. He put out a report claiming that Scottish energy bills would rise by an average of £200 a year as a result of independence. This was because the subsidy given to wind farms and other renewables would have to be borne by Scotland alone, rather than spread across the whole of the UK. The Scottish government hit back by saying the figures didn’t take into account the subsidy given to nuclear energy in England.
Margo MacDonald A doughty fighter
And for good measure, the Scottish government did a little scare-mongering of its own, this time over welfare cuts. It published a report saying Westminster’s cap on welfare spending will mean a cut of £2.5bn to benefits over the next two years, pushing – according to one estimate – 100,000 more children into poverty and setting back the fight against overall poverty by 10 years.
We are all missing one of Scotland’s most doughty fighters for independence, Margo MacDonald who died last week. She was 70 and had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Words that sprang up time and again in the tributes to her included, “forthright, determined, a bright light, a blond bombshell, a force of nature.” She began her political life with a spectacular win for the SNP in a by-election in Govan in 1977 and went on to have a career in local government and then in the Scottish Parliament, sitting latterly as an independent.
I’ll remember her for her clear-headedness and her skill in putting her arguments into a few straightforward words. I’ll also remember her courage in her personal battle with Parkinson’s and her campaign to bring dignity to the process of dying.
Spring has certainly arrived this week – after a pause in proceedings for the last fortnight. Leaves are starting to open, grass in being cut, and we awaiting any day now, the first osprey egg of the season at the Loch of Lowes. Yes, the “lady” is back. This remarkable old bird has returned to her Perthshire reserve for the 23rd year and is about to hatch her 69th egg.
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.
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.
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.
In some European countries community ownership of onshore windfarms has been a main driver for the development of renewable energy and the decentralised generation of electricity. In Britain the process has stalled despite the best efforts in Scotland over recent years and the introduction of the feed in tariff by the UK government. Communities do now get a small slice of the revenue from developers but this is chickenfeed compared to the benefits of ownership. What is the problem and how can it be solved?
Ownership of German Renewable Industry (Craig Morris)
Buy-in in Germany or Denmark by individuals and municipalities wanting to profit from the installation of wind turbines has created far greater acceptance of the application of this technology. It is obvious that, if the annual return on your investment is typically between 6% and 10%, then this will positively influence your view on the aesthetic appeal of these monsters. In Denmark community ownership represents 80% of installed onshore wind capacity in the country. In Germany the figure is just over half of the country’s c.30GW capacity (Scotland had 3.8GW installed in 2012). And if your direct ownership of this power supply also reduces the risk of your lights going out then even better. It is unlikely that the communitarian-minded Scots would not be swayed by these arguments given the chance.
However it is not only the profit motive which has created the community wind industry in these countries. The knowhow around electricity supply and distribution has been retained by many municipalities and so there are plenty of individuals and organizations with the knowledge to put these deals together. It helps too that the fund market in Germany is not fully regulated and that there is a tradition of private investment in speculative ventures. And, of course, the turbines themselves are usually German or Danish eg Enercon, Siemens and Vestas. The result is that the financial models and the necessary infrastructure develop naturally to support these initiatives and a virtuous loop is created.
Green Mountain Wind Ranch in Texas
Exactly this is now happening in the US where community wind has taken off and is growing at a faster pace than commercial wind. The local advantages are very clear both in terms of employment and wealth creation. Although commercial wind farms undoubtedly also bring benefits it is estimated that 2 community-owned 20 MW windparks bring will bring $4m in local revenue while a single commercial 40MW windpark generates only $1.3m for the locality. Investors include farmers, schools, municipalities and rural cooperatives.
The Scottish Government, in combination with its agencies and local governments, has been trying to help promote this type of development. Funding is made available for pre-planning costs and it is possible to secure debt financing for completed projects. There is also a scheme to make Forestry Commission land available for such ventures. However, there are very few examples of communities owning generating assets and the benefit accruing to communities from onshore wind development has been commuted to a modest revenue share. This is granted by the developers basically to ease the planning process and to get some local acceptance, some see it as a bribe.
