Scottish independence "good" for England

Scottish independence would be good for England, Alex Salmond told a packed audience in St George's Hall in Liverpool. The First Minister said in the Liverpool John Moores University Roscoe Lecture that an independent Scotland would strengthen bonds between nations of the British isles and mean a fairer deal for English regions.

See video

To listen to the audio version of the speech click here:

This magnificent chamber is an ideal place to speak about what Scottish independence will mean not just for Scotland, but for everyone on these islands.

The connections between our nations are literally embedded within the fabric of this great hall, whose floor includes an Irish shamrock, a Scottish thistle, an English Rose and the Prince of Wales' feathers. Although they are much less visible than the depiction of St George on the window above me. 

And most movingly of all, this building now contains the memorial for the Liverpool Scottish regiment.

The memorial is a lasting tribute to the 1300 members of the regiment who were largely Scots who had come to live and work in Liverpool - who died during the two world wars. And it is a reminder that Liverpool exemplifies perhaps even better than any other city in England - the closeness of the social ties which connect the nations of these islands.

Indeed, up until the 1970s this city had a Westminster constituency called 'Liverpool Scotland' one which for several decades at the start of the last century was represented by an Irish nationalist MP, T.P. O Connor, who was elected unopposed in four elections even after Ireland had gained its independence.  

The last time I was here was for an appearance on Question Time last April, when I was struck by the warmth of the reception I received especially when I pleaded with people here not to let the three main Westminster parties destroy England's health service. In case anyone is worried, though, I should stress that my party has no intention of trying to follow T.P. O'Connor's example before or after independence! Although if you could guarantee that we would be unopposed too, it would be tempting!

So it is a pleasure to be back here. It is also a pleasure to give a lecture in honour of William Roscoe, who provides an early example of the ties between Scotland and Liverpool. Roscoe is perhaps best remembered now as an anti-slavery campaigner, but he was also - among many other things- a noted poet, and his poems show the commitment to internationalism, liberty and egalitarianism that was such a major part of his life.

It is unsurprising, given the extent to which they shared the same beliefs, that Roscoe and Robert Burns were mutual admirers. Burns referred to my friend Roscoe in one of his letters, and a hand-written transcript of Roscoe's poem, The Day Star of Liberty was among Burns' effects when he died. 

The closing lines of that poem demonstrate the values that both Burns and Roscoe shared.

Equal rights, equal laws, to the nations around,

Peace and friendship its precepts impart,

And wherever the footsteps of Man shall be found,

He shall bind the decree on his heart.

Or as Burns himself believed,

The hearts aye the part aye

That makes us right or wrong.

A major theme of my message today will be about equality and friendship in particular, I will highlight the new relationship of equality between Scotland and the other nations of these islands which will flourish after independence, and how that will strengthen the strong ties of friendship that already exist between us.

Unsustainability of current constitutional arrangements

First, I want to explain why the current settlement behind devolution is unsustainable. It is unsustainable because it is unfair both to Scotland, and to England.

Independence for Scotland, therefore, would not just benefit Scotland. It would also be good for the rest of the UK and those benefits might be felt most clearly in the regions of England.

There is one fact which perhaps highlights the key reason why the current devolution settlement is unsustainable. The Scottish Parliament is currently responsible for approximately 60% of public spending in Scotland, but only 8% of revenues. It is dependent on a block grant from Westminster for the rest of its funding.

Even under the deeply flawed proposals contained in the current Scotland Bill, we would lack control over most meaningful fiscal powers.

This has damaging consequences both for Scotland and for the rest of the UK. For Scotland, it severely limits our ability to come up with distinctively Scottish policies which meet distinctively Scottish needs.

And for the rest of the UK, whenever Scotland chooses a distinctive policy approach for example free prescriptions, or the abolition of tuition fees it fosters a feeling that Scotland is enjoying perks which are subsidised by UK taxpayers. Recent research from the Institute for Public Policy Research suggests that 46% of people in England believe that Scotland gets more than its fair share of UK public spending that proportion has almost doubled in the last decade.

Such a sentiment is unfounded as the CEPR report in yesterday's Sunday Times reminded us, Scotland more than pays its way in the union but it is undoubtedly present. And it is compounded by the current structure of the UK Parliament, whereby Scottish MPs are allowed to vote on matters which only affect England, and so are of no direct relevance to the constituents who elected them. 

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Institute for Public Policy Research recently found massive support in England - approximately 80% - for the view that Scottish MPs should be banned from voting on matters which affect only England.

Independence for Scotland would end the sense of grievance on both sides - which can sometimes afflict the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK, especially in disputes about money. Neither Scotland nor England could consider themselves short-changed financially, and English policies would not be determined by the representatives of Scottish constituencies.

That, surely, is a better basis for a strong and equal friendship than the status quo.

