How Walter Scott can inspire the Tories to bring Scotland back together.

The rise of nationalism has divided Scottish society and embittered its politics.

Conservatives have of course defended the UK staunchly. But if we are to move beyond the entrenched division of the current debate the party needs to reach out to moderate voters who have ticked the nationalist box in one guise or another in recent elections.

That offers the hope of renewed social cohesion and also greater prosperity. Investment and growth have both suffered as a result of the uncertainty brought about by the prospect of independence.

How could Conservatives develop a distinctly patriotic agenda as an alternative to nationalism that can inspire Scotland?

The first thing to recognise is that nationalism is a betrayal of Scottishness because it seeks to airbrush out many of the elements that make up the complex and rich amalgam of Scotland’s identity.

Nationalist strategy has been to co-opt the symbols of Scottishness and promote a form of identity politics that excludes both British and local elements while implying that opponents of the SNP are somehow un-Scottish as well.

There are many examples of this: the SNP’s use and abuse of the saltire (changing even its colour), the centralisation of local government, the police and other institutions, the attempts to undermine British-wide institutions as such as the BBC, the armed forces and so on. I recall not long ago a nationalist activist (and now elected politician) being expelled from a Highland games for complaining vociferously at the lack of saltires on display next to the clan banners.

But it is not enough to react negatively to the SNP’s attempts to co-opt Scottish-ness.

Scottish Conservatives must present a cultural alternative to nationalism as well as economic and social ones. The aim should be not just to cement the party’s Scottish credentials, but also to provide a patriotic narrative that can unite sensible nationalists and unionists and so heal the country’s divisions.

In practice this means upholding Scottish institutions and characteristics for their own sake, rather than with some political objective in mind. That way Scottishness can once again be a unifying force rather than a point of contention.

You could call this approach Walter Scott Conservatism. Scott was fascinated by Scotland’s cultural traditions and promoted their revival through his writing and other media. This was firmly within a British context. There is no doubt that Walter Scott favoured the Union. He saw no contradiction between pride in Scottishness within the context of shared sovereignty with England. In fact the Union of 1707 in some respects allowed Scots to rediscover their past, elements of which (regionalism, highland culture etc) had been ignored or even vilified for their perceived role in threatening the integrity of the country before and immediately after the Union.

‘Walter Scott Conservatism’ therefore has modern relevance. It can be a unifying theme for all Scots who are proud of the unique characteristics of their country while being content that some of them are shared with others.

How does this translate into policy? Here are three areas that would benefit from a new Conservative focus, but there are more and these examples need not be the only focus, and indeed the party could chose others.

First, localism. Nationalists have sought to downplay local allegiances as a diversion from a purist interpretation of Scottishness. One example is the Scottish government’s plan to merge local authorities into amorphous regional bodies. Another is the merger of Scotland’s local police forces into the nationwide ‘Police Scotland’.

Conservatives should instead encourage and promote local identity. There is evidence that autonomy at the micro level improves governance and economic success. Meanwhile the celebration of local culture encourages economic growth as businesses and young people are encouraged to stay or return. Passing more powers to local communities in areas such as development planning, local infrastructure and finance can encourage innovation and civic pride.

The Borderlands initiative – which seeks economic development projects based on common interests in a region that straddles the Anglo-Scottish border and so has no nationalistic overtones – is a good start, as are city regions more generally since they emphasise local civic endeavour rather than purely national policy.

But there is much further to go. Scotland should learn from countries such as Norway, the Faroe Islands and even France which all encourage much more local decision making at the island or local town or even village level. A local, bottom up approach to civic and economic renewal.

Related to this agenda could be a new Conservative focus on the Gaelic language. Some Tories subscribe to an old school of thought (prevalent not least in the Highlands itself) that is suspicious of efforts to promote Gaelic as tokenistic and fostering of artificial cultural difference that have little real relevance to local people in the Highlands and Islands.

And indeed the SNP approach to Gaelic seems to fit this stereotype. The language is used to brand Scottish institutions and Scotland generally with little regard for history or regional relevance. Gaelic on police cars, railway stations and road signs in the South grate with people who have no links to the language and such measures are hardly going to save it from extinction.

