Winton House has just hosted a ‘Better Together’ meeting between Alistair Darling and a group of East Lothian business people and members of the local community. With its intricate plasterwork ceilings depicting the union of the crowns in the seventeenth century, Winton House, now a hospitality venue, conference venue and wedding venue, was a fitting place for the introductory discussion.
The former Chancellor of the Exchequer began by emphasizing that the ‘Better Together’ campaign is not a political party and wants to encourage business people and non-political voices to participate actively in the referendum campaign, particularly given the importance of the outcome on Scotland’s long term place in the world.
The discussion was wide ranging, but Mr Darling introduced the arguments in three strands: the Economy, level of Influence, and both Culture and Emotion. Beginning with the last, he suggested that “As Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony demonstrated, the majority of the population like being British.”
“I was delighted to be in east Lothian this week and to meet with business leaders, academics and representatives from the farming community. It was quite clear to me that people are growing ever more concerned about the implications of separation and the lack of detail coming from the SNP about what it would mean for jobs and the economy.
“Over the course of the next 18 months I aim to be back in east Lothian as much as I can to meet with more people and to continue to talk about why we are stronger and better together with the rest of the UK. I want to celebrate what unites us. I don’t believe that people here think that looking for ways to drive wedges between us and our friends, families and workmates is in the best interests of Scotland.”
Owner of Winton House, Francis Ogilvy, adds; “I was very pleased to act as host for the event; Winton House has a colourful history linked both to the Scottish Crown as well as the Union, which is celebrated in the plasterwork coats of arms in our King Charles room ceiling. At Winton, we are proud of our Scottish identity whilst being pleased also to be part of an even greater heritage for the United Kingdom. Our Scottish government is not perfect, but we believe we are Better Together, particularly if it leads to a more ambitious vision for Scotland!”
On the subject of ‘influence’, the former Chancellor went on to say that Scotland (and the UK) needs to be big enough to have an effective voice within the European Union. Scotland’s status with the EU, if it became independent, is not known and will not be known by the time the referendum takes place. This and other questions are likely to stay unanswered and remain unknowns until long after the referendum outcome is known.
Mr Darling said that economically, Scotland would benefit more from being part of a larger market with a bigger population of consumers. He suggested that an independent Scotland would be very dependent on North Sea Oil. Whilst he accepted that there may be 30 to 50 years of North Sea Oil left and that revenue could be claimed for Scotland, he cautioned against undue weight being placed on this for Scotland’s economic prosperity against a backdrop of volatile prices and a lack of certainty for economic extraction.
He suggested that since the Bank of Scotland is not what the brand name would suggest, with its HQ is now in London, coupled with the continuing weakness of the Royal Bank of Scotland – this would play out with less follow-on jobs for Scotland compared with before. He went on to emphasise the huge economic structural issues that would need to be looked at, including the large proportion of the working population employed by the public sector and the big public sector organisations, like HMRC, who provide employment in Scotland.
A question was asked about ‘devo-max’. Alistair Darling replied that there is no consensus amongst political parties about what ‘devo-max’ might mean. What’s more, the “low hanging fruit” have already been picked and any additional devolved powers would be more challenging to implement.
When the public were widely polled on this subject, they suggested that Scotland should have more powers in education and health. However, the Scottish Parliament’s lack of powers in these areas is a bit of a myth as both already fall within devolved powers. Many Scots are also unaware that Scotland will gain greater income tax raising powers in 2016.
Alistair Darling concluded by saying that the ‘Better Together’ campaign is about standards of living and economic opportunities.
The Better Together website states: “We love Scotland. We are ambitious for Scotland’s people and Scotland’s possibilities. Our case is not that Scotland could not survive as a separate country – it is that there’s a better choice for our future.”