Constitutional Deckchairs


The votes are in and Scotland has given a clear answer, however, given some last minute offers of the unionist parties, it is not quite clear what the question was. The ballot paper could not have been clearer – Should Scotland be an independent country? However, following polls indicating that the Yes and No campaigns were coming together that very simple question morphed into something along the lines of do you want independence or an increased level of devolution yet to be fully specified (terms and conditions apply…).

There is consensus amongst the main parties that the whole constitutional settlement for the UK has been thrown into the melting pot. If Scotland is getting Devo Max then the position of Wales, Northern Ireland, and most challenging of all England needs to be looked at.

Whilst the debate in the media and amongst politicians of all parties is about structural reform it is possible that this is profoundly misplaced.

Is it likely that the Scottish people voted for a a different structure for making political decisions? Or is it more likely that they voted for some different decisions?

In common with the rest of the UK and indeed most of the advanced economies in the world the living standards of the bulk of the population in Scotland have at best stagnated. Furthermore that process long predates the Great Recession. For some thirty years the share of GDP going to “hard pressed working people” has been going down.

Since the credit crunch the process has accelerated as the public benefits of the welfare state have been cut hitting hardest many of the most vulnerable in society. Interestingly the Yes vote in Scotland appears to have been strongest amongst those on low incomes. But for those in work the position has deteriorated also, Low pay, zero hour contracts, underemployment characterise the economy for many.

Going forward the prospect of secular stagnation is worrying many economists with the links between technological innovation, growth and rising living standards breaking down. When growth leads to rising living standards for all then inequality might be a moral concern but not a political issue. If growth stops, or it’s link to rising living standards is broken then inequality becomes “the” problem.

If constitutional reform leads to a different set of institutions and actors saying we have to “do more with less”, “live within our means”, “make difficult choices” then I suspect we are going to spend a whole lot of time, energy and money to get to where we started. A population becoming more and more alienated from the orthodox politics of austerity.

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