However many Scots are deeply fond of the unique culture of the Highlands, just as Walter Scott was. They are concerned about the continued decline of Gaelic in its homelands. A ‘Walter Scott Conservative’ approach would entail more radical policies to encourage the use of Gaelic in Island and West Coast Highland areas where it is still spoken – for example by aiming for universal Gaelic Medium education in local schools – while stripping away the nationalistic Scotland wide-tokenism of the SNP’s approach.

A third area of focus could be sport, and football in particular. Conservatives could promote the national game not just as a bulwark of Scottish culture but as part of a new approach on social issues in general.

Along with other popular sport and leisure activities, the new Scottish establishment – including much of the political left (SNP, Labour, Greens and Lib-Dems) and the bureaucratic and civic elite – has an ambivalent attitude to football. While notionally applauding Scottish teams on patriotic grounds, the elite is suspicious and censorious of football’s maleness, its raucous and non-PC singing, its booziness and its tribalism.

None of the fits with the left’s increasing obsession with the protocols of ultra-liberal social politics with its emphasis on identifying and then protecting minorities and other special interest groups by interfering with social liberty.

Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP is as guilty of this as anyone. The left is in danger of losing its bonds with ordinary voters. Far too much attention is paid to fringe obsessions on subjects such as gender, lifestyle or race that leave mainstream opinion bemused.

Scotland is crying out for common sense public figures to lead the debate away from this pinhead dancing. Ruth Davidson – with her impeccably liberal lifestyle but non-nonsense approach to daily life – is ideally suited to do so.

It is not that Conservatives reject liberalism. Historically the party has in fact lead the way on tolerance. But Conservatives believe that society should, as far as possible, be governed by convention rather than compulsion. This means trusting people to make the right decisions for themselves, thus strengthening self-governance and self-reliance. It involves more risk, to be sure. But in giving people licence to misbehave, you increase the propensity of individuals, and their friends, family and neighbours, to insist on decency.

On a lighter note, a jollier and less censorious approach to lifestyle issues sits well with the popular ‘cavalier’ tradition of Toryism that Davidson is well attuned to.

In the case of football, a brave campaign has recently overturned legislation to ban certain types of chanting at grounds – a rare success for social freedom in the face of establishment (and SNP) disapproval. Conservatives should go further than this, lifting the ban on alcohol sales at matches (which is frankly discriminatory given than it is not banned at other sports grounds).

Policy should build on this with active programmes to support and promote the game. For example, Scotland should not just bid to host major tournaments as a branding exercise for the country, but as a way of attracting investment to make the domestic game more competitive and compelling by increasing attendances and improving the economic base and depth of Scottish clubs.

Football is a particularly high profile area where ‘Walter Scott Tories’ can demonstrate their commitment both to Scottishness and social freedom while exploring new political ground. But there are other areas for investigation too. The party should think radically about how to invigorate a whole range of popular social institutions that form the backbone of Scottish society but have at one time or another come under the baleful glare of the new establishment and need help: pubs, the kirk, rugby, social clubs, country sports, local festivals, academic institutions and more.

Walter Scott Conservatism offers a new path between nationalism and unionism – a patriotic one that reinvigorates the essence of the original deal of 1707 – shared effort in the international arena but distinctive Scottish domestic institutions.

It also fits with the popular zeitgeist of an electorate increasingly tired of the liberal elite and its hostile social and political nostrums. The SNP has become part of the elite in Scotland. It’s time for the Tories to back the people.

A version of this article appeared on the ThinkScotland web site on 4th March

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How liberal is a Liberal? And how conservative a Conservative?

Where do you stand on strong drink and junk food?

There have been a couple of interesting debates among local councillors lately on these related issues. One was on whether the council should seek to ban people from drinking outdoors. Another on whether to support the Scottish Government’s efforts to ban certain gimmicks used by shops and businesses to promote ‘unhealthy’ food like pizza, crisps and fizzy drinks.

There are practical arguments on either side, such as whether restrictions just encourage Borderers to shop in England. And there are moral ones too, such as whether moderate consumers should be punished for the behaviour of others. But the heart of the matter in both cases is a question of fundamental philosophical principle.

Do you think the state should tell people how to behave for their own good? Or do you think trying to enforce virtue reduces responsibility and so is counter-productive? In other words, how liberal are you, in the classical sense of the word?

