Gloves come off over currency union

Posted on 15/02/2014 by


A currency union in the event of a vote for independence ‘would not be in the interests of either the people of Scotland or the remaining UK’, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne told an Edinburgh audience on Thursday. Unsurprisingly his claims have been rubbished by supporters of independence, but while the two sides disagree over currency union, one thing is clear – the gloves are well and truly off …

Mr Osborne’s speech follows official Treasury advice that in the event of independence they would not recommend a currency union to the Government of the continuing UK, and in an unusual departure from procedure he also published the advice he received from the Treasury Permanent Secretary on whether to join a currency union should Scotland become independent.

Speaking at the Point Hotel on Thursday, the Chancellor said: “I hope passionately that the people of Scotland choose to stay within our family of nations in the United Kingdom. I want Scotland to keep the pound and the economic security that it brings. But it is clear to me I could not as Chancellor recommend that we could share the pound with an independent Scotland. The evidence shows it wouldn’t work. It would cost jobs and cost money and wouldn’t provide economic security for Scotland or for the rest of the UK.I don’t think any other Chancellor of the Exchequer would come to a different view.

“The Scottish government says that if Scotland becomes independent there will be a currency union and Scotland will share the pound. People need to know – that is not going to happen.”

The Treasury also  published the detailed analysis on the economics of a currency union which underpins its advice to the Chancellor. The paper states that while the United Kingdom is one of the most successful monetary, fiscal and political unions in history, the fiscal and financial risks of entering into a currency union with a separate Scottish state would be too great.

The analysis states:

UK is a successful union because taxation, spending, monetary policy and financial stability policy are coordinated across the whole UK, with risks pooled and clear political accountability

  • Scotland’s economy would be more exposed in the event of independence, with greater risks from shocks in the financial and energy sectors
  • in a currency union, the continuing UK would be exposed to much greater risk from a separate Scotland, with the possibility of continuing UK taxpayers being asked to support that state in the event of a fiscal or financial shock
  • if people in Scotland vote for independence, the Treasury would advise the continuing UK Government against entering into a currency union with an independent Scotland

The Chancellor’s view was supported by the finance spokespersons of both the other main Westminster parties.

The announcement was also welcomed by the Better Together campaign. Former Chancellor Alistair Darling, who leads the campaign, said: “If we vote to leave the UK in September, Scotland will not be able to keep the pound. That is the message Scotland must keep in mind when deciding how to vote. This was the day on which Alex Salmond’s bluff and bluster about independence came face to face with reality.

“Why would taxpayers in England want to bail out the banks of what would be a foreign country? Why would a continuing UK Treasury accept a veto from what would be a foreign government over tax, spending and borrowing?

“And why would Scotland agree to have its budget subject to a veto by the rest of the UK? That’s how a currency union works. You only have to look at the problems of the eurozone to see that. It makes little sense. Yet everything about the First Minister’s case for breaking up the UK rests on keeping the pound.  The jobs of thousands of Scots in our financial services industry depend on using the pound. Without the pound, all of these are at risk. That is a big gamble we simply don’t have to take.”

The Better Together campaign called on Yes Scotland to explain what currency Scotland  would use if we vote to leave the UK – would we join the euro, or maybe even set up a new, separate currency? Put simply, if yer no’ gettin’ the pound, what’s your Plan B?

Calling for clarity, Better Together campaign director Blair McDougall said:

The nationalists have been in chaos on currency over the last few days. Alex Salmond is a man without a plan. First he says we will keep the Pound, even though it is now clearly off the table. Now Yes Scotland tell us we can keep the Pound without a formal agreement, even though the SNP’s own Fiscal Commission Working Group ruled this out. And Patrick Harvie, a Yes Scotland board member, today said that Alex Salmond needs to set out an alternative to the Pound.

“It is time they got their line straight. If Plan B really is the Panama plan that would mean if something like the collapse of RBS happened again a crisis would become a disaster in an independent Scotland.

“Leaving the UK and losing the Pound would mean higher mortgage repayments, more expensive credit card bills and a big risk to thousands of jobs in our financial services industry. Alex Salmond is gambling with the livelihoods of the people of Scotland.

“The message from those of us who support Scotland remaining in the UK is very simple – a vote for separation is a vote to lose the Pound. The only way to keep the Pound is to stay in the UK.”

However, supporters of independence have cast doubt on the Chancellor’s assertions. First Minister Alex Salmond accused Mr Osborne of ‘bluff, bluster and bullying’ and former Labour Scottish First Minister Henry McLeish also expressed concern over Osborne’s ‘misguided’ intervention, saying the Chancellor’s heavy-handed tactics could push more Scots into voting Yes.

