What currency issue?

I wonder if it would be possible to develop a phone app that delivers a non-lethal but painful electric shock to every supposed independence supporter who mentions ‘the currency issue’. It has become one of those phrases that are used out of habit and custom rather than for anything they add to understanding of the issues. For anyone commenting on Scotland’s constitutional debate, a random mention of ‘the currency issue’ is now de rigeur. As is the way with such phatic language, nobody bothers to think about it. Nobody stops to consider whether there is any substance to the phrase. Nobody bothers to reflect upon how meaningful it is. Nobody wonders if this ‘currency issue’ is even a real thing. The phrase is trotted out endlessly and without the slightest concern as to whether it even makes any sense.

There are other such phrases. Phrases which have been reduced to hollow noises by misuse and overuse. Phrases that may once have conveyed something concrete or conceptual, but which no longer do so because of the blurring, dulling, diminishing effect of being deployed excessively and/or inappropriately. The term ‘political correctness’ comes immediately to mind. Whatever it may once have stood for, it is now no more than a convenient label for propositions which are disliked but can’t be refuted. A way of denigrating an argument without actually disputing it in any substantive way.

For those who don’t like a proposal but can’t quite manage to formulate a reasoned argument against it; or realise that the only counter-arguments they have reveal them to be stupid and bigoted, then the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’ provides a handy escape route. It doesn’t really matter what the phrase means. It doesn’t even matter that it almost certainly means nothing at all in the context. It’s just what you say in those uncomfortable circumstances.

So it is with the phrase ‘the currency issue’. If the subject is the first independence referendum, or the constitutional debate more generally, it is pretty much obligatory to work it in there somewhere. It’s just a rhetorical device. A way of signalling that you’re dispassionate and even-handed enough to recognise failings or shortcomings in the Yes message. It doesn’t matter what the phrase means, or whether it means anything. It has the attribute of recognisability. People are accustomed to it. Through prolonged and repeated exposure, they are familiar with it.

People know, almost instinctively now, what the expected and socially accepted response is to the phrase ‘the currency issue’. Usually a sage and solemn nodding that says, “Ah, yes! The currency issue! Hmmm!”

More importantly, they don’t question it. Nobody – or almost nobody – responds by asking, “What currency issue?” Nobody – or precious few – insist that those who use the phrase have a responsibility to explain it. With only rare exceptions, nobody demands that those using the phrase define their terms.

Why would they? After all, everybody knows what ‘the currency issue’ is, don’t they? Do they? Well! Even if they don’t fully understand it, or can’t actually explain it, it’s still a real thing, isn’t it? Is it?

But it has to be real! It’s in all the papers. And everybody talks about it. Even Yes supporters. In fact, especially Yes supporters. It must be real, mustn’t it? Must it?

People ‘know’ about lots of things that they neither understand or are capable of explaining. Like the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe, for example. Or globalisation.

People talk about a great many things that aren’t real. Like the ‘trickle down effect’, for instance. Or astrology.

The phrase ‘currency issue’ belongs firmly in this dubious realm. For those looking to understand why a Yes vote was not secured in the first independence referendum, the whole ‘currency issue’ thing is illuminating. Basically, a Yes vote was lost because, at any given time, as much of a third of the Yes campaign was busy doing the No campaign’s work for it. While the anti-independence mob was always relentlessly ‘on message’, large parts of the Yes movement spent much of the campaign attacking other bits of the Yes movement. Mostly the SNP. But far from exclusively.

The message from Better Together/Project Fear may have been entirely dishonest. But it was consistent. It was all a lie. But it was a simple lie. A lie that everybody on the No side could easily promulgate. Just say No! No complications. No provisos or caveats or conditions. No doubt or hesitation or even thought. The SNP are evil! Alex Salmond is the spawn of Satan! Independence would be an unmitigated catastrophe! That’s all there was to British nationalist message.

Contrast that with a Yes campaign which at times seemed to have as many different messages as there were campaign groups. “Yes, but…” went up against “Just say No”. And lost!

