‘A Choice between two futures – why it is better for all of us if decisions about Scotland are taken in Scotland’ – speech here.
The Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, gave a positive and clear exposition of her unwavering support for Scottish Independence in her “Choice Between Two Futures” speech – but it could have been that very unwavering positivity which knocked the edge off the argument for some of the sceptical enquiring minds in the audience.
The speech, to an overflowing house at the RSE, marked the first in the 5-week series of seminars in which Ms Sturgeon along with the leaders of the other four parties represented at Holyrood will give their considered thoughts on the implications of constitutional change for Scotland. A central feature of the series is that the speech is then followed by a full thirty minutes of questioning from the audience drawn from members of the David Hume Institute and the Young Academy of Scotland alongside the professional body sponsors of the series and members of the public.
Early in the speech, Ms Sturgeon referred to the importance of two aspects of the YAS mission – its interdisciplinary nature, being analogous to the need for a coherent and joined up approach which independence would bring to Scotland’s problems and opportunities; and the importance of the decision for all of our futures. It was refreshing to hear an explicit differentiation between party politics and the momentous choice between two futures for Scotland on which we will have the opportunity to vote this year. Readers of the Government’s White Paper, to which Ms Sturgeon returned frequently and clearly knew intimately, and of her speech which is posted on the YAS website, will see the difference between opportunities which are described for an independent Scotland, and how an SNP Government (should one be elected) would make use of those opportunities. This future was contrasted against one in which decisions about Scotland’s future would continue to be taken in Westminster.
The fundamental argument was that an independent Scotland can be more democratic, more prosperous and a fairer society.
An important consideration for the whole series is Ms Sturgeon’s clear view – unchallenged in questioning – that both sides of the debate acknowledge that Scotland “has got what it takes to be independent”. She put it that Scotland’s economy without North Sea oil and gas is virtually identical to the UK as a whole, with oil and gas being a huge bonus. The argument, she says, of whether Scotland “could” be independent was settled in 2013, and 2014 is for the argument about whether it “should” be independent.
On economic matters, the argument – if not any supporting numbers within the speech – was that increased powers would bring the opportunity to pull policy levers, such as to reduce air passenger duty and set a “competitive” corporation tax rate, which would deliver increased economic growth. Furthermore, the power to retain welfare savings from increased female participation in the labour market would offset additional costs incurred in policies, welcomed by many YAS members, to transform childcare in Scotland. There was discussion and questioning around budget savings, principally in defence, bridging the time-lag between the costs of implementing such policies and the income form the economic benefits which may flow from them. This broad argument clearly generated a sense of unease amongst audience members keen to understand the practical short as well as longer term costs, incomes and risks around such a broadly welcomed but bold policy direction
The speech included a topical argument, following HM Treasury’s announcement on existing debt earlier in the week, that if the UK government can accept the “common sense” position on debt raised by the UK in sterling being repaid by the UK in sterling, then why should it not accept the common sense position of a sterling currency area which, it was argued, would be in the interest of both closely cooperating trading partners. There was also the first announcement of research to show that as an independent Country, Scotland would benefit from an additional £850m of EU Common Agricultural Policy funding, which would support 2,500 jobs.
On Europe, Ms Sturgeon brushed aside any risk of Scotland not being accepted as a member, with quotes from a pro-union academic Professor Jim Gallagher, which appeared to support the likelihood of Scotland’s on-going EU membership. This she contrasted with the potential for an in-out referendum on Europe for Scotland if it remains part of the UK.
In relation to the No campaign, Ms Sturgeon reiterated a number of reasonable questions for that side of the debate to address, and highlighted the risks to Scotland of retaining its place in the Union, with London-centric policies and economic domination as well as an uncertain financial future as the future application of the current Barnett Formula cannot be assured.
On YAS’s specific questions, Ms Sturgeon reiterated the position set out in the White Paper that an independent Scotland would continue to be part of a Common Research Area with the rest of the UK, and that in an era of increased international collaboration this was clearly in the interests of both countries. No further details of its practical operation were given. On the question of the biggest risks and opportunities of independence Ms Sturgeon was, perhaps unsurprisingly, less forthcoming. Of opportunity there is plenty, but of risk there is only the one of not taking hold of the opportunity independence would offer; and when pushed in questioning, a further risk of having no-one else to blame for Scotland’s performance as an independent nation. Members of the Young Academy of Scotland, with enquiring and balanced minds, perhaps expect too much of politicians to be able to speak in public of any chink in the vision for the future they present. Piecing that together, from the arguments presented by all sides throughout this series, is hopefully a role that the YAS membership itself can contribute to.
And finally, to end on a high for youth; Ms Sturgeon answered a question put by the Scottish Youth Parliament, whom YAS had consulted with in the process of penning the open letter, that her party would support enfranchisement of 16 and 17 year-olds in all national and local elections in an independent Scotland. A simple and positive answer to a clearly stated and important question – if only the whole debate were so simple.