Benefits of independence for Scotland

I want to deal briefly with arguments about Scotland's ability to prosper as an independent country. It is common, still, to hear doubts about this subject. Sometimes they are even expressed here on Merseyside. I note that Frank Field wrote in the Liverpool Echo last month that I wanted to delay Scottish independence, a statement which gives some idea of how informed he is! because I know that leaving (the union) would have a brutal effect on the Scottish economy.  Joe Riley, one of the Echo's regular columnists, and giving this lecture some useful publicity, stated that "While the English economy could survive unilaterally, the Scottish economy could not."

These warnings join a number which have been expressed in recent weeks. Many are straightforward scare stories. For example,  sources close to the Chancellor of the Exchequer warned that an independent Scotland would not be allowed to use the pound.

Of course the interesting thing about these suggestions is not just that they are economically illiterate since sterling is a fully tradeable currency, the UK Government has absolutely no power to stop an independent Scotland from using it. But more importantly, why would any sensible person wish to stop England and Scotland sharing a currency.  Indeed, a Yougov poll yesterday showed popular support for that in both Scotland and England.

The Daily Mail in Scotland reported William Hague as threatening that if Scotland became independent, British embassies would no longer promote Scotch whisky.

As the Scottish Government already knows to its cost, receptions to promote Scotch whisky or any other goods at British embassies are already charged by the Foreign Office! But I rather suspect that the whisky industry would in any case get by without the promotional efforts of the British foreign service!

And the Daily Mirror tried to argue that if Scotland voted for independence, the Edinburgh Zoo pandas might somehow be seized by the UK Government.

As a result of that threat, I decided to grant Tian Tian and Yang  Guang political asylum, while reflecting of course that the UK Government did not contribute a single RMB to the cost of the pandas' arrival in our capital city.

Of course, such worries or scare stories are nonsensical.  Scotland after independence would still be able to use the pound, export whisky and feed our pandas safely.

Scotland is already, even without oil and gas revenues, the third most prosperous part of the United Kingdom, after London and the South-East. We have a culture and history which is renowned worldwide; an expertise in manufacturing and engineering which has been built up over generations; a world class university research base; and energy resources, both in hydrocarbons and renewable energy which are unrivalled in Europe.

An independent Scotland would actually have the 6th highest GDP per capita of all of the countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The UK currently ranks 16th, and would maintain its position if Scotland became independent.

But perhaps most importantly of all, an independent Scotland would prosper because it would be able to determine its own economic priorities for the future.

At the heart of the case for independence is a straightforward idea. That the people best placed to act in Scotland's best interests are those who choose to live and work in Scotland. At the moment, however, many of the key decisions which affect Scotland are taken at Westminster, by a Government which has fewer than a quarter of Scotland's MPs, and whose dominant party has only one MP in Scotland. For those slow on the arithmetic, that's fewer Tory MPs in Scotland than pandas although one more than on Liverpool Council!

Scotland is therefore suffering from an austerity package which is economically counter-productive and which virtually nobody in Scotland voted for. We will shortly be subject to the welfare reform bill designed by Westminster. And although we are doing everything we can to support growth with the powers we have, we have very limited levers with which to pursue a path of sustainable economic growth.

Independence would give us the levers we need to grow our economy sustainably, and to make use of our resources and assets to enhance the wellbeing of all of our people.

Benefits of independence for rest of UK

But independence will not just benefit Scotland. In my view, it will also benefit the other parts of these islands.

One of the core problems which affects Scotland and the regions of England is the incredibly lopsided nature of the current UK economy. The dominance of London and the South East skews UK government priorities to an extent which is deeply damaging. This is something we have seen in recent months on issues as wide-ranging as David Cameron's EU veto and the weakness of attempts to reform the banking sector.

But it is a much longer-standing problem than that. Both Liverpool and Scotland suffered deeply in the postwar years from the abandonment of much of Britain's manufacturing base. Indeed, we learned recently from the release of confidential Cabinet papers that Geoffrey Howe, at that time the Chancellor of the Exchequer, argued in 1982 that fostering economic growth on Merseyside was like making water flow uphill, and that it would be…regrettable if some of the brighter ideas for renewing economic activity were to be sown only on relatively stony ground on the banks of the Mersey.  He went so far as to say that the option of managed decline …is one which we should not forget altogether.

Why should anyone in Liverpool believe that George Osborne, MP for Tatton, now cares more than did Geoffrey Howe, MP for East Surrey?

It is strongly arguable, in my view, that the relative neglect of the English regions and the devolved nations at this time was partly caused by the centralisation of UK policy-making. It is a centralisation which is matched by much UK media. For example none of the national UK press give a perspective rooted in the north of England, even the formerly titled Manchester Guardian.

And while devolution has provided a partial remedy to that centralisation in Scotland, it has not yet done so here in England.