Wind turbines in Findhorn A community-based resource
The fundamental problem is that wind energy projects in the UK have become very big business and are either owned by utilities or, increasingly, by cleantech funds. Landowners can make substantial returns very easily and without risk by simply leasing land to a developer whereas a local group, even with grant support, must still find a way to finance the planning and construction phases. The UK banks are usually only interested in projects north of £30 million. There are some exceptions including the Co-operative Bank which has been the main debt provider for community wind projects (their current troubles has dealt the sector a body blow and the Green Investment Bank is now planning to step in where running projects are at risk).
In contrast to other countries the UK is clearly experiencing market failure in this area and so government intervention is essential. As the Scottish Government has committed to very ambitious climate change targets and to combating fuel poverty this would seem to be an ideal opportunity to give power to the people. By building on the successes of initiatives – such as “Local Energy Scotland”and the CARES fund – to provide guarantees and other forms of support the Government could launch this blindingly obvious good thing on to a more profitable trajectory. Literally everybody wins.
The Scottish government’s commitment to a post-independence defence and security budget of £2.5 billion, “exceeds most of the earlier predictions” and would place it in the top six of NATO countries for spending per head on the armed forces (based on 2011 defence budgets). Maintaining defence spending at around 1.7% to 2.0% of GDP would also very much buck the trend in Europe.
Since the end of the Cold War, overall defence spending has been decreasing in Europe. Although it affects the armed forces of larger and smaller states in different ways, fewer resources coupled with the reduced political will to spend on defence is evidently transforming armed forces for the majority or perhaps even all European states. This is such a worrying trend that some believe Europe is faced with the choice to either organise its defence more effectively or to renounce its capability. With this in mind, the final overall capability in Scotland could yet be well below the stated ambitions of the current Scottish government.
Bottom line, the central choice that Scotland would face in the long term would be whether to keep a balanced force or make the difficult decision towards specialisation and niche capabilities. The former would take a sizeable resource commitment and the latter both strong political leadership and strategic vision.
Missing the target
The current literature on the prospective SDF has been fashioned in two ways. Either it has compared other countries in Scotland’s geographical neighbourhood (Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Ireland) or it has used proportionality ratios to envisage what defence assets an independent Scotland would be able to negotiate out of the current UK inventory. Both methods are fundamentally flawed, although understandably so given the lack of information available when they were written.
The problem with the first approach is that although large armed forces in states with large strategic ambitions tend to reflect each other, the same cannot be said for smaller militaries. As one official responsible for defence transformation in one of those so-called “comparable” European states put it to me, “When you look at armed forces with fewer than 25,000 soldiers, they will all be completely different. They do not resemble big armies and they do not even resemble each other.”
The problem with the second approach is that when developing a state’s defence force, you must first construct a foreign policy and then develop your defence forces to meet that vision. You do not start with your assets and capabilities then build your ambition from there. An understanding of what an independent Scottish foreign policy would look like has moved on somewhat since the release of the White Paper Scotland’s Future, but it is still far too generic and “operationally meaningless” to form the basis of developing a capabilities catalogue. It also does not help that defence in Europe is becoming renationalised to a certain extent.
Above all, Scotland has no history of making these types of strategic decisions. For smaller countries, there often needs to be a trade-off between not being able to do anything substantial versus being able to do something but with less autonomy. Given that an independent Scotland would essentially be creating its armed forces and defence policy from scratch, built-in bilateral cooperation would be its best bet for realistic and sustainable defence policy planning. But what could that look like?
Two examples could be in-air policing and naval collaboration. For instance, an independent Scotland could be responsible for air policing both at home and in parts or even across all UK airspace. An arrangement like this would potentially free up some UK aircraft, meaning it could maintain its expeditionary capability and an independent Scotland could provide aircraft that are less technologically advanced and therefore less expensive. It would also mean that a SDF could contribute to EU Common Security and Defence Policy or NATO burden-sharing in a realistic way. Because the ships remain under one flag and command, it permits the sovereign decision-making while still allowing for synergies to develop.
Of course, an arrangement like this necessitates both countries using the same type of vessels. If an arrangement could be established where the yards on the Clyde service both governments, this would also mean less disruption to the current defence industrial infrastructure. This could also benefit BAE Systems especially given the recent decision to close the Portsmouth yards. There are foreseeable obstacles, but future Scottish defence planners should heed the fact that naval cooperation with the Dutch actually allows Belgium to retain capabilities that it could not do otherwise.
