The Governor of the Bank of England’s speech yesterday was well researched and well phrased. He leaves the issue of Scotland’s future to the Scottish people. He accepts that were Scotland to vote for Out of the UK, the question of the currency would be a major issue for the political negotiation that would follow between the two governments.
His research reveals, however, that an independent Scotland would have a much larger banking sector relative to the size of the economy than the Uk currently enjoys. This opens the question of could Scotland have afforded to stand behind HBOS and RBS in the way the UK did, during the crisis? Any agreement on a common currency would need to make it clear that Scotland would have to stand behind Scotland’s banks. But would that work? What would happen if Scotland was unable to stand behind them? Would Scotland agree that a common currency must mean common banking supervision? How would the rest of the UK be sure we would not be expected to mount an expensive rescue? How could Scotland be sure the full currency union and the Bank of England always stood behind her banks?
He also points out that if Scotland keeps all the oil the Scottish economy is materially different from the rest of the UK. Scotland’s output per head and tax revenue would be very affected by the oil price, and by the likely secular decline in the Scottish oil province, which is now well past its peak output. The more diverse two countries in a union are, the more the pain of adjustment without the mechanism of the exchange rate to take some of the strain.
I am not myself a Scottish nationalist, but if I were I would want my country to have its own currency. You cannot be independent, with your own economic and tax policy, if you belong to a currency union. Members of the Eurozone are discovering this as the Euro crisis rolls on. Belonging to a currency union, you are forced into internal devaluation – cuts in wages – if you cease to be competitive at the common exchange rate. Greece and Spain could warn Scotland about that. You are forced into increasing tax and benefit transfers around the union. The Rest of the Uk and Scotland would need clear and fair rules about the extent of these transfers and the limits on mutual financial assistance.
Today the sterling currency union works because there are very large transfers of money from the richer to the poorer parts of the union. The labour market works fairly well, with common levels of benefit payments and pay top ups from the state, and similar wage levels. A so called independent Scotland would need to mirror much of the rest of the UK’s approach to benefits, wages and fiscal policy for the continuing currency union to succeed.
From the point of view of the rest of the UK it would be easier if Scotland did decide to quit the UK if she left the currency union at the same time. Political union and currency union are two sides of the same coin. Take one away, and the other collapses or buckles under the new strains.