It is not surprising, therefore, that there seems to be a major loss of faith among people in England about the current constitutional arrangements for the UK.

The Institute for Public Policy Research published findings three weeks ago which highlight the depth of this problem. In the north of England, only 10% of people think that the UK Government looks after the interests of all parts of England more or less equally. 89% of people think that the UK Government pays particular attention to looking after London. Indeed, even in London, 63% of people believe that the capital gets special treatment!

That sense of disillusionment, or disenfranchisement even, seems to be reflected in the current standing of all political parties at Westminister.

According to last month's Sunday Times Yougov poll, all three of the major party leaders have negative poll ratings across the UK. David Cameron's rating is minus 3%, Nick Clegg's is minus 48% and Ed Miliband's is minus 51%.

The coalition leaders, in particular, are more unpopular the further away from the south you get. David Cameron's approval rating in the north of England is minus 9%, while Nick Clegg's is minus 56%.

In Scotland, incidentally, their popularity ratings stand at minus 22% for David Cameron, minus 59% for Nick Clegg and minus 70% for Ed Miliband.

The unpopularity of Westminster leaders in Scotland is largely based on their hamfisted interventions in the debate on Scotland's future. Their unpopularity in England is based on their inability, in these tough times, to present a positive vision for the future of England.  But it may also reflect something else.

Gladstone, one of Liverpool's greatest figures, made a speech in this city in 1886 when he said that "All the world over, I wiill back the masses against the classes."

While in this speaking tour, all England over, I will back the masses against the Westminster classes.

One reason, in my view, for the current unpopularity of the UK parties is that on issues from health reform to economic recovery, the Westminster classes seem to be out of touch with the masses.  And they seem more out of touch the further from Westminster you travel.

Scottish independence would require a re-thinking of the structures of the rest of the UK. It would be for England, Wales and Northern Ireland to decide how this came about - the Institute for Public Policy Research does not, for example, find much support for regional parliaments in England - but the end result would surely reflect the needs of the regions better than current arrangements.  

I am of course aware that Liverpool is already taking steps which should provide it with a stronger voice within the UK. I very much hope your council's decision two weeks ago to have a directly elected mayor, together with the deal for some additional powers agreed with the UK Government, will start the process of  re-empowering Merseyside.

Given Westminster's track record, and the clear evidence that local government can make an outstanding success of local initiatives when given the opportunity most prominently demonstrated in Liverpool, perhaps, with your Capital of Culture celebrations in 2008 - the case for giving more powers back to England's cities and regions seems to me to be unarguable.

It is of course for you, rather than me, to decide how far that process should go. But I very much suspect that the decisions of the last few weeks will only truly succeed if they mark the beginning of the process of re-empowering England's regions and cities, rather than anything like the end.

And so if independence for Scotland helped to precipitate a further reimagining of the structures of the rest of the UK, that would almost certainly be to your benefit.

An independent Scotland could also act as an example. As argued in my Hugo Young lecture in London three weeks ago, Scotland could demonstrate the value of progressive politics at a time when the nature of the coalition's austerity programme is having deeply regressive consequences.

In my London lecture I concentrated on the social policies being adopted in Scotland, including our support for the health service. Subsequent independent research has emphasised that point: a study published by the University of Nottingham two weeks ago claimed that the management of health service reform  in Scotland "should serve as a role model for the public sector."

It is worth noting that the North West Strategic Health Authority is larger than Scotland's National Health Service, in terms of the population it serves, but has no scope for opting out of the health service vandalism currently being enacted at Westminster. Indeed, the North West Strategic Health Authority is about to be abolished. So that opens up the question, instead of abolition, why shouldn't the North West determine its own priorities for a people's health service?

Andrew Lansley was actually in Scotland on Friday, to give a speech in Edinburgh to the Royal College of Surgeons. I am not sure if he took the trouble to learn about the management of the health service in Scotland. But overall, I suspect that he should concentrate on selling his misguided and cack-handed proposals to the people and regions who will actually have to live with them. In Scotland, privatisation of the NHS will not even be considered.

But the argument that Scotland could be an example is also, I think, true of economic policy, as well as social policy.

For example, Scotland is paying far more attention to the economics of security than the UK Government is. We have a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies in the public sector, a commitment to a living wage, and we have made a shared commitment to provide certain services - such as free prescriptions - which are not prioritised in some other parts of the UK. All of this boosts individuals spending power, and makes it easier for them to plan their own household budgets with a bit more confidence.  As we have seen, sustaining confidence is crucial in times of economic uncertainty.

The Scottish Government also has a genuine vision for the reindustrialisation of our economy. The Chancellor of the Exchequer in his March 2011 budget statement promised that he would create a Britain born aloft by the march of the makers. However subsequent events have proved this rhetoric to be hopelessly optimistic. It seems as though the economy is being brought low by the born-high takers, rather than born aloft by the makers.