Another option would be for the Scottish government, either alone or together with the UK government, to consider dual-use capabilities. For example in New Zealand, upgrades to the Orion patrol aircraft were co-financed with the agriculture, immigration and policing ministries.
The irony here is that bilateral defence arrangements between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK would entail cobbling together provisions that are already present under the status quo. One need only talk to the Czech and Slovak defence planners to understand how difficult it is to adopt new defence and security agreements that were already in place before the divorce, such as air defence, a new common border and sharing sensitive information. But should Scotland go its own way, both it and the UK would have much to gain by cooperating. In short, if bilateral cooperation were built into Scottish defence policy planning from the outset, it would at least help to keep the proverbial (and actual) ship afloat.
Simon J Smith receives funding from the ESRC. He is affiliated with the University of Bath and the Scotland Institute.
Scotland has always been a distinct nation but since the Act of Union in 1707, it has been a nation within a larger political entity: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The election of a minority Scottish National Party (SNP) government led by Alex Salmond in 2007 brought about the first indications that situation could change. When the SNP won a convincing majority enabling it to rule in its own right last year, the possibility that Scotland could again become a sovereign nation became a distinct possibility.
Now the Westminster coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is striking back. Prime Minister David Cameron seeks to define a referendum on independence on London’s terms while Salmond says he has a mandate to run a referendum from Scotland.
The Conversation spoke with Glasgow University expert Professor Murray Pittock to find out exactly what the state of play is between two close neighbours with a long and storied history.
Can you explain what the situation is at both Westminster and in the Scottish Government as regards a referendum on Scottish independence?
The Westminster government have looked to seize the initiative over the Scottish referendum by saying that they will use their powers to either amend the current Scotland bill going through the Lords or more likely the 1998 Scotland Act to enable a binding referendum on the future of Scotland to be held.
Other referenda would simply be consultative. There was an indication at the weekend that they would wish this referendum to be held within 18 months, to wrongfoot the Scottish National Party government in Holyrood who have said all along, publicly, that they would hold it at some point in 2014.
There has been some sign of a retreat from that position by the UK government – particularly by the Liberal Democrat members of the Coalition – where the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore is looking to resolve the issue with the Scottish Government.
Earlier this week First Minister Alex Salmond made very clear that the mandate the Scottish Government had was to hold a referendum in 2014 and that is when he would intend to hold a referendum.
There are a number of bones of contention. One of these is whether there should be a third question about repatriating maximum powers short of foreign affairs, the so-called “devo max” question.
The third is whether 16 or 17 year olds should be entitled to vote rather than over-18s. The First Minister has indicated that 16 and 17 year olds would vote if the Scottish Government organised the referendum.
Can you explain the “devo max” option in some more detail?
There is some variety as to the powers that are suggested under devo max but the fundamental issue is that devo max represents what tends to be the polling evidence in Scotland, which is that there is a majority in favour of repatriating all powers to Scotland – including taxation and macro-economic policy to a significant degree – but excluding defence and foreign policy.
Although it must be said that the Scottish administrations since 1999 and particularly since 2007 have operated a nascent foreign policy.
In terms of the question of a mandate, the Tories only have one Westminster seat in Scotland and the Lib Dems have 12 where the SNP won a very considerable victory in the Scottish Parliament elections. Who will be able to claim better that they have the mandate to decide what referendum should be held and when?
The question of mandate has two aspects: a constitutional aspect and a political aspect. From a constitutional point of view the UK government has a case. From a political point of view, its case is very weak because clearly the Scottish Government was elected to govern Scotland and to conduct a referendum on independence and it has won an overall majority under a proportional system which is very difficult to do.
The Scottish Government clearly does have a political mandate and most of the counter-arguments have been constitutional and legal arguments. The question is how far those will give way to the politics. The early response in Scotland, not from politicians, from the public – judging by radio phone-ins and the like – is very hostile to the idea of Tory interference in Scotland, even from people who do not support the SNP.
