Abertay Independence Referendum Debates

3rd Feb: Jenny Marra Q&A

The first event of Abertay University’s Scottish independence referendum sessions was an intimate Q&A session with Jenny Marra – Labour MSP for North-East Scotland, Shadow MSP for Youth Employment, and Deputy Finance spokesperson. In an opening speech, she talked of her Irish ancestry, past generations of her family working in the jute mills, and of how their memberships of the respective trade unions influenced her Labour roots. This led on to her argument for retaining the union: that it has survived for over three hundred years, that a larger economy allows us to share risks, and that there was no benefit to building borders.

The Yes campaign, Ms Marra said, whilst “compelling”, failed to tackle important questions regarding Scotland’s finances, and the many negotiations it would face in establishing itself on the world stage; balancing this, she suggested “poverty” in the quality of political debate surrounding the referendum from both camps. She continued by criticising the SNP as being “consumed” with treating illness in the NHS, and with building new infrastructure (as opposed to monitoring finances). She indicated that many of the problems that independence is alleged to solve could be addressed with existing devolved powers, currently unused by the current Scottish Government, before concluding by returning to her theme of borders – pointing out the issue of Scotland joining the EU and thus the Schengen Area, meaning passport checks and patrols along the Scotland/England border.

The first question put to Ms Marra from the audience was concerning the currency Scotland would use. She argued the “Sterling zone” proposed by the Scottish Government in the event of independence was a risk; when pressed as to why, she maintained that Alec Salmond’s claims that currency could still be shared were unfounded assertions. A second question raised the issue of divergent policies such as the “bedroom tax”, opposed by Scottish MPs but imposed anyway, and Ms Marra responded that it was a Labour push that had coerced the SNP to combat this particular policy; moreover, a UK Labour government would abolish the tax altogether if elected in 2015.

Further discussion leading from these questions considered the financial sustainability of an independent Scotland. An audience member referred to the possibility of the Barnett Formula being revoked in the near future, thus affecting Scotland’s finances even in the event of a No vote. Ms Marra replied that devolution was “not a full stop”, and that the constitutional debate was a distraction from other issues; in any case, she continued, an independent condition for areas such as welfare would not be delivered “before 2020”.

Moving on, Ms Marra asserted that Scottish independence would hurt the remaining United Kingdom as well, insinuating that the current desire for independence was based on anti-Tory posturing, and assuring that the referendum is, or should be, “above party politics”. In further exchanges with audience members, she alluded to the Scottish banking bailout as an illustration of the security offered by the existing union, as well as the protection offered by the UK’s armed forces and nuclear weapons. In her closing remarks, Ms Marra repeated her desire to see a more “progressive” government, preferably Labour, working within the present United Kingdom infrastructure. 

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3rd Feb: Education Debate

Held in the Main Lecture Hall of Abertay University, this panel debate was chaired by Abertay’s Debate Society president Neil Cole. The panel comprised Jenny Marra from the earlier Q&A; Robert Foster, Vice-President of the Scottish National Union of Students; Shona Robison, SNP MSP for Commonwealth Games and Sport; and Debora Shepherd, a member of the University and College Union.

The opening question, submitted beforehand by an audience member, regarded the state of tuition fees for students from the rest of the United Kingdom in an independent Scotland. Ms Marra, initiating, said independence would have bad consequences for universities and colleges – Scotland, she argued, would be forced either to waive tuition fees for rUK students, so as not to contravene EU regulations, or to raise fees for all non-Scottish students accordingly. Either course of action would ostensibly result in a loss of billions of pounds for such institutions.

Conversely, Ms Robison maintained that there was “objective justification” for a continued disparity between rUK and EU fees, given the unique nature of the countries’ proximity and shared culture and resources. Mr Foster pointed out that there is some precedent for discrepancy in fees for different nationalities, referring to a legal case in which a French student campaigned to pay the same fees at a Belgian university as Belgian nationals – he was unable to give precise details of the case or its outcome, however. Ms Shepherd raised the query of whether tuition fees structure might have to change anyway in the event of a No vote, to which neither of the MSPs had a certain answer.

Mr Cole followed up this question by asking what solution there might be for the shortfall in money if charging different fees were deemed illegal. Ms Marra suggested having fees means-tested, and giving “enhanced support” and putting “progressive” measures in place for those unable to pay comfortably for their further education. Ms Robison, meanwhile, proposed a higher graduate “endowment”, or tax, would cover the potential losses incurred.

