Scotland's Decision: What sort of Scotland?

Published: 11 August 2014

This week, we are highlighting the contributions of our fellows to Scotland's Decision: 16 Questions to think about for the referendum on 18 September.  Today’s topic is the what sort of Scotland might we see post referendum? The book is available as a free download.

Thinking about ‘what sort of Scotland’ we might see after the referendum, our experts explore the following:

  • Stephen Tierney - The constitution of an independent Scotland: What would it contain? How would it be made?
  • Kirstein Rummery and Craig McAngus - How different would or could Scottish social and welfare policy be from the policy of the UK in the event of either a Yes or a No vote?
  • David McCollum and Scott Blinder - Does Scotland need a separate immigration policy? And if the vote is Yes could we have one?
  • David Bell and David Eiser - What would happen to pensions in the event of a Yes or a No vote?

Stephen Tierney sees two big sets of questions around the making of a Scottish constitution, the first determining what kind of country Scotland becomes if it votes Yes, the second determining the legitimacy of the whole process:

  • “What would the final written constitution look like? Such a document would most likely entrench important principles beyond the reach of ordinary acts of parliament. This would inevitably hand more power to judges who would have the duty to interpret this constitution and to strike down the legislative will of parliament if an enacted law were found to be incompatible with the constitution.
  • Who would draft this permanent constitution? Would the process be genuinely popular, or would it be controlled by elites?”

Casting a critical eye over Scottish Government proposals on content and process, Tierney offers some answers:

“The drafting process for a new constitution should engage with the general public as much as possible – taking seriously public opinion on a range of issues – so that the process is genuinely popular rather than elite-driven.”

And commenting on the possibility that a new constitution could include detailed provisions on social and economic matters and issues like nuclear weapons, he adds:

  • “Important decisions should be left to parliaments, so that people can use the electoral process to make key choices on policy matters. It seems very questionable that the first generation of post-independence Scots should take upon themselves the power to crystallise a broad range of current policy preferences as constitutional principles.
  • By constitutionalising specific values and policies, the constitution would significantly ramp up the powers of judges, giving authority to a small unelected group which is arguably not entitled to determine these issues.
  • Also, to declare so many things ‘constitutional values’ can curtail political debate. People who then criticise policies which have been dressed up as constitutional principles can find themselves accused of disloyalty to the country, which is deeply unhealthy for democracy.”

Kirstein Rummery and Craig McAngus start by looking at the Scottish Parliament’s record so far on welfare, noting:

“In the areas where Scotland has had control over social policy, there are some indications that it favours a universal over a targeted approach to welfare. Policies such as universal access to free personal care, free prescriptions, and free higher education are designed to create social cohesion, although they do disproportionately benefit the well-off over poorer sectors of society. They are also designed to avoid the stigma associated with accessing welfare.”

They note that the Yes side has made a “case for a vision of social and welfare that is a departure from the Westminster model”, including the commitment to universalism and to addressing gender inequalities. They disagree with Tierney by arguing that:

“If principles designed to tackle this are not enshrined in the constitution [Scotland] will struggle to address this. A Yes vote would potentially offer the nation an opportunity to create a more socially just society than it would if it remained in the UK, but this depends heavily on the constitutional settlement that is agreed – not everyone in Scotland is committed to social justice and universalism.”

A No vote will see the “central pillars of the social security system stay at the UK level.” At that level “the current language of ‘welfare dependency’ versus ‘hard working families’ makes it clear that Westminster favours creating disincentives to use state services and benefits wherever possible.”

David Bell and David Eiser look at a core aspect of social security: pensions, including the state pension, public sector workplace pensions; and private occupational pensions.

They note that “the Scottish Government has been keen to stress that pension rights and benefits will not be affected by independence”. They see “no obvious reason why the conditions around any of these should change radically on independence”. Rather:

“The main long-run pension challenge is their affordability as the population ages. This is a challenge regardless of the constitutional position, although it is slightly more acute in Scotland than in the rest of the UK.”

In the case of a Yes vote they note that:

  • “…the Scottish Government has indicated that it would provide a slightly more generous State Pension … [this] will affect the affordability challenge posed by an ageing population and would have to be funded through general taxation.
  • Affordability will also be affected by the fact that Scotland has a higher proportion of public sector workers and a more rapidly ageing population. Under current arrangements, shortfalls in Scotland’s unfunded pension schemes are met through UK taxation, whereas under independence, shortfalls would clearly have to be met through Scottish tax receipts alone.
  • For those investing in occupational pension schemes, the prospect of an independent Scotland adopting its own currency raises issues: Scottish pensioners who had invested in UK schemes may find the value of their pension fluctuating depending on the exchange rate between sterling and the new Scottish currency. On the other hand, independence may enable Scottish workers to secure a larger pension fund for their retirement, if the Scottish Government has to pay more to borrow than the UK.”

They conclude that:

“…the challenges posed by an ageing population are likely to require some combination of increased contributions and/or general taxation in order to fund existing liabilities. Although this challenge will exist whatever the constitutional position, the affordability challenge is likely to be more acute for Scotland than it is for the rest of the UK.”

David McCollum and Scott Blinder start by noting basic differences in UK and Scottish Government views on immigration:

“The UK Government has developed an increasingly restrictive stance towards immigration, arguing that too many people coming in has strained social cohesion and put pressure on wage levels and public services. In contrast, the Scottish Government wants to attract more migrants to Scotland – particularly the highly-skilled – for both demographic and economic reasons.”

So if there were a Yes vote, Scotland “would likely enact a less restrictive set of immigration policies than those of the current Westminster government.” Indeed (and connecting to Bell and Eiser’s points about the affordability of pensions):

“Scotland is much more reliant than other parts of the UK on immigration in order to keep its population stable or growing. Scotland’s population is also ageing more rapidly than the rest of the UK’s, meaning that immigration may play a particularly significant role in boosting the population of working age people relative to retirees.”

By contrast, the UK Government’s contributions to the referendum debate have focused on “the difficulties of implementing a more open immigration system in an independent Scotland that shares a border with the rest of the UK, and the potential clash with UK interests and preferences”, in particular “the stated intention of the Scottish Government to remain within the Common Travel Area (CTA) that currently binds the whole UK with Ireland”.

However, McCollum and Blinder argue that “even within the UK, Scotland could operate a more distinctive immigration policy by varying the incentives allowed in the present points-based system to encourage high-skilled migration to Scotland.”

Differences in immigration policy in other words do not necessarily require border controls. This suggests that:

“…the likely level of autonomy for Scotland’s migration policy is not fixed but would be the outcome of political negotiations, either in independence or in continued union.”

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