I think if this was a Labour London government, it would be easier for them to put Alex Salmond in a corner. I think that the risk here is that in pandering to the anti-Scottish or anti-Salmond views of some of his backbench MPs and thinking he doesn’t have very much to lose in Scotland because he only has one seat, David Cameron has re-animated Scottish views that the Conservative party is a toxic brand and (also re-animated) antipathy to it and all that its stands for.
Which is perhaps predictable but is not going to make his task in gaining ascendancy over the Scottish Government any easier.
Is there a situation where a divided Unionist camp advantages the Scottish Nationalists?
I think that is a significant advantage. The other thing is the 2014 date. People have said it is chosen because of the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, or it has been chosen because of the Commonwealth Games but one reason it has been chosen is, I suspect, because the next UK general election is in 2015 and holding it within six to nine months of that General Election, especially in the autumn when the campaigning season has started after the party conferences, will make it very difficult for the Labour party and the Conservatives to appear on the same platform.
The indications are that they won’t be able to do that.
Would the SNP, even though they will campaign for independence, be happy with devo max?
I think the best guess there is that the Cabinet and the parliamentary party in Holyrood have got a variety of views on this and some of them will be keen to have devo max and some of them would be uncertain about having a third question. I think that circle may be squared by having a consultation process on the form a referendum should take with the electorate in Scotland.
My suspicion is the First Minister probably is interested in a third question and we will see whether people feed back to say they would like one.
Murray Pittock is involved in developing the Studying Scotland agenda in schools and elsewhere with the Scottish Government as part of his work in leading the Scottish Studies Global research theme for the University of Glasgow.
Bavarians, Prussians and the indy debate
Germans have a positive image of Scotland – though largely based on whisky, football and scenery
Up until a few months ago the usual German press coverage of Scotland was about football, tourism, whisky, music and an occasional human interest story such as the recent “German Shepherd with 2 noses” scoop. There have also been occasional articles about things green including Scottish government climate change targets and German wind energy companies opening offices in Edinburgh. So not much happening was the media verdict. More recently the number and length of articles has increased as the independence debate hots up and journalists are dusting off their maps of Scotland and getting out their school history books.
The Germans remember the ‘glory days’ of Scottish football
For some reason German commentators often remember the glory days of Scottish football and seem to give the results more coverage than you might expect for a smallish country in the top left hand corner of Europe. Tourism and Scotland is altogether a more distinctive topic. The Germans love to travel and Edinburgh and the Highlands are high on the wishlists as places to at least visit once. Reassuringly German visitors always seem to get a positive reception in Scotland and it is commonly reported that the natives are friendly.
Add in the increasing interest in malt whisky over here and the picture is broadly positive. To date the reporting of the independence debate has not fundamentally altered that cosy view but because the media is now getting into some detail on the subject then questions are coming up. You have to know that the press in Germany is more professional and more serious (“boring” is another description) than in the UK. Journalists are actually respected professionals and there is really only one equivalent of the British tabloids which is “Bild” and it is rather tame in comparison.
‘Bild’ – the nearest the Germans have to a tabloid
Initially the reports of the debate were a straight translation of articles appearing in the British press, particularly the Guardian. However, following recent developments in the debate around the currency and the EU, journalists are developing their own views of the situation. A couple of things stand out. The first is that there is genuine appreciation of the calm and democratic approach of the campaign for independence. Germans are naturally on their guard when they hear the word nationalism but they are also keen students of history so have quickly understood that this has been a long and non-violent process.
The other point to note is that the typical analysis does not usually capture the gulf in political culture between Scotland and London so journalists here are often left wondering what the fuss is about. The perception of a clear contrast to the situation with Catalonia and Spain is marked and, in that case, characterized by real concern about the economic damage which would be caused by a secession of the Catalans. However, the dispute around an independent Scotland’s use of the pound and the future of North Sea oil has started to raise similar fears for the UK economy among German commentators.
Scottish independence – seen in the same light as the rivalry between Berlin and Munich
The rivalry between the English and the Scots is a well-known cliché here but was thought to be similar to that between the Bavarians and the Prussians. That folksy picture is dissolving and historical references to Bannockburn (astonishingly many Germans actually know what happened at the Battle) and the Treaty of Union (ditto) backlit with gory images from the film Braveheart are creating a new awareness of the inherent differences between the 2 nations. Reporting has become much more thorough as a result and the complex issues are now being picked out and analysed. One example was a long article in the Handelsblatt (roughly equivalent to the Financial Times) which also looked at what the United Kingdom had given the world. Another daily, the Munich-based Suddeutsche Zeitung, commented in detail on the historical context of the debate for Scotland. There is no question of taking sides though, the tone of these articles is uniformly neutral.