OK! It was a wee bit more complicated than that. But not much. The Yes side allowed the No side to dictate the agenda. The anti-independence campaign won by taking the debate entirely onto the ground of economics, where it is surpassingly easy to generate uncertainty and fear. The Yes side went on the defensive. Instead of challenging the whole basis of the union, they allowed the British state to be presented as an ideal and the standard against which alternatives had to be judged. The Yes campaign was so preoccupied with being ‘positive’ and fending off all manner of wild allegations concerning the supposed risks of independence their was almost no effort to highlight the equal or greater risks associated with remaining part of the UK.

If the Yes side had put half as much effort into challenging unionist propaganda as it put into questioning its own case, the outcome could well have been very different.

The ‘currency issue’ thing illustrates this nicely. When Better Together/Project Fear put the question, “What currency will independent Scotland use?”, this became a facile propaganda cue for all British nationalists. What we need to recognise, however, is that a shocking number of Yes supporters picked up and ran with the same line. In a knee-jerk reaction that was horrifying to behold, countless Yes supporters joined in with the attacks on Alex Salmond and the Scottish Government.

When Better Together/Project Fear shouted, “What currency?”, that shout was unthinkingly echoed by a significant part of the Yes movement. When they squawked, “What’s your Plan B?”, Yes supporters repeated the question over and over like a flock of particularly dull-witted parrots.

Generally a deplorably humourless lot, Blair McDougall’s little band of dissemblers and doom-mongers must have been pissing their union jack panties as they watched their efforts being amplified by the opposition. Certain Yes groups became Project Fear’s most potent weapons. At times, it was difficult to tell where the No campaign ended and the Yes campaign began.

And it’s still happening. Despite the lessons of the past and despite having had ample time to do the thinking that they previously neglected, Yes supporters continue to repeat the phrase ‘currency issue’ ad nauseam.

Those of us who did engage our intellects back then have long been aware that there is no ‘currency issue’. It is not a real thing. It is a propaganda artefact, nothing more. The only sensible answer to the “What currency?” question is, “It doesn’t matter!”. Because, if you actually think about it, it really doesn’t matter. It’s a daft question. A maliciously daft question intended to contrive uncertainty.

It doesn’t matter in the sense that there is no ‘correct’ answer, as the question itself implies. There are a number of currency options available to independent Scotland. But there is no ‘solution’. There is no option that is absolutely guaranteed to be ideal for all of time and in any imaginable circumstances. There is no solution that just works. Whatever option is chosen, it will have to be made to work. So, it really is of no great consequence which option is selected. The pertinent question is not what currency we will use, but whether Scotland has the capacity to manage whatever option is chosen. It’s not what the currency is called that’s important, but whether it can be made to work.

That is where the Yes campaign failed. Not only in relation to the mythical ‘currency issue’, but in relation to a whole range of such ‘issues’. Instead of going along with the British nationalist narrative, we should have been challenging it. All of it. And all of us.

Instead of questioning our own message, we should have been scrutinising and interrogating the British state’s propaganda.

Instead of parroting the phrase ‘currency issue’ we should have been asking “What currency issue?”. We should have been demanding to know whether unionists were implying that Scotland was incapable of managing its currency – whatever it might be. We should have been insisting that they explain their reasons for supposing that Scotland would be unable to make its chosen currency solution work.

Instead of picking holes in our own message we should have been shredding theirs. The British establishment’s threat to arbitrarily and unilaterally abolish the currency union was extremely vulnerable. It is no surprise that the mainstream media failed to scrutinise that position. They are worse than useless. It is unbelievable that the Yes campaign failed to blow it out of the water. And it is unforgivable that a large part of the Yes movement chose to attack the Scottish Government’s entirely reasonable position rather than take advantage of this massive weakness in the anti-independence propaganda effort.

I’ve long since abandoned hope that ‘the currency issue’ will be killed off as it deserves. There are just too many dullards who are incorrigibly attached to it. But I take some small pleasure from imagining these people getting a crippling jolt of electricity every time they repeat this mindless mantra.

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17 thoughts on “What currency issue?

    1. Peter A Bell Post author

      I did say there were a few voices in the desert. Not enough, though. And I’m increasingly convinced it won’t make any difference. There’s a big chunk of the Yes movement that is totally obsessed with banging on about how weak the independence case is and how we need these magic numbers that will convert all those ‘soft Nos’. If they put a fraction of that effort into picking apart the British nationalist propaganda, we’d be looking at a certain Yes vote in #indyref2.

