On the 10th anniversary of devolution, I find myself in agreement with a new poll on the Scottish Parliament, which suggests most Scots want Holyrood to have complete control over tax and spending but want Westminster to retain foreign and defence policy. Like others who were suspicious at first, and initially felt vindicated by the fiasco of the building and the quality of its politicians, I’ve gradually shifted my position from seeing the Parliament as a threat to an opportunity. To have power over income and expenditure – to spend only as much as we can collectively raise – would force Scotland into the fiscal maturity that’s eluded us so far. At a time of general austerity, the private sector is squeezed to fund a public sector more extensive than the Iron Curtain’s. Across the UK, state spending accounts for approximately 40% of the economy; in Argyll and Clyde, it is 76%. No doubt Salmond understands this, but what’s become of his bonfire of the quangos? And how can anyone who calls himself a socialist (as most people round here still do) accept a situation whereby, as in Glasgow, a third of the working age population don’t work, many of whom never have and never will? The Soviets certainly wouldn’t have put up with that. Only with fiscal independence – in this case, literally non-dependence – can we begin to tackle this tragic disgrace.
On the question of foreign and defence policy: I can see the argument for Scotland having a seat at the top table in Brussels, but joining the Euro would mean a net loss of independence and sovereignty. As Rothschild said: “Give me control of a nation’s money supply, and I care not who makes its laws.” If the SNP leadership changes its policy on this, I’d have a lot of thinking to do if and when the question of independence is ever put to a referendum.
As a Scotsman who travels to London for work every month, my ears pricked up when I heard that the government are removing National Express’ franchise and taking the East Coast Main Line back into public ownership, at least temporarily. The service and punctuality on the line are pretty good, though it has become a lot more expensive since National Express took over from GNER. This is because of the ridiculous system whereby companies outbid each other to win the right to run profitable lines, squeezing passengers to fund these bids to the government, whilst being subsidised by the government to run other lines at a loss, and to pay infrastructure fees to Network Rail, which is publicly owned anyway. This is privatisation for its own sake, and the whole mess shows the folly of treating the railways like any other market. The government has no business running telecoms companies or airlines, say, because private operators can offer consumers alternatives, but public services like train lines should remain public because, in most cases, they are the only way to get from one town to another without driving. The expansion of car travel has been as much of a disaster for this country as the decline of rail travel: in the cost to our natural and built environment, the cost to our economy of utterly misallocated resources, and in the decline in social capital and cohesion. Time for a radical government to reverse the situation: stop building new roads, start pricing road use, renationalise all the railway lines, and start reopening ones the butcher Beeching closed.
Before anyone points it out, I’m aware of the irony of calling for a smaller public sector to intervene and renationalise a large industry. But as I’ve said before, we live in the worst of both worlds: the public sector is overmanned generally, and there are plenty of things the government are doing which they should stay out of, but plenty of things (like a truly integrated transport and environmental strategy) that they’re completely neglecting.