Regardless of what happens after next September the likely outcome will be that the German press goes to sleep again on Scotland and we will be back in the journalistic world of double-nosed dogs. In the meantime over the next 6 months there is perhaps an interesting marketing opportunity for the Scots to use this heightened profile and take the chance sell more whisky and holidays.
Growth in employment at its highest for seven years
The latest figures of the Office for National Statistics show that unemployment in Scotland has fallen again. The number out of work fell by 3,000 to 195,000 between October and December – a jobless rate of 7.1%. Not only that but the level of employment in Scotland increased by 9,000 over the quarter and now stands at over 2.5 million.
Alex Salmond Scotland could ‘go much further’
In a statement, the Scottish government said that the increase in employment in Scotland of 92,000 over the last 12 months was the largest in nearly seven years. First Minister, Alex Salmond, described it as “a demonstration of this government’s commitment to creating jobs and boosting the economy”. However, he said Scotland could go much further, insisting that “only with the full fiscal and economic powers of independence can we can take a different approach.”
By contrast, the Scottish Secretary, Alistair Carmichael, said that Scotland benefited from being part of the UK. “With business confidence continuing to grow,” he said, “more jobs are being created, and inflation is now below the 2% government target. Together with the Bank of England is revising up its forecast for GDP growth in 2014 it is clear that being part of a large UK single market and an influential EU member benefits Scotland. Our economy is growing because we are part of the UK.”
Liz Cameron Recovery continuing
Business leaders welcomed the new. Liz Cameron, chief executive of Scottish Chambers of Commerce, that that more and more indicators were “pointing towards the economic recovery continuing in 2014 and many businesses are actively recruiting new staff or working to increase productivity levels of existing workers. It is time for government to focus its attention on getting the skills strategy right and ensuring that our schools, colleges and universities are delivering the skills that business needs to take Scotland’s economy forward and fulfilling the potential of our people.”
And Andy Willox, Scottish policy convenor of the Federation of Small Businesses, added that every Scottish employer who chooses to take someone on, and every person that chooses to set-up on their own, played a part in this result. “However,” he said, “the recovery isn’t uniform. We need to see local decision-makers and their business community working closely to ensure that no part of the country is left behind. Feedback from our membership shows that Scottish small businesses are feeling more confident about the future and that they plan to boost capital investment and increase staff numbers during 2014. With the right support, there’s no doubt the small business community can continue to create jobs and drive growth, and that we can increase the pace of employment growth.”
Grahame Smith STUC Risky to read too much into one set of figures
However, Grahame Smith, General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, said it was “always dangerous to read too much into one set of ONS figures but today’s report does provide some cause for sober reflection. The big fall in unemployment witnessed in last month’s figures hasn’t been sustained with the Scottish rate now back to over 3% above its trough of summer 2008. It is becoming a concern that the strong momentum of the first half of last year doesn’t appear to have carried through into the second.”
There were also calls for great collaboration between business and the academic worlds. Interface – the knowledge connection for business – said that Scotland’s universities, students and business leaders were being called upon to guarantee employability was top of the agenda and to ensure graduate employment continues to drive the economy and create new jobs.
Dr. Siobhán Jordan, the organisation’s director, pointed out that “both businesses and students need to take responsibility for ensuring that Scotland continues to produce talented and skilled graduates. Excellent schemes, such as Heriot-Watt’s company-led Engineering Design Projects, are in place across Scotland’s universities which help to bridge the gap between academics and industry.”
There’s been a lot of hot air and printer’s ink spilled over the past few days over the contentious issues of Scotland’s future currency and its membership of the EU.
George Osborne Could block a formal union
Even the London media seemed to agree in part that the Chancellor, George Orborne, came to Edinburgh to “bully” the Scots. His message was unequivocal – if you leave the Union, you leave the Pound as well.