      But it’s not going to happen. Weak as the No campaign is after all its lies have been exposed, it will still be able to rely on help from within the Yes movement. They can still depend on the righteous radicals and others putting their factional interests before the main objective. They can still be confident that the media will dictate the agenda according to the needs of established power; and about a third of the Yes movement will happily go along with the manipulation.

  1. J W Brown

    Good stuff, but like a lot of books I read, would be much better if half the length – good points obscured by too many words.

    Let me sum it up.

    Independence equals control.

    It’s not about what currency we might use, it’s about the ability to make the decision.

    The above sentence applies to everything – EU, NATO, etc

    Don’t fight on the other side’s ground.

  2. Gerry Parker

    Despite their absurd assertion that “you won’t get to use the pound”, not one person that made that statement to me was able to say how this would work in practice.

    What would happen to all the pounds that were held in bank accounts by Scots?
    Would they be stolen from us?- theft surely and against the law.

    Would they be converted to another currency? – I can imagine what the arrival in the forex market of millions of pounds to be converted to other currencies would have on the pounds value supply and demand.

    Would the GBP still be internationally tradable as a currency if it couldn’t be used in an independent Scotland?

    To my knowledge no one ever posed these questions when the issue came up but they did start talking about plan b, currency union and lender of last resort ( which I always understood to be the IMF – the UK had to go there once before I seem to recall.

    Classic deflection tactics rather than answer the question ” how will that work in practice then”.

    1. Peter A Bell

      There’s a catalogue of questions about the British state’s currency threat that were never asked. For a start, there’s the matter of how the policy of abolishing the currency union was decided. And by whom. Bear in mind that this was a massive policy shift for the UK Government and the British parties. It’s almost impossible to overstate how big a deal it was. And yet nobody in the mainstream media, and precious few in the Yes campaign, bothered to ask about the process by which this policy was adopted.

      Imagine, for example, the UK Government announcing out of the blue that it was intending to join the Eurozone. Imagine that all the British parties simply went along with the decision. Imagine that there was no discussion in cabinet; no impact assessment; co consultation with the Bank of England, CBI etc.; and no debate in the HoC.

      Imagine that there was no scrutiny of this in the media but, rather, a virulent campaign against anybody who dared to question the policy.

      Imagine all of that and you get an idea of how extraordinary the situation was when George Osborne gave his ‘Sermon on the Pound’.

  3. Jams O'Donnell

    Yes, you are entirely right Peter. But if we leave the question open it gives an impression of uncertainty to waverers and a gap in the armour for attacks. The Yes movement must choose a valid, possibly interim answer to this question, emphasise all the pro’s and deal effectively with all the con’s and possible obstacles so that there is no room for the unionists to attack on this front. Like all the other proposals for an independent Scotland it must be as bullet-proof as possible to counteract the inevitable hostile propaganda.

    1. Peter A Bell

      Did somebody suggest we “leave the question open”? I certainly didn’t. what I said was that we should deal with the question in an appropriate manner.

      We had a “valid” answer during the first referendum campaign. The problem was that a big part of the Yes campaign chose to join in the Better Together/Project Fear attacks on the Scottish Government’s position when they should have been attacking the British state’s position.

      The notion that there might be some position that can’t be attacked by unionists is simply naive. They would have attacked whatever position the Scottish Government took. Which is why the SG went for the most easily defensible option. The claim that Salmond got it wrong on currency assumes that there was a ‘right’ position. Or, at least, a better position. There wasn’t!

      It’s just unfortunate that so many in the Yes movement were too blind to see this. And even more unfortunate that, from where I’m sitting, they seem intent on make the same mistake again.

  4. bjsalba

    The key question is the one you just posed, Peter,

    Would the GBP still be internationally tradable as a currency if it couldn’t be used in an independent Scotland?

    The answer is NO IT WOULD NOT.

    And that would mean the end of London as a financial centre.

    PS I worked in banking IT for 25 years – part of the time on an international money movement system.