In Scotland, however, we are committed to restoring our manufacturing base. During the 2011 Scottish election campaign, we encountered a massively enthusiastic response from people in Scotland to our vision of reindustrialising the Scottish economy. In particular, the massive opportunities that we have in renewable energy will enable us to put our old engineering and manufacturing expertise to use in producing the turbines and that will power the green energy revolution of this century.

An independent Scotland could be an example of an alternative way of running the economy - one based on sustainable principles, and the provision of goods and services that people need and want, rather than living off the illusory profits of periodic asset booms. That alternative vision would affect policy-making in England by its example. And it would also, of course, provide supply chain opportunities for trading partners especially, perhaps, among our very nearest neighbours.

Finally, the presence of a strong, secure independent nation in the north would change the centre of gravity of these islands. The presence of other centres of power around these islands would help to lessen the economic dominance of the south-east, which would ultimately benefit all of the nations of these islands.

All of these opportunities for Scotland seem to me to be opportunities for England. An opportunity to reconsider a centralised model of governance which adversely affects much of the country. An opportunity for free trade with a prosperous northern neighbour within the European Union. And an opportunity to embrace a modern, mature friendship with Scotland, a Scotland that can be a beacon of progressive, social and economic change.

That point about friendship is the one that I would like to end on tonight. I understand that Scottish independence is of interest, and potentially concern, to people throughout these islands particularly perhaps in cities such as Liverpool which have enjoyed particularly close links with Scotland.

Scottish independence would actually change very little about day to day life for the other countries within the UK. Although the Scottish Government wants to establish its independence from the rest of the UK, the wider social union - the ties of family and friendship which link people across these islands - would continue.  In particular, Scotland would continue to act as a friend and partner to its neighbouring countries.

Last week, I had the pleasure of being able to congratulate Her Majesty the Queen on her diamond jubilee. We would still fire a salute at Edinburgh Castle to mark occasions like that, because we would still share a monarchy with the rest of the UK  just as we did for a century before the Parliamentary Union of 1707, and just as 16 other Commonwealth countries do now.

Liverpool would still have trade and transport links with Scotland. The many bonds between our people would continue - people would still move from Scotland to Liverpool, or from Liverpool to Scotland, and friends would continue to visit each other. We would still watch many of the same television programmes. Scottish people would still invest in the Grand National, and travel to Aintree to see it. And perhaps most importantly, since this may be your biggest worry, we would still be happy to supply this city with football managers!

Although it's not all good news for you - we may continue to do the same for Manchester.

Football, incidentally,  is one example of an area where I am sure that rivalries between our two nations would persist. Bill Shankly, one of the greatest of the many Scots to have lived and worked here, and I hope I haven't alienated half of the audience by saying that once spoke with relish of a wartime football international he played in, saying "We absolutely annihilated England. It was a massacre. We beat them 5-4"!

I am sure that sport would still bring out that competitive streak. Friendly rivalry among nations is nothing new - indeed it enhances a healthy competitive spirit, but independence for Scotland would free that spirit from any petty grievances.

There has sometimes been a tendency for people in Scotland to support "anyone but England." Indeed, my Labour predecessor as First Minister adopted this approach for one World Cup. I am sure that Trinidad and Tobago greatly valued his support.

I have always counted myself as a staunch anglophile, and have always wanted all nations of these islands to prosper.

Devolution has already, in my view, played helped to significantly reduce those views; I believe that independence would make them a thing of the past. The more responsibility people in Scotland have for their own affairs, the more responsibly we will act towards others. As we gain the power to build our own future, we will be less inclined to place blame on others for our present and our past. 

If Scotland became independent, Scotland would no longer believe in blaming Westminster if it faced difficulties. And people in England would no longer suspect that they were subsidising Scottish policies. Without constitutional disputes or financial debates to act as a source of squabbles, Scotland and England could move to a stronger, more equal footing.  

And our new relationship would be the one which, in my view, has always made the most sense. As independent and equal partners, co-operating with each other on our many areas of shared interest, but free to pursue our own policies when we see fit.

The current United Kingdom, where one nation will always prevail simply by virtue of its size, seems increasingly like an anachronism in the modern age.

Independence - with the right to participate as an equal on the international stage - appears more and more like Scotland's normal and natural state of being.

It is the means by which we can we can grow our economy more strongly and sustainably; by which our people can best fulfil their potential and realise their aspirations; and by which Scotland can take its rightful places as a responsible member of the international community as many other new states have done in the last 20 years. 

Independence will ensure a relationship of equality, respect and co-operation between Scotland and other nations. We will be a firm friend and equal partner to all of the nations of these islands. And the bonds between the nations of these islands - so evident in this city and in this building - will be stronger still as a result.

Related issues: