After four days of heated argument about the complex process of holding a referendum on Scottish independence, unionists are finally starting to get the debate they have been wanting to have for a while: about the substance of what independence means.
At first, Westminster politicians seemed to have been outmanoeuvred (again) by Alex Salmond, getting drawn into a row over the timing of a referendum and what questions would be asked – allowing the Scottish leader to depict them as interfering in Scottish politics.
Now, they are beginning to put him on the spot, asking the kinds of difficult questions they think will guarantee that the Scottish people will not vote for independence when they eventually get the chance to do so.
As we reported in the FT this morning, the first question Salmond and the nationalists have to answer is how the UK’s assets get split up. The problem for the SNP is that not all of these are good assets.
Salmond’s answer to Channel 4′s Jon Snow last night was that an independent Scotland would keep the amount of North Sea oil and gas that is on its continental shelf – 90 per cent of the UK’s total. But he was much more reluctant to accept any share in the Treasury’s toxic RBS assets, which it gained when the bank was nationalised. These, he said in one of his more ingenious phrases, were the responsibility of the “London Treasury”.
It is this kind of nifty footwork that unionists believe will catch Salmond out, and there is one issue looming that looks likely to do so quite soon: which currency should Scotland have?
There are three options:
1) Scotland can join the euro. This always used to be the preferred option, but unsurprisingly is looking less attractive now.
2) Scotland can join a currency union with England and share the pound. But why would the English want the Scots to share their currency and so also share in the risks of an ill-disciplined Scottish fiscal policy? And would the Scots want to be in hoc to monetary policy being run from the Bank of England (presumably) with no Scottish input?
3) Scotland could use the pound, but with no currency union. But this would presumably be pretty unattractive for Scots, leaving them vulnerable to the fluctuations of a currency of which they were not an active member.
Salmond’s promise to Scottish voters that they could keep the pound is likely to be tested rigorously – and soon. He will have to come up with some pretty creative answers on this one.