I don’t intend to pronounce on this matter here, but instead to remark on something that I have always found fascinating about politics. That is that politicians, by and large, do not choose parties according to their philosophical beliefs.

This was borne out in the discussions at the Council. If you draw an ‘axis of political persuasion’ stretching from ‘liberal’ at one end to ‘authoritarian’ at the other, you would find members of every political group strung along it, seemingly randomly. Possibly there were more ‘liberals’ among the Tories and more ‘authoritarians’ among the independent members (the two are in coalition!). Certainly the traditional party names are quite misleading. I recall one wag pointing out not so long ago (pre Corbyn) that Labour was now conservative, the Liberals were socialist and the Tories liberal.

There are amusing web sites (search for ‘political compass’ and the like) where you can try to work out who are your real political bedfellows by answering a short questionnaire.

Maybe these should be made compulsory as part of the essential education of every good citizen, so we get a better, more inclusive and representative form of politics.

But then maybe not.

A version of this article appeared in the February edition of Gala Life

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How a ‘Christian Democrat’ approach on public services could help the Tories win at Holyrood

Scotland’s critical weakness lies in its public services. In particular the evidence from international studies shows that Scottish healthcare and schools underperform by Western European standards.

This has a profound impact on society. The weakest are the worst affected. Too many of our fellow citizens suffer from poor health outcomes and low educational standards. And the whole of Scotland is held back by the divisions this causes and the drag it places on economic growth. Educational attainment is a key driver of prosperity in developed economies such as ours.

Scotland is not unique in this malaise. All of the UK suffers from weak public services. But there are two critical differences between Scotland and England in this respect. First, Scotland enjoys much higher levels of public spending than England, thanks to the Union Dividend that ensures a spending premium north of the border.

Second, after a long, painful but ambitious series of reforms south of the border, English education (and also to a certain extent healthcare) have started to improve in recent years. The available evidence shows that schooling in many parts of England is now superior to Scots, despite the lower spend. Our neighbours are on an upward trend.

We in Scotland have started to be affected by the paralysis caused by our constitutional obsessions. Politicians at Holyrood have not been willing to grasp the nettle of public sector reform because of the risk of alienating voters on the existential questions of identity. The public spending cushion has encouraged this complacency by allowing the Scottish Government to stave off the worst effects of failure by throwing money at the problem. Spending per school pupil, for instance, is 11% higher here than south of the border.

This offers an opportunity for Conservatives borne of necessity. It is their duty to Scots to offer alternatives to a failing system. And in doing so they can break beyond the electoral limits of opposition to nationalism. A compelling agenda on public services can win over sensible mainstream scots whose primary interest is not unionism or hard-line nationalism but a successful Scottish society.

What is the right approach on health and education?

One of the enduring problems that plagues debate about the welfare state in Britain is one of perception. For the most part the argument is stuck in a false dichotomy, between state-run public services and ‘American’ style private provision. The simplistic assumption is that we in the UK are part of a ‘European’ group of countries that enjoy proper public services run equitably by the state.

This is far from the truth. In fact many European countries run systems that are largely private, with the state’s role limited to ensuring equity and affordability. Meanwhile in the US, while healthcare is largely privately run (though again often publicly funded), education is run along the same centralised lines as our state-run model.

The British media is plagued by articles blindly praising the NHS as if everybody else wanted to follow our lead. Discussion on education presents a binary choice between public and private. We seem oblivious to the fact that our cosy social democratic continental neighbours typically do not have state run health or education services in the way that we understand them. Instead they achieve both far higher standards and equality using a mix of private and public delivery.

This indeed was the inspiration for the Major / Blair / Cameron reforms – not the US (as the left would have us believe) but fluffy Scandinavia and the Low countries. Even the SNP is now proposing a watered-down version of the same agenda in schools.

But it is not enough to copy the English reforms. Instead, I would suggest a much more ambitious approach by Scots Tories that, in emulating the best models of northern European mixed provision, is both politically centrist and also draws on authentic conservative principles. In other words a consciously ‘Christian Democrat’ approach.