The second audience question asked whether a degree from a Scottish university would have the same worth were it an independent country. Mr Foster was the first to respond, telling of Scottish NUS discussions to bring in an American-style grade point average to Scottish higher education, replacing the current First, Upper Second, Lower Second, Third tier system. This, he indicated, would allow a better evaluation of the merit of each individual’s degree, thus potentially improving the prestige of a Scottish qualification.

Ms Marra claimed research funding would suffer in Scotland, due to the lack of support from charities based in the UK. To the original question, Ms Shepherd simply answered, “Of course it will [be worth as much]”, before adding to address Ms Marra, “Research knows no borders”. Ms Robison further criticised Ms Marra’s point, stating that comparing the present balance of Scottish charity research contributions to research revenue, the total subsidy from the UK is a mere £4million; furthermore, cutting out the costs of administering these funds via the UK treasury could yet make Scotland better off in any case. Mr Foster concluded with the assertion that there was no discernible reason why researchers would exclude Scotland as a place for undertaking projects, regardless of the referendum outcome.

At this point, the debate was opened to general audience questions, and the subject changed to EU membership. Again, Ms Marra was the voice of caution, warning that the conditions desired by the Scottish Government could not be guaranteed in negotiations, and that membership of the UK brings many privileges that Scotland stands to lose by leaving. A fairly heated back-and-forth ensued between the two MSPs. Ms Robison assured that the White Paper answered most of the No campaign’s questions, and that the UK Government offered no equivalent plans should Scotland remain in the UK. Ms Marra indicated that the UK had already conceded on issues such as national debt and passports, but that “Devo Max” was still the best option for the Scottish people, to be delivered by a progressive Labour government.

Ms Shepherd interjected at this point with a cutting remark on “democracy” in the UK, indicating that the three major UK parties were three shades of the same right-wing policies. Mr Foster concurred, adding that there are no absolutes in either event, and that the No campaign could not rely on uncertainty as a reason to side with them. Ms Marra attempted to counter these arguments, drawing parallels between Labour and Nelson Mandela in terms of protecting vulnerable members of society, but as the debate was drawn to a close, she looked the most uncomfortable of all the panel members, having listened to a trade union member vilifying the party supposed to represent the working classes.

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7th Feb: Employment & Economy Debate

Again held in the Main Lecture Hall and chaired by Neil Cole, this panel comprised Tony Banks, founder of Balhousie Care Group and Business for Scotland member; Lesley Brennan, Labour councillor for Dundee East; Stewart Hosie, SNP MP for Dundee East; Gordon Maloney, President of the Scottish National Union of Students; and Jim McGovern, Labour MP for Dundee West.

The first question put to the panel concerned the effect independence might have on people from the EU working or studying in Scotland. Mr Hosie gave the first answer, stating that there would be no negative effects on the ability of EU nationals to come in; Mr Banks concurred, suggesting that independence would bring new opportunities for European workers. Mr Maloney added that he is “terrified” at the prospect of the UK withdrawing from the EU in a proposed 2017 referendum, due to the consequences this may have on EU workers. The Labour members did not share the optimism of the previous speakers, reflecting Jenny Marra’s words from the previous debate; Mr McGovern questioned whether Scotland could maintain its current tuition fee model independently, while Ms Brennan expressed doubt about Scotland receiving “automatic membership” to the EU. Mr Hosie responded in turn that the fear of UKIP and their policies was “palpable” in Scotland, and Mr Maloney agreed this was more concerning than the independence referendum, though Mr McGovern interjected that UKIP were unlikely to win anyway.

The debate advanced to a discussion about which currency an independent nation would use, and this time Mr Banks went first, describing it as a “non-issue”: Scotland would obviously keep the pound Sterling, as it makes no sense to hinder the £60bn trade market with rUK, especially when they have “convergent economies”. Ms Brennan stated in response that, historically, monetary unions have not panned out well, possibly alluding to the Euro-zone crisis. There would be higher levels of taxation, she continued, using the word “unpalatable” before retracting it, and saying the economies of the two countries might become divergent after independence, requiring “serious negotiation”.

