Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Making oor ane Merk

This week two old friends have written to me in apparent distress, concerned about the consequences for Scotland of George Osborne's latest temper tantrum; and so I've had to compose a response to their anxieties.

The real facts are that if 'the United Kingdom' is the 'continuing state', then in international law it is clearly, simply and unequivocally responsible for all the debts - every last penny of them. That's the law as it's been through the independence of Ireland, of the breakup of the British Empire, of Czechoslovakia, right down to Sudan last year.

If there's a 'continuing state', and Westminster has made it very clear it wishes to be a continuing state, then that state takes the debt. That isn't, of course, Scotland's bargaining position. We are willing to take on a population share of debt - but only if we also get a population share of assets, and there's no doubt the Pound Sterling is an asset.

If the rump 'United Kingdom' wants to keep that asset to itself, I would expect that to be negotiable - but it's a big asset, so they must expect to pay heavily. But if they won't negotiate, then the law is it's their debt, not our debt, and we cannot default on it. That's very well understood, long established international law.

I actually agree that in the long term monetary union won't work; our economies are going to diverge pretty sharply. But it's very much in England's interest to allow Scotland to come to that decision in it's own time, rather than have to pay heavily now to bribe us to change.

I really don't see this as being a hard negotiation. It is so manifestly in everyone's best interest to maintain friendly relations. What we're seeing just now is frightened men having tantrums and throwing their toys out of the pram; after the vote, when they actually have to deal with the issues, they'll be much more pragmatic and reasonable.

It's right that the rUK can refuse to set up a currency union, or allow Scotland to share the Bank of England. It's right, too, that sharing the Pound, with or without rUK's agreement, would mean that Scotland would be effectively forced to keep its economy in lockstep with one rapidly heading down a neoliberal cul-de-sac which leads only to extreme social dislocation and the third world. In other words, while easing the transition to independence by keeping the pound in the short term may be a good thing, keeping it in the long term would probably not be.

On the other hand, the Pound Sterling and the Bank of England are both pretty substantial assets, of which Scotland by rights owns a roughly 10% share. If rUK want to keep that asset for themselves, what are they prepared to pay for it?

In the long term it seems to me highly likely that Scotland - like Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Switzerland - will have its own currency. It seems to me that in the long term we'll more or less have to.

But that in turn raises another question: what is the long term future of the pound sterling, floating off into the mid-Atlantic sans Europe, sans industry, sans education, sans oil, sans friends? The rUK really needs to think about what it's doing, here. It does not have a God-given right to the share of the planet's wealth it currently enjoys. This is a time to be building good relationships, not wrecking them.

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