One of the crucial features of social welfare systems in Northern Europe is that many direct taxes are actually lower than in the UK, while spending on public services is higher. How is this possible? The gap is made up by compulsory contributions to personalised health and social security accounts. So while the government ensures equity between rich and poor, individual citizens retain a sense of ownership over the their contributions, because much of the money that they spend on health, pensions and other forms of social insurance is held in individual accounts. These in turn fund a variety of different providers that are chosen by the taxpayer (or an intermediary such as their employer).

This is why the great hostility that many in the UK feel towards higher taxation is not felt to the same extent on the continent. Instead of paying general taxes to an unaccountable and inefficient bureaucracy, our neighbours contribute to their own provision. They are therefore willing to pay more.

Scottish Conservatives could offer a similar grand bargain. Higher spending on public services in return for fundamental reform. A radical programme anchored firmly in the centre ground of politics. Impeccable European social democratic credentials underpinned by tory principles of mixed provision and a trust in the individual, markets and the big society.

For health, education and social security work so much better in Germany and the Low Countries not just because of more generous funding, but because the providers of public services are often independent of central government. They are run by a mix of institutions, some private, some municipal, some mutual and some charitable. They compete with each other, both by example and by seeking customers. The public benefit from this variety by being able to choose the best provider (often using intermediaries such as mutuals or employers who can deploy economies of scale and specialist expertise to get the best deal). Meanwhile the government regulates the system to ensure equity and the same level of service across the board. The results speak for themselves: higher quality services across the board, less social deprivation, and higher economic productivity.

The Scots Tories would need to think carefully which countries’ models to emulate, and how reform could be introduced with a minimum of disruption to existing institutions within the devolution settlement. But the transition in Scotland would be supported by the fact that public spending is already so much higher than in England. Adopting a ‘Christian Democrat’ European style approach to public services makes sense both politically and in terms of outcomes.

A version of this article appeared on the ThinkScotland website on 19th February

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How the Scottish Conservatives can win Holyrood (pt1)

Many politicians are intelligent and hard working, and most are honest (we are lucky in that, in Britain).  But only a few have that magical ability to get their ideas across to voters in a way that is engaging and persuasive.  To be able to shift voters views and get them to cross tribal boundaries once in the polling booth.

It’s difficult to put your finger on the exact qualities needed to be such a game-changer. You have to be articulate, to be sure. To have a mastery of the media. A pithy turn of phrase. Maybe a keen wit. Above all an instinct for when and how to tell it like it is.

In Scotland less than a handful of active politicians possess these traits, and one of the best is Ruth Davidson. The relative success of today’s Scottish Conservatives is in large part large part down to her. She has rebuilt the party to a position where between a quarter and a third of voters are regularly putting a cross in the Tory box.

The Conservative strategy underpinning her success is twofold. To emphasise the party’s position in upholding the majority view on the great issue of the day, which is Scotland’s place in the UK. And to offer a moderate, centrist position on other policy issues that allows moderate, centrist Scots who might otherwise vote Labour or Liberal Democrat to come on board in a coalition against nationalism.

This is the right strategy and has worked well so far. Brexit poses problems, but most voters rightly consider the relationship with the rest of the UK more important than that with the EU.

So far so good. But how do the Conservatives build on this to challenge for power at Holyrood? The party needs to win over another 10-15% of the electorate to bring it up into the 35-40%+ range that wold give it a decent chance of leading an administration. That must mean offering an attractive positive alternative to the SNP on domestic, non-constitutional issues. As the SNP starts to weaken, and the issue of independence fades in immediacy, voters on both sides of the constitutional divide will start to consider other motives for casting their vote.

This is a threat and an opportunity to the Tories. A great opportunity to put the deeply divisive and unpleasant constitutional debate to bed. But a threat in that their new centrist supporters might desert them again.

To win they must retain their current base and win over new people with an attractive programme. That means continuing with the centrist strategy, but offering a more imaginative policy programme.

The party is currently undergoing a thorough review of policy with exactly this objective in mind. What kind of approach could work? This series of three articles offers some ideas.

Two broad areas of policy stand out in asking for a new approach. These are the delivery of public services, and the renewal of Scotland’s cultural sense of purpose and identity.

That the public sector is Scotland’s weak link and requires radical action is beyond serious dispute. Meanwhile the constitutional debate has torn great fissures on our public life that are deeply damaging to society. If we hope to restore a Scotland that is confident and at ease with itself, it is not enough simply to defeat the SNP at the polls. Conservatives ned to offer a powerful, patriotic alternative to nationalism that the bulk of the country can reunite around.