There was a similar message from the EU. Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that it would be ‘extremely difficult’ for an independent Scotland to join the European club because it would need the unanimous approval of all existing members.
The Chancellor’s speech had been thoroughly trailed well in advance. He argued that there was no legal reason why Scots should keep the pound if they voted for independence. The trouble with this is that any decision on whether Scotland uses the Pound or not may not be his to take.
What he CAN do is block any move towards an official currency union. But he cannot stop any other country using the Pound as its currency without fundamentally changing the nature of the Pound itself.
The Pound could continue to be used in Scotland
Sterling is a reserve currency. It is the third most popular such currency in the World. It is also one of the most traded currencies globally. Both politicians and civil servants in London have stressed time and again their commitment to open markets and free trade. There’s no way they could stop Scots using the Pound without undermining this principle.
Even the Financial Times accepts that no-one in England can stop an independent Scotland from using the currency for transactions and savings. “The country would simply have an informal currency union like Panama or Hong Kong do with the US,” it explained, adding: “Scotland could circulate uncollateralised sterling. Alternatively, it could use Scottish pounds exchangeable at parity and backed by sterling reserves.” In other words, business largely as usual.
However, it’s worth asking if a formal currency union is actually worth the effort and perhaps the heartache. Just remember what the Governor of the Bank of England said a short time before – that such a union would require “some ceding of national sovereignty”.
The Bank of England could ignore Scotland’s needs even in a currency union
If there has to be a ‘Plan B’, could it not be such an informal union? It would mean that John Swinney or his successors would have the control over the financial levers that he so desires – or at least much more control than he’d be allowed under a formal agreement.
Even with a seat on the Bank of England’s top table, the Scots would have to accept the monetary and fiscal restrictions imposed on them which, as now, appear to depend more on conditions in the South East of England than any other part of the country.
And one of the real concerns about a formal union would quickly turn into reality if Holyrood pursued social democratic policies while Westminster (now permanently Tory perhaps?) followed a diametrically opposite path. As we saw when the old Czechoslovakia split in two, a currency union can’t work when two countries pursue very different political and economic solutions.
Could Scotland also use the Euro?
So an INFORMAL currency union could have benefits.
And might other options not be considered? What if Scotland were to move to a cashless society? What if Scotland were to adopt more than one currency – both the Pound and the Euro for instance? Might the country decide on the ‘Bitcoin’ as an alternative? With electronic trading, these solutions need not be so far-fatched!
Then there’s the on-going question of EU membership. This has been a bone of contention for months.
The Scottish Government has argued that both successor states after separation would be members. However, the Commission President clearly disagrees.
José Manuel Barroso ‘Extremely difficult’ for Scotland to join the EU
It is probable that José Manuel Barroso is worried by the growing number of secessionist movements around Europe, especially in Spain and Italy. He will be concerned that, with the EU already in a fragile state after the financial crisis, nothing else should undermine the Union as it currently exists.
But once again, shouldn’t Scotland be thinking laterally? Norway appears to be Alex Salmond’s favourite Scandinavian country. It is not a member of the EU – and although some Norwegian ministers have acknowledged some disadvantages, there are also advantages and the lack doesn’t seem to have done the country any harm.
One could argue that NOT being a member of the European club could have some positive results for at least some Scottish sectors.
Scotland’s fishing industry suffered under the CFP
Fishing for instance has been hard done by as a result of the Common Fisheries Policy. One could imagine Scotland making common cause with Norway and Iceland to declare a controlled, more protected zone in the North East Atlantic and the North Sea.
Unlike England where there’s a strong movement to leave the EU, most Scots would prefer to remain within the club. But if that offer is not on the table, would it really matter? Trade is carried out between companies – not countries. That would continue unabated.
There may be advantages for business. The European Commission has long been blamed for imposing excessive regulation and red-tape and making corporate administration more costly. An independent Scotland outside the EU could choose more freely what it needed to adopt.
The First Minister will deliver his speech to ‘deconstruct’ George Osborne’s arguments shortly. He also expected to deal with the European issue, something ministers have already dismissed as ‘pretty preposterous’. But it may be worth throwing other ideas into the mix. After all, there are still over six months before Scotland goes to the polls – and an awful lot can happen in that time.