Mr Maloney queried whether higher taxes were necessarily a bad thing if wages, services et cetera were also improved accordingly, before asking the councillor whether Labour would stand against a currency union (since this debate, Labour has officially stated it will refuse such a union if elected in 2015). Mr McGovern referred to a recent speech by the Governor of the Bank of England, saying Scotland would “cede sovereignty” if Sterling was kept. Mr Hosie cited Belgium and Luxembourg’s historic sharing of the franc as a successful currency union outwith a political one, and stressed that both Scotland and rUK would adhere to the same rules of “parity” for inflation, assets, deficits etc. Mr Banks summarised the currency debate by pointing out that if you were to ask fifty economists a question on finances you would get “no straight answers”.

The conversation moved to a more general overlook of Scotland’s potential socio-political future. Ms Brennan spoke with some vacillation, describing the independence process as to “break away” or to “separate”, that the SNP promised a “land of milk and honey” that could not be delivered, and that the true solution to the current problems facing the UK as a whole was not independence, but combating neoliberalism. Mr McGovern made passing reference to a speech (possibly by SNP MP Pete Wishart) in parliament earlier in the week, and indicated that the SNP values businesses over the working classes and that Alex Salmond has the “lairds in his pocket”.

Mr Maloney exclaimed at this point that it was a “frustrating” debate that “makes me cry”, though his remarks were somewhat tongue-in-cheek. He asked what the No campaign had set out as a vision of Scotland’s future, before rounding on Mr McGovern’s comments by saying all parties were pro-business to some extent, and adding that, compared to other European countries, the United Kingdom is an outlier due to its relatively strong right-wing leanings. Mr Hosie reasoned that Scotland was “broadly to the left” politically, and used the resentment caused by the poll tax as one example of the difference in Scottish attitudes to those in Westminster. He further claimed Scotland was better for “valuing public services”, and echoed Jenny Marra’s description of “progressive” government being needed; however, unlike Ms Marra, he believed only independence could achieve this.

Mr Banks suggested that an independent Scotland, if as successful as hoped, could be a catalyst to drive positive change in the remainder of the UK. He argued that devolution has shielded Scotland from the worst excesses of neoliberalism, and that the greatest need was for education and jobs. He further stated – as a man with “no vested interests” – that the referendum is not, and ought not to be, a vote taken on political party lines, and the public may feel disenfranchised if it is treated as such.

Unfortunately, little time was left in the debate for audience questions. The first was a young woman castigating the Labour panel members over the Iraq war, to which Ms Brennan mentioned she had voted against going to war. The second questioned Labour’s hypocrisy over politicians’ business interests, citing Johann Lamont’s endorsement of the head of BP, who opposes independence; Mr McGovern dismissed the point impatiently. Mr Hosie explained that being pro-business does not necessarily mean also being anti-socialist, provided the state maintained ultimate control instead of a corporate oligarchy.

Mr Maloney referred to Scottish tycoon Andrew Carnegie in his response; while he appreciated Carnegie’s philanthropic work, he was less enthused by the man’s anti-union stance. However, he continued, the focus must be ensuring an independent Scotland’s economy is not at the mercy of stock markets. He then returned to the topic of unions, describing the recent disputes at the Grangemouth refinery plant as “punitive”, and insisting on not allowing businesses to become bullies.

Mr Banks claimed that we are approaching a “classless society”, far away from the social structures of the 1980s and before – a remark Mr McGovern was quick to contest, taking the need for food banks as evidence of class disparity. The final word in the debate was an Irish audience member, addressing Ms Brennan’s earlier remarks. He claimed Scotland could be a “shining light” to Northern Ireland, by achieving the sort of sovereignty via peaceable means that some Northern Irish have only ever imagined.

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14th Feb: Stewart Hosie Q&A

The final event of the Abertay’s referendum sessions mirrored the first – an intimate Q&A with SNP Treasury representative Stewart Hosie, hosted by David Clegg of the Scottish Daily Record. In his opening speech, Mr Hosie made the case for Scotland being financially viable after independence, the economy being the most important factor to many voters. His points aimed to disperse the “myths” that Scotland could not leave the UK for a variety of reasons such as welfare, public sector jobs, oil revenues, and surpluses. Respectively, he outlined that 77% of Scottish workers are in the private sector; twenty-three billion remaining barrels of oil worth £1.5tn would gain the Scottish economy £400bn by his estimates; and Scotland’s finances have run “in the black” for 32 consecutive years, even as the UK’s have not.

Mr Clegg then turned the conversation to his earlier years as a politician, and Mr Hosie revealed he had joined the SNP in 1983, because of a shared interest with the party in pursuing anti-nuclear policies, both as an energy source and as weaponry. He pointed out that it was still a highly relevant topic today, even if “not a top priority”, and that some voters might be swayed depending on whether the nuclear submarines at Faslane would be kept or removed from an independent Scotland.

Mr Hosie then moved on into an attack on the negativity of the No campaign, its reliance on creating uncertainty, and asking questions on practicality and “forms to fill in” (quoting Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie). He concluded that the Scottish Government White Paper answered most of the questions presented, and that the UK Government was in a position to answer the rest, for example on EU membership, if it were only prepared to ask; the No campaign only keeps asking to pretend that the answers are not there.

The inevitable debate on currency followed, and much of this exchange is accurately portrayed on the Daily Record’s website*. Repeated probing from Mr Clegg did not, indeed, reveal any so-called “Plan B” from Mr Hosie. He did say that Scotland could implement a new Scots pound and “peg” its value to Sterling, but was adamant that it is in everyone’s best interests to continue using Sterling as is. Echoing the words of Tony Banks from the economy debate, he asked why rUK would risk damaging the £60bn of trade within the British Isles by refusing a currency union. He dismissed the words of George Osborne et al as “rhetoric”, and assured that their attitudes would change after a Yes vote. When Mr Clegg attempted to refer to the part Scottish banks played in the recent fiscal crisis, Mr Hosie indicated that the remaining debt was at the door of English-based banks such as Bradford & Bingley and Northern Rock. He further said that financial forecasts from the Westminster parties were “predicated on failure”, and when an audience member asked how he would rank the alternative currency options in terms of desirability, Mr Hosie simply replied that there was no need to do so – Scotland will use Sterling.

Mr Hosie then began to outline the SNP’s own vision of an independent Scotland – no bedroom tax, a higher minimum wage, better security for pensions, and salaries designed to rise with inflation. When challenged as to how the government could expect to pay for these policies, he replied “The numbers speak for themselves”. He continued with a criticism of Johann Lamont’s “something for nothing” adage, implying it abandons traditional Labour party values on welfare. Scots are also more sympathetic regarding immigrants than the “visceral” tabloids, he said, recognising their necessity to combat “long-term economic challenge[s]” as well as the need to convince existing Scots not to emigrate. Finally, Scotland would have a “massive” increase in childcare funding, to allow more women back into the workplace, thus contributing extra tax revenue to pay for said childcare.

Mr Clegg offered the notion that these ideas could be realised through further government devolution instead of full independence, but Mr Hosie insisted “no more powers” are coming Scotland’s way after a No vote. He also refuted the suggestion that independence support was short-term and/or “radical”, describing how Scotland as a small country could be more flexible and implement its own policy choices more quickly as a result.

The floor was opened fully to audience questions at this stage, and the first asked how the SNP planned to increase employment in Scotland. As well as the aforementioned childcare plan, Mr Hosie mentioned corporate tax incentives, a new tax code system, lower air duty, and a drive to advertise the Scottish “brand” to export markets. When Mr Clegg suggested Scotland would remain “tied” to the UK tax system, Mr Hosie said it was “not insurmountable”, and that major changes would follow a 2016 Scottish parliamentary election.

In response to a query about benefits and income support, he suggested reforming welfare to focus more on singles and couples than on families. Another questioner then returned to the issue of currency and debt share, asking if the disagreements between the various political leaders were basically a matter of calling bluffs and “raising the stakes”. Mr Hosie disagreed, stating that it was a simple binary choice: either Scotland takes on the UK currency asset, and its appropriate share of the UK deficit, or it leaves the Sterling and walks away from its liabilities simultaneously.

Another audience member went back to the topic of Faslane, asking what would happen to the thousands of workers that rely on nuclear weapons being stationed there. Mr Hosie conceded that hundreds – not thousands – of jobs would go, but that the UK military is cutting tens of thousands of jobs anyway. Scotland would also require its own independent armed forces, he added, reallocating a large number of those leaving Faslane jobs. The final question put to Mr Hosie, closing the session, called for him to admit one advantage of staying in the United Kingdom, and one disadvantage to separation. His answer was straightforward – “Ask Better Together”.

*http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/alex-salmond-insists-no-plan-3147426

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