Before addressing these two themes, a word about the economy. Scotland has many economic strengths, but overall performance is disappointing and has been since devolution. Scotland lags behind the rest of the UK. There is no excuse for this: most of the policy levers that affect economic growth are now devolved.

Those that are reserved would mostly stay so even under independence. Monetary policy would almost certainly be outsourced either to the UK or the Eurozone, so great would be the need to underpin the economy within a larger currency area.

Important areas of regulation are also held at the UK level. This is necessary for the smooth operation of the UK single market, and the system functions well. The labour market, for example, is delivering record levels of employment.

Meanwhile, although many individual taxes are still reserved, the overall level of tax and spend is controlled at Holyrood, which also has considerable borrowing and welfare powers. In Western democracies, tax and spend varies by only a few percentage points from country to country and over time. The Scottish Government has enough fiscal leeway to explore the realistic extremes in either direction.

So there is certainly scope for adjusting the traditional levers of economic power – for example by simplifying tax rates or finding more imaginative and accountable ways of running public sector businesses.

But the underlying long term prosperity of a mature economy like Scotland’s depends as much if not more on its fundamental institutional make up. Its education system from nursery to university. Development planning. Transport and infrastructure. Healthcare and the delivery of state funded services.

That is why a focus on public services is essential not just in its own right but for our future prosperity as well.

Finally, there can be no doubt that the ongoing constitutional limbo and threat of a UK break up has damaged investment and economic growth. Healing our social and cultural wounds is essential in economic terms too.

So a successful economic policy, that is both radical and has broad appeal across the political spectrum must emphasise the whole range of political possibilities. Not just sensible reforms of tax and spend, but of the foundations of society as a whole.


A version of this article appeared in ThinkScotland on 12th February

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The difficulties of negotiating with Parliament

Christmas was a blessed relief from the Brexit imbroglio. The break from the endless drama at least allowed a sense of perspective on it all.

One thing that struck me is the curious dissonance between how Parliament works and the usual brinkmanship of EU negotiations. In Brussels ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ – i.e. people stick to their red lines until the very last minute. That doesn’t work in Parliament because votes and debates occur according to a structured timetable. Since there is no ‘last minute’ (there can always be another vote) it’s hard to see how the PM can get anyone to compromise. Goodness knows how it’ll all turn out.

Brexit is a political crisis, but it’s not an economic one. In the real world unemployment is at a record low (including in the Borders), exports are up, growth is steady and investment is healthy. Whatever happens with Brexit, it’ll make very little difference. Just 9% of the UK economy is involved with exports to the EU, and the figure is less than that in Scotland and much less still in the Borders. Given that the very worst case scenario is tariffs averaging 4% or so (under World trade rules) we are talking a hit of less than half a percent, worst case. And that is offset by the savings we make from not paying in to Brussels – also something under 0.5%. So it’s a wash.

When you think about it, that’s not so surprising. EU membership made no measurable difference to Britain’s overall economic performance, so leaving it won’t either. Whatever you think of Brexit (and there are good arguments on either side), the economic doom-mongering is deeply misleading.

What is also nonsense is the SNP’s position. There are three coherent approaches to the EU and Scotland. Leave both the UK and the EU (the old nationalist position). Stay in the UK but leave the EU. And stay in both. But claiming that Brexit is an economic disaster but leaving the UK isn’t makes no sense at all. If you apply the SNP’s own analysis of Brexit to breaking up the UK, independence is about ten times worse.

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Good building design is essential for the future prosperity

In October the Borders Building Design awards took place at Marchmont House in Berwickshire. The winners included innovative house designs and conversions, new schools, and commercial buildings such as the superb Borders Distillery building in Hawick (which has subsequently won national awards). There was an intriguing mix of traditional and contemporary design among both entrants and winners.

Good building design is important from an aesthetic and moral point of view. Life in the Borders is enriched for everyone because of our superb landscape, and this is complemented by the architecture that populates it – in our small market towns, our cottages and farms, mills, monuments and grand houses. We need to ensure that new development preserves and enhances this superb legacy.