Mr McLeish said: “He is basically saying vote yes and we won’t allow you to join a currency union. We will withdraw any goodwill and sacrifice the best interests of Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

“Do we really believe that would be the response if Scotland voted to exit the Union? I don’t think so. Wisdom and sanity would return. It would help if the Union would spell out their vision, provide an alternative to independence and offer a bit more carrot and less stick to Scots voters.

“Let’s remember that Osborne’s party want to take us out of the EU. It is the Union that is on trial, not Scotland. Creating a currency union is first and foremost a political decision, not a financial or technical one.

The UK and Scotland would have to settle the politics of this in their respective parliaments or at the polls, so the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland could have a say in this significant decision.”

Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney maintains that an independent Scotland will continue to use the pound as it is in the best interests of Scotland and the rest of the UK .

Responding to the Chancellor’s comments on a currency union, the Finance Secretary said that the Treasury analysis has been developed without any discussion with the Scottish Government – and without acknowledging the independent expert work of the Fiscal Commission Working Group (FCWG).

The Scottish Government last year published comprehensive analysis of the different currency options available to an independent Scotland. This analysis by the Fiscal Commission Working Group, consisting of four pre-eminent economists including two Nobel laureates, considered the full range of options and concluded that a monetary union would be in the best interests of Scotland and the rest of the UK.

The Fiscal Commission provided advice on:

  • Banking union
  • Risk sharing
  • Monetary and exchange rate policy
  • Duration of a currency union

The HM Treasury has had no discussion with the Scottish Government on any of these points.

Responding to the Chancellor’s comments, Mr Swinney said:

“We welcome the opportunity to continue the debate with the Chancellor on the merits of our proposals on a currency union.

“However the Chancellor made clear his conclusions on currency union were based on the advice of Treasury officials. That advice is incomplete and with regard to the size of the Scottish financial sector and operation of monetary unions is backward looking and takes no account of the comprehensive evidence provided by the independent economic experts of the Fiscal Commission, including two Nobel laureates, Professor James Mirrlees and Professor Joseph Stiglitz.

“On every one of the four points the Chancellor rehearsed today, the FCWG have already published comprehensive advice and analysis and their proposed macroeconomic framework is a workable model that would ensure financial stability and allow both governments autonomy over economic and social policies, including fiscal policy. In addition the Governor of the Bank of England has confirmed the Bank will deliver a currency union if agreed by both Governments.

“On the banking union: no country should have to bail out banks again. Across the EU and UK recent regulation has been designed to break the link between taxpayers and banks. The Treasury hugely overstates the size of the banking sector in Scotland which is in line with the rest of the UK. It is the City of London which is hugely reliant on the financial services sector, accounting for 50 per cent of UK financial services GVA. A banking union with an independent Scotland is in the interests of the rest of the UK as the sector benefits from integrated trade.

“On fiscal risk sharing: Scotland’s fiscal position is stronger than that of the UK. An independent Scotland would have had the opportunity to spend more, tax less, invest in an oil fund and still borrow proportionally less than the UK. The Fiscal Commission proposition ensures a harmonised system for financial regulation and resolution of banks. Scotland would take its fair share of responsibility recognising that ‘both Scotland and the UK have a shared interest in ensuring financial stability’.

“On monetary and exchange rate policy: Scotland would have full fiscal and economic freedom to set taxes and economic policy, as has been shown by many countries in the different currency unions which have operated internationally.

“And on permanence; all Sovereign states have the ability to determine currency arrangements that are appropriate for their circumstances. That is not a barrier to successful currency unions.

“The model proposed by the Fiscal Commission Working Group has not been considered and the Chancellor’s statement today is political and completely counter to the spirit of the Edinburgh Agreement, which commits both Governments to working in the best interests of both countries whatever the result of the referendum.

“If the UK Government is to honour its commitment to the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement, the discussion that the Chancellor has entered into today must be informed by the best evidence available. The Fiscal Commission have recommended early engagement between the Scottish and UK Government to properly address these critical issues. The gaps in the Chancellor’s analysis demonstrates the force of that recommendation.”

So there you have the two sides of the currency union divide. The Unionists say it can’t and won’t happen, the Nationalists say it can and it will. Political panic over narrowing poll leads, or a pie in the sky economic gamble?

You pays your money, you takes your choice. For now at least, that money is sterling.