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The currency question just got harder for Yes this week

February 1st, 2014

What’s the point of independence if you have to give up your sovereignty?

Two years ago, two-thirds of Scottish voters would have voted for independence if it made them £500 a year better off.  That support dropped to just 21% if they would be left £500 a year down.  We shouldn’t regard those figures as gospel – putting the emphasis so heavily on one factor in the question will probably exaggerate the effect in the results – but there’s no doubt that how voters perceive the likely impact in the pocket and purse of Scotland breaking away has a massive impact on the polls.  Indeed, the ‘heart’ voters are already won to each side; it’s the ‘head’ voters who’ll determine the outcome.

To that end, Mark Carney’s intervention this week has been seized on by both sides to support their own cause: Yes says it shows their proposition is workable, No says perhaps, but only at such a high price it delivers the worst of all worlds.

The currency question was always going to be at the heart of the debate because unlike abstract notions of international presence, or assertions about future North Sea tax revenue, what currency the people of a country use is very real and personal.  It’s also an emotional question.  A currency is one of the prime features of an independent state and the absence of one by definition means the absence of a degree of sovereignty.

Carney spelling out that the lessons of the Eurozone crisis – the need for strong institutions and political leadership capable of delivering action within the currency union as required – should be applied to any future Sterling currency union therefore highlight one of the prime paradoxes of the Yes campaign: why go through the separation if you’re going to then have to rebuild what you’ve just broken?  And that’s assuming that the remaining UK will want to rebuild them.

The elephant in the room here is of course the EU.  An independence process is unchartered territory in EU history and it would be foolish for anyone to assert what ‘will’ happen other than it would be a matter for negotiations.  New members since the Euro’s launch have all been required to sign up to join that single currency.  Would that apply to Scotland were it to become an EU member in its own right?  Some would argue that as Scotland within the UK has an opt-out, that should carry over after independence.  It’s a difficult case to sustain at all but keeping Sterling would help.

Even so, any attempt to answer the currency question without addressing the EU / Euro issue is – perhaps wilfully – at best partial and at worst delusional.  It’s simply not something that can be swept under the carpet.

Some supporters of ‘Yes‘ have been apt to describe No’s arguments as Project Fear.  As with much campaigning, it’s an exaggeration but there’s an element of truth.  The flip side is that Yes could be similarly described as Project Ostrich given the lack of answers to awkward questions (mainly regarding Plan B’s if external bodies – Westminster, Brussels etc – don’t agree to Plan A).  Carney’s speech simply adds details to some of those questions.  In so doing, he’s made Salmond’s job that little bit more difficult.

David Herdson