But there’s more to it that sitting back and enjoying the view. Our built and natural heritage is a key economic asset of growing importance to our prosperity.

In the modern, globalised economy, business and labour are increasingly mobile and increasingly choosy. New communications technology – the Internet, cheap flights, mobile phones – make it easier for people to select where they want to live and work.

And in advanced economies such as Britain’s, investors increasingly choose where to locate based not so much on the availability of cheap labour and mass markets, but on quality of life for them and for their staff.

You can now pursue pretty much the full range of professional and business careers from the Borders, which gives huge potential for investors to come here, and, crucially, for young Borderers to stay here to build their working lives.

And a critical factor in this new, dynamic global economy is quality of life. Academic research has shown that, in advanced economies, investors seek out areas with good schools, low crime, beautiful surroundings and a great place for family life. Pay is not always the only carrot to dangle to attract the best personnel.

So for the first time in a hundred years the Borders has a major comparative advantage over other regions – our relatively remote and beautiful environment is an economic help rather than a hindrance

We need to keep it that way.

So this years awards were not just an exercise in aesthetic appreciation, but part of the effort to encourage good new development that is key to our prosperity

The Council is shaping policy to encourage this symbiosis between economic prosperity and good design. Other measures include a new service to encourage developers to engage with planners before submitting applications, to improve understanding of the planning rules and the aspirations that the council has in this regard.

We’ve also just launched our ‘Main Issues Report’ for public consultation which aims to establish the key parameters for the next local development plan, including the rules around new building and the right locations for it. Anyone who has an interest in the Borders’ future as a great place to live and work can contribute to this process.

A version of this article appeared in the Southern Reporter on 22nd November

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Sturgeon’s dishonesty on the costs of independence is counterproductive

LAST MONTH the campaign group Scottish Business UK set out the costs of independence to the Scottish economy. It didn’t say anything particularly new, except to point out how much more damaging this was than Brexit (eight times worse than the very ‘hardest’ form) by looking at comparable figures. It was something that had been said but not yet quantified in such detail.

If anything, the report erred on the side of caution because most of its findings were based on Scottish Government or SNP figures. The conclusion was that independence today would cost at least fifteen per cent of economic output.

Nationalists have, at one time or another, accepted all of the individual elements of this. The £10bn ‘fiscal gap’ (or Union Dividend) is calculated every year by Scottish Government statisticians. The SNP themselves have estimated the start-up costs of setting up new government departments. The Scottish Government – at the SNP’s behest – has also analysed the economic costs of disruptions to trade. And the SNP’s Growth Commission tacitly admitted that abandoning Sterling would have major implications for the financial sector, borrowing costs and inflation.

In short, Nicola Sturgeon and her team must know (and privately accept) that independence is not economically viable. The situation is much less favourable even than at the time of the 2014 referendum when the fiscal gap had (briefly) been eliminated by the oil price surge.

Yet the nationalists persist in trying to hide the overall picture with specious waffle – the worst of which is the pretence that independence would somehow be a viable alternative to Brexit, when obviously it would make the situation much, much worse. An SNP spokesman called the SBUK figures ‘ludicrous’, itself a ludicrous statement given the origins of the data.

Ms Sturgeon is not an idiot and, one assumes, she is not trying deliberately to cause mass unemployment and tip Scotland into a new depression. Instead, as we witnessed the annual brouhaha of the SNP conference and the various intimidatory marches organised by uber-nats, we must assume that she is stuck in some macabre internal political dance with the blow-hards in her own party who would push to break up the UK whatever the cost.

She faces the perennial conundrum of how to seem enthusiastic about the cause while putting off any new vote indefinitely. This indeed was the approach she and her ministers adopted at the SNP conference. But this is fundamentally dishonest and, in the end, nationalists must surely confront the truth that independence just is not viable in the current circumstances.

The only plausible approach is to answer the hard questions and deal with Scotland’s economic challenges – including closing the ‘fiscal gap’ – within the UK. In other words, to try to grow the economy and take on the inevitable austerity involved while being supported by the monetary framework of Sterling and with full access to the UK single market.

The SNP is taking the opposite approach: its economic policies are resulting in ever-slower growth, an ever-growing ‘fiscal gap’ and, therefore, ever diminishing prospects for independence.

A version of this article appeared in The Times on 9th November

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