  5. bringiton

    I can remember attending a meeting in Edinburgh South prior to indy1 when a baying mob of rabid Tories were demanding to know what our plan B was on currency.
    I was reminded of Grouch Marx at the time,here is my plan and if you don’t like it,I have others.
    These people were never going to be satisfied with any plan that involved Scotland deciding for itself.
    Even if we had all agreed to keep the pound,they would have said “What’s the point of independence if everything remains the same?”
    Absolutely correct Peter,not important except to those who reject Scottish independence.
    Can’t remember the last time I used cash for anything and many times make purchases by credit card on web sites that require Euro or Dollar payments and I am sure that goes for many people.

  6. Fraser1886

    Agree completely and we let the No side off with murder when we allowed them to hold the UK up as some kind of financially prudent country when in fact we should have been highlighting

    the shocking deficit,
    the relentless unbalanced budgets,
    the falling wages,
    the stagnating productivity over 40 years,
    the fact it took the UK 350 years to accumulate £1 trillion pound national debt and the Tories will double it in 10 years

    add to that they lump 10% of that utter mismanagement onto us, without us creating a fraction of it. Basically there was an open door to say can we afford to stay with the UK being such a basket case.There was limitless ammunition.

  7. Mike Fenwick

    Hi Peter … I’ve attached the jump leads – you have the button.

    You are correct in so many ways, not least in calling into question the use of the phrase “the currency issue” as a mantra which in and of itself is meaningless.

    Over the past 6 months, I have been attending meetings, speaking about some of the issues that are meaningful, most related to what I call “grassroots” issues – just one example will suffice: the fact that since a series of court cases running from the early 1800’s to as recent as a ruling by the Supreme Court in 2009 – it is a legal fact that any money deposited into a bank becomes the banks money – now what I learned from providing the evidence for that at the meetings is that very few people realise that is the case.

    Where does that potentially lead us – upon independence to the establishment of a Scottish Central Bank in which we as individuals open an account in our name and retain legal ownership of our money – it does not stop us using commercial banks, but it most certainly establishes who owns our money, whether that is wages from a zero hours contract,, welfare benefits, or pensions.

    Now is that a “currency issue”? Not in the way it is far too often talked about, but it is one of the issues that should be discussed as widely as possible imho. There are many more such – because gaining independence creates opportunities to change many such things to the benefit of us all in Scotland.

    And those benefits do not accrue only to YES supporters, it is on issues such as this, that YES supporters can engage in conversation with (specifically) soft Nos, where, and this is where you are correct, the phrase “the currency issue” hid some of the main beneficial features of independence.

    Because of the responses and encouragement I gained at the meetings, i started a blog and Facebook page to widen as far as possible an understanding of what this word “currency” obscures, and which I believe are of direct benefit to us all upon independence … to save me adding more, you will find it at:

    https://www.facebook.com/thescottishhand/

    Should you disagree with that attempt in opening up these issues …. should you wish me to stop immediately …you have the button!

    1. Peter A Bell

      I can’t imagine why you’d think I might want you to stop. This is excellent stuff. My only concern – and it is a general one not directly relating to the issues you seek to address – is that excessive concentration on BEING independent may detract from the more immediately pressing matter of BECOMING independent.

      It’s not an either/or thing. It’s about getting the balance right.

      I am firmly persuaded that, in order to win #indyref2, we have to be much more focused than we were the first time around. We have to keep the message pared down and simple. and we have to get the whole Yes movement singing from the same hymn-sheet.

      Discussion of policy issues that aren’t really relevant until and unless we get a Yes vote can tend to muddy the waters. It can also enrich the debate. It’s a real dilemma. But my conviction is that we should err on the side of clarity as far as possible.

  8. J W Brown

    OK, I was maybe a bit short in my comment above. So here goes.

    There is no perfect currency, education, health, pension, trade etc system – and, while all of these are important and worthy of discussion in their own right, they have nothing to do with independence.

    Independence is about control. It’s about being in the position of being able to make decisions not about the decisions we make.

    The question we were asked in 2014 was – Do you think that we here in Scotland should control our own affairs or should we let people elsewhere control our affairs for us?

    The referendum campaign was fought on unionist ground – they laid the traps and invited us across the nice boggy ground.

    We need to fight on our ground. Our ground is independence. If you think the word is unimportant, try getting a unionist to say it. On the other hand, just mention currency, and you’ll be there till the coos come hame.

    Just sayin’

    JW

  9. Alan Bissett

    When Yes supporters talk about the ‘weakness’ of the currency issue in indyref1 it’s sometimes not that they believe a currency union couldn’t or wouldn’t have worked, it’s that it depended upon co-operation from Westminster after a Yes vote, and that couldn’t be guaranteed.

    This is exactly the reason why the No campaign ruled it out. It didn’t make any economic sense for them to do so, but made perfect strategic sense: to sow doubt and confusion.

    At that point, Salmond should’ve outlined his preferred next option. There was never any economic weaknesses for Yes in the ‘currency issue’, only tactical ones.

    This is why when Salmond refused to reveal what the ‘Plan B’ for currency was,the first Salmond v Darling debate, it *looked* weak. I stress ‘looked’, because as a Yes activist I knew fine well what the other options were, knew that the Unionists were likely bluffing on sharing the pound, knew that we could use the pound whether they were bluffing or not etc.

    I knew also that Salmond didn’t want to get trapped in laying out all those options because it could’ve looked indecisive and because he was well aware that the No campaign would’ve picked holes in any option anyway, since that’s what they were there to do. But when pressed on ‘Plan B’ he *appeared* evasive, as though such a thing hadn’t been thought through, even when it had. And perception is everything. Especially for Undecideds.

    As such, Salmond allowed ‘the currency issue’ – which was sound economically – to become symptomatic of that dreaded bogeyman ‘uncertainty’.

    The problem is that some Yes supporters have confused the *tactical* weakness of the currency plan in indyref1 with an *economic* weakness. This is why we have to be very careful about the way we discuss the ‘currency issue’. To suggest that it was flawed *economically* is a danger, because it bolsters the No case in retrospect in a way they don’t deserve.

    I think there’s also a larger point about the ‘currency issue’, which you may be hinting at. When asked why they voted the way they did, research has shown that No voters raise themes like ‘currency’. I’m guessing this is why the Yes supporters keep mentioning it in a panicky way even now, but I’ve never been convinced such reasons are completely genuine. We shouldn’t misunderstand a key strategy of Better Together.

    BT recognised that while some No voters proudly vaunt their British identity and are defiantly anti-independence, many others may have felt a silent sense of guilt at marking their cross in that box, as though they were going ‘against’ their country or admitting that Scotland was somehow inferior to other nations.

    What BT needed to do was mitigate that feeling, by providing such voters with handy soundbites, especially when faced with probing by Yes-voting friends and family. Very few No voters felt comfortable saying in public that Scots weren’t ‘up to it’ (since that is essentially what their vote meant) so answering instead, ‘What’s the Plan B?’ – as though somehow we’d be left with no currency at all – at least *sounded* as though their objections had a basis in material reality. It provided a handy get-out clause for their conscience, one which had the semblance of putting Yes supporters on the backfoot.

    (as I say, Salmond didn’t help in this regard during the first TV debate with Darling)

    Meaningless slogans like “I love my children, I’m voting No” and “too many unanswered questions” worked in exactly the same way. It was all about massaging the psychology of those who felt bad about inclining towards No.

    So I agree we certainly shouldn’t be discussing currency as an economic ‘weakness’ in the indyref1 offer, for to do so simply bolsters the No campaign’s strategy, by making such voters feel they were right all along instead of mouthing BT soundbites.

    A far more effective argument for indyref2 would be to say, ‘While we still believe that sharing the pound would work for boh iScotland and rUK, we have had to change our currency plans in the light of the UK government’s refusal to share Sterling the first time around. Hence, here are the other options. Option X is the one preferred by the Scottish govt at this time, but as a nation we would have the future choice of Options Y and Z in case our circumstances change. The point is that independence would bring us the CHOICE.”

    This lays the blame for a change in position on Westminster’s intransigence, rather than on any perceived weaknesses of our previous economic case, but also neutralises the BT strategy outlined earlier.

    Very simple, really.

  10. Del

    In the 1920s, after a lot of blood was lost, Southern Ireland gained its independence. To begin with, SI traded using the £. Subsequently they invented and used the punt and (initially) pegged it to the £. Then it went its own way; then (much later) they joined the Euro.
    So the first question for an independent Scotland would be – how do you start trading with the rest of the UK, Europe and the World? Naysayers sowed a LOT of doubt in 2014 and the SNP/Yes campaign needs to have solid responