Gordon Brown: “Time to Open The Books on Options For Scotland”

Scots want the facts. The status quo, a reformed UK, and independence should all be exposed to expert, parliamentary, and public scrutiny

Speak to Scots these days about the big constitutional questions facing our country, and there is one big thing all of us do agree on: we don’t have the facts. 

Whether people are No, Yes, or Undecided on independence and the Union, almost everybody says they need more information. They are burnt by the experience of the 2014 referendum and the Brexit vote. Wild promises on the side of a bus, false claims on lurid posters and fake news on the internet have made them more sceptical than ever.  

With our economics of our world now so different from pre-Covid certainties, that demand for facts and evidence is now more pressing than ever. It would be a travesty of democracy if the most important question – the very existence of the United Kingdom – is to be subject to such minimal scrutiny before any irreversible decision is made. 

Yet despite everything we have gone through over the last few years, and despite entire forests having been levelled to report on the complex politics of Scotland, scrutiny of the economic and social consequences of the constitutional options we have on offer is scant.

When it comes to the costs or benefits of independence, the detail is missing entirely. Instead, there is a huge information gap. In the exact same way that the Vote Leave campaign deliberately decided not to set out any detail on the reality of post-Brexit Britain, so there is now an eerie nationalist silence on what independence really means. Key questions lie unanswered: what is the plan for our currency if and when we dump the UK pound?  Given our deficit is now the largest in Europe, far higher than set out in the SNP’s now out- of- date Wilson report, how can they deliver on their promises on pension health and welfare ? What happens to our border with England and to our trade? The SNP says leaving the EU, which accounts for 15% of our exports, was a disaster: if that is the case, what is the loss of jobs if we leave the UK which accounts for nearly 60 per cent ?  

But it isn’t just the nationalists: we also need deep dive scrutiny of the status quo too and into what Boris Johnson’s’ so- called ‘muscular unionism’means for a post-Brexit, post-Covid Scotland. This should include the implications  of his Internal Market  Bill, his Shared Prosperity Fund  and his view that devolution is  a ‘disaster’.

We also need to examine the merits of change within the UK that is now the subject of investigation by a Labour Party Commission on the Constitution and which I am happy to see put to the test.

In the post Covid world we must expose all these options to the sunlight of scrutiny, and I suggest three key platforms for doing so. 

We need a trial of the evidence with independent think tanks, research organisations and academic institutions encouraged to assess the claims made by all parties and subject them to close examination.  

This is not just a demand to ‘open the books’: it is a call to subject all the arguments and claims about the future government of Scotland to an open process of investigation.

Secondly, and crucially, I believe we should also agree a trial by parliamentary scrutiny. We should ask our parliamentary democracy to step up to its task of ensuring proper transparency and accountability , and to hold to account those who govern us. All the options open to us -independence, the status quo and reform within the UK-  should be subject to parliamentary hearings, looking at all the evidence.  

The Scottish Parliament and the two Houses of Parliament in the UK- the House of Commons and the House of Lords- should each set up investigative committees made up of senior MSPs and MPs from all sides. These select committees should call and interrogate witnesses on the impact of all options on the currency, economics, the EU, pensions, welfare,  climate change and defence and security and then report on  their analysis of the facts.

Parliamentary hearings can pave the way for the third test: an open examination by the public – with new Citizens Assemblies convened and given the chance to test, stretch and dissect the evidence in front of them. Here we can learn lessons not only from the recent experience of a Citizens Assemblies in Scotland but from Ireland where a Citizens Assembly helped the country negotiate potentially its most divisive debates ever -on legalising abortion- without the bitterness many predicted.  A representative group of 100 – half initially pro-abortion, half against – came together and talked the issues through, exploring differences, asking questions of experts and interacting with each other on their fears and hopes. Remarkably, but encouragingly, people of devout faith and resolute feminists found common ground. I’d support a series of such assemblies right around the country, and if we can free ourselves from the rancor of past debates, a similar outcome might be possible in Scotland. 

Quite simply, Scots deserve the facts, not fiction scrawled on a bus, or slogans that twist the facts.

And in that spirit, I am happy for any ideas I have to be put to the test, and interrogated, challenged, and subjected to the grilling of politicians and the public. Let us now see if both no-change Conservatives and no-compromise Nationalists are as happy to see their own proposals scrutinised in the same detail and put to the sword.

So let us put forward our ideas. Let us put them to the test in our parliaments.  Let us expose them to the light of public scrutiny and see whether they blossom in the open air, or wilt under the sun.

This article originally appeared in The Times under the title “We Must Fill the Independence Information Gap”.

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UK Wide Cooperation Ensures “Best Is Yet To Come” In North Sea

The future of the Scotland’s vital North Sea industry can be supported by the UK’s “collective strength and resource”, a new report by a leading energy expert concludes today.  

Written by Nick Butler, the founding chair of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, the report – entitled “Co-Op 26: how cooperation can spur Scotland’s green revolution” – argues that “the best is yet to come” for Scotland’s energy sector if it can seize huge new opportunities and transition from oil and gas to renewables.  

It argues that Scotland’s prospects are best achieved by remaining an active and influential player within the UK. “As part of the UK Scotland has a voice. Alone, that voice would carry no weight,” he says.

He concludes: “The necessary transformation in the energy market in UK and across the world will be rich in jobs. For Scotland there is the opportunity of playing a major role in creating the technical and industrial base which will support that transformation. If that opportunity can be grasped, however good the last half century has been, the best is yet to come.” 

A leading energy expert, who has advised both Norway’s state energy company and the UK Government, Mr Butler is a regular contributor to the Financial Times on energy issues, having spent nearly three decades working for BP.

The paper focusses on several of the key areas for potential growth in the new “green market” economy. 

In the report, Mr Butler says there is “no reason” why Scotland and the UK cannot become a global leader in decommissioning work, as rigs are dismantled over the coming years. He argues that with development to the UK grid, Scotland could export more renewable electricity to the wider UK market, and to Europe via a new North Sea grid.  The report also concludes that Scotland is “well placed” to take advantage of the development of hydrogen and carbon capture into the 2030s. 

The report concludes that all these measures are best achieved by being part of a wider pan-UK plan. On the potential impact of independence, he adds: “At a time when public policy is understandably focused on maximising employment an unhappy divorce is likely to encourage any Government in London to focus its own spending and investment on its own citizens. The trade in electricity for instance from Scotland to England and the rest of the UK could easily be substituted by other sources.” 

On the forthcoming COP 26 conference in Glasgow, he adds: “For Scotland, COP26 offer the chance not just to provide hotel rooms and hospitality but also long-term leadership. Such steps of course can only be taken if Scotland is part of the United Kingdom with full access to Britain’s collective strengths and resources. To those who say the UK Government’s policies are too vague and inadequate the answer to lead the process of developing them, providing answers and ideas.”

Professor Jim Gallagher, chairman of Our Scottish Future said: “Nick Butler is an acknowledged energy expert and, in this paper, he shows how Scotland can leverage its membership of the UK to accelerate the essential transition to green energy and create jobs when doing so.  A new kind of North Sea revolution.” 



Nick Butler is a Visiting Professor at King’s College London and the founding Chairman of the Kings Policy Institute. He chairs Promus Associates, The Sure Chill Company and Ridgeway Information Ltd. From 2007 to 2009 he was Chairman of the Cambridge Centre for Energy Studies. He was a special adviser to the former British prime minister Gordon Brown from 2009 to 2010. He served as a non executive Director of Cambridge Econometrics from 2010 to 2018. He was appointed in 2018 to the expert panel of advisers for The Faraday Institution, which works on the development of batteries and energy storage. Having served as a Member of the Strategic Advisory Council of the Norwegian state company Equinor (formerly Statoil) he is currently editor of the Energy Agenda for the Norwegian based energy organisation ONS. 

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Why Boris Johnson needs to learn from the EU’s mistakes to bring the UK back together

Not a vote has yet been cast in the Scottish Parliament elections, scheduled for May 5th. So confident that a nationalist majority is already in the bag, however, the pro-independence campaign is already planning life after victory. An 11-point plan has been published on how to take forward a referendum. We are told that the as yet un-won majority the SNP expects to win will be evidence of Scotland’s desire to leave the United Kingdom. It shows – or will do, once it happens – that Scots want another referendum immediately. The SNP contend will be a democratic outrage if a British Prime Minister refuses to agree to one.

The polls suggest the SNP is not wrong to be confident; a pro-independence majority is what impartial observers currently expect too based on current polls. But is the pre-emptive reading of the outcome correct? In this uncertain world, the truth is that the picture in Scotland is less clear-cut than the SNP tries to claim. Of course many pro-independence Scots believe a 2nd referendum cannot come soon enough. They see the Union is a dead marriage. They therefore want a vote to confirm divorce immediately. Yet other, less certain independence voters are not so gung-ho. Some feel that the SNP should stick by its promise that the 2014 was once in a generation. Others, like former SNP MP Jim Sillars, do not think it’s a good idea to have a referendum any time soon, not when there’s a pandemic on. Many worry about the economic uncertainty and the social division that independence would bring with it, in addition to everything else. Indeed, it’s hard to avoid the sense that many are open to waiting a little, to let the dust settled, and see if something else might turn up. As one lady said in November: “I think we need time to heal. I think we should wait to see if there is changes to Westminster. We gave our word (on once in a generation) and said we will wait. Although I’m a Yes voter, if there are changes in Westminster surely that’s good for us.”

So as we head towards the elections, the question turns to how the UK Government should speak to these wary, sceptical voters. The Prime Minister has already made it clear he does not intend to support a 2nd referendum. If the SNP does indeed win a majority in the elections with a pledge to hold a referendum it will, as sure as night follows day, make political hay with that. So what should Ministers do to reach out to those voters in Scotland who are hoping for some kind of middle way?

A good cautionary tale from the recent past here might be the process that eventually led to Britain’s departure from the EU. Our decision to leave the EU was never pre-ordained; it was the result of a series of mis-steps by Remain-supporting politicians, and the European Union, which both failed to respond to the growing desire for real and radical change. The most obvious example came in 2015 when David Cameron undertook to seek a better deal for Britain and then put that to the referendum. As we all know, that renegotiation with the EU fell short of what was required. It failed the “smell test” back at home, convincing Boris Johnson and others to campaign for Leave. Mr Cameron’s offer looked phoney. Millions of British voters agreed, and the Brexit result followed.

This cautionary tale should be heeded with regard to Scotland too. Over the last two decades, Scots voters have been offered several renegotiated deals within the UK, from the delivery of a Scottish Parliament in 1999 to the extra powers provided in two more Scotland Acts since. These have been sold as a way to “kill nationalism” for good. But just as Mr Cameron’s tweaks to the UK’s relationship with the EU failed to convince people to remain in the EU, so the deals in Scotland haven’t stopped the appeal of departure from the UK too.

There are plenty of good reasons for pushing more power out of Westminster to the more outlying part of the UK beyond the M25  and, in my view, it’s a process that should continue.  But the clear evidence of the last two decades is that stopping the appeal of Scottish independence is not one of them. Just as with the Britain’s relations with the EU, the reform that’s required is deeper. Scots (and many others across the UK) are looking for evidence of real and genuine change from the institution that lies at the heart of the problem: not the distant and unresponsive European Union in this case, but the distant and unresponsive Westminster machine, and a political culture which – despite devolution – still centralises power, seizes too much control for itself, and dodges accountability, making many people in Scotland (and elsewhere in the UK) feel powerless, disrespected and ignored.

Unionists may not want to admit it, but this deal currently fails the same “smell test” to many Scots (as well as many people across the UK too) as Mr Cameron’s EU deal did six years ago. Little wonder their response to it, to coin a phrase, is “No, No, No”. It follows that if all the UK Government does in response is to shout ever louder about the benefits of the United Kingdom and warn Scots about the costs of leaving the British single market, then they risk repeating the exact same errors made by the UK establishment who fought for Remain. And if all they do is diminish “Leave” voters in Scotland, then they should not be surprised when such people dig in their heels and stick up two fingers. There’s a great irony in all of this. In this battle, it’s Boris Johnson’s misfortune to be playing the role of the pro-Remain establishment. He is cast by the SNP as Jean-Claude Junker, or Jacque Delors. He, more than anyone else alive in British politics, should be aware of the perils of being cast in such a part when there are skilful political campaigners on the opposite side waiting to take merciless advantage.

None of this is say that the UK Government should not set out the risks of Scotland leaving the UK; of course, it should. It should also, of course, seek to demonstrate the very real benefits of the Union to Scotland – benefits which have been so vividly demonstrated in recent weeks by the government’s vaccination programme. Only that more is required than a reheat of Remain style tactics from 2016. To continue the EU analogy, Mr Johnson needs to learn from Mr Cameron five years ago. As former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has set out in detail, we need to be prepared on behalf of the entire nation to reflect and look again at how we “do” Britain. We need to see a sign that the UK political establishment “gets it” – that it understands peoples’ sense of alienation from the UK and wants to remedy that. That’s unlikely to be through a formal federal system which, given the UK’s uniquely complex nature, won’t work, but by creating better inter-governmental structures, reforming outdated institutions, and switching Whitehall on to life outside SW1.

Many Scots, in my experience, would welcome a more nuanced conversation about Scotland and the United Kingdom than the Black and White, Yes v No framing of the debate as engineered by the SNP. They saw Manchester mayor Andy Burnham protesting about the centre of power last year and noticed he expressed many of their own frustrations. They accept therefore that this is a more complex picture than the SNP would like to suggest. The UK Government should “lean in” to the SNP’s diagnosis of the United Kingdom. It should commit to going out to listen to voters in Scotland – and elsewhere in the UK – about what they want. In this regard, as well as learning lessons from Mr Cameron’s failed attempts five years ago, Mr Johnson might want to borrow ideas from the SNP as well. Back in 2007, when it was still trying to turn the fringe notion of independence into a mainstream concept, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon began what they described as a “National Conversation” – an attempt to consult people across Scotland prior to the publication of a white paper on a proposed referendum. Perhaps it’s time to take a leaf out of their book, with a new UK wide National Conversation to be held this year. It would acknowledge how the last few years have caused upheaval and uncertainty for many communities and created division across the United Kingdom. It would seek to involve all political parties, including the SNP, in setting it up – indeed Sir Keir Starmer and Mr Brown are already pressing ahead. As with Citizens Assemblies in Ireland, it might try to gain an understanding of that division and to discover the kind of change they want in the years ahead. In order to acknowledge the depth of the problem, it should accept that nothing is off the table, including – in time – the possibility of another Scottish referendum.

Such a UK wide conversation would send a clear message that the UK Government is responding to what is a UK wide problem, felt most deeply perhaps in Scotland, but certainly not exclusively. It would ask how, and whether, Britain can go forward, together. Many of us across the UK are looking to see whether our country is prepared to change. We’re looking to see whether Britain is a still a country that can hold such a conversation.

As we begin 2021, Scotland is a nation questioning whether it needs to become a state. The answer may lie in whether the UK state can show it’s still a nation. That starts not with phoney change, but by accepting the need for real and lasting reform. When Eurosceptics began their campaign for a new relationship with the EU, they settled on a slogan: “Change or Go”. Their point was clear and principled: either we had proper reform of the EU, or it was time to accept that Britain had to leave. The change offered was piecemeal, so we decided to go. The same message applies now to Scotland and the UK. We need to change our own Union, or else Scotland may decide it’s time to go too. No matter what happens in the Holyrood elections this year, that’s the choice on offer.

This article appeared originally as part of Policy Exchange’s new series on the Future of the Union.

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An offer of false promises isn’t good enough for Scotland’s future

Early on the morning of May 6, 2011, David Cameron lit the touchpaper that has led to nearly a decade of constitutional upheaval for Scotland. He signalled acceptance on the part of the coalition government that the majority won by the SNP in the Scottish parliamentary elections held the day before was effectively a mandate for a referendum on independence for Scotland.

He, like many others, believed that a decisive outcome to that referendum would settle the question for a generation. Little did he anticipate that his other ill-starred referendum venture would re-ignite the constitutional question and ten years later leave Scotland still staring into an uncertain future.

That uncertainty is not going to disappear any time soon. The SNP might so succumb to internecine conflict that the party loses its chance of a majority in this May’s elections. The UK government might come up with such a compelling offer to the people of Scotland as to reconcile a fair majority to a continued future within the United Kingdom. One outcome is perhaps more probable than the other, but neither can be relied upon.

This leaves all who crave some sort of stability in an unsatisfactory place, not least the world of business as it grapples with the fallout of the pandemic and seeks to get to grips with the additional burdens that come with the UK’s new trading relationship with the EU.

Many will be tempted to wish a plague on all political houses in the hope that uncertainty will go away. It won’t. The times are uncertain because too many of us, not just in Scotland but in the rest of the UK and much further afield, are out of temper with the world as we find it. Politics is a mirror in which we see our own discontents.

Politicians will of course play hard to their own advantage, even if that means equivocating on the consequences of the position they advocate. We saw that in spades on Brexit and we have seen it constantly in the debate on independence. We are asked to buy not only the ideological belief but faith too that in its realisation will come all sorts of improbable benefits.

Is it too much to expect of politicians that they have the honesty to build on the value of their core proposition, be it leaving the EU or independence for Scotland, without larding it with false promises? Almost certainly it is, which leaves it to the rest of us to be sceptical of their promises and plan as best we can for an uncertain future.

Philip Rycroft was the lead civil servant in Whitehall responsible for constitutional and devolution issues between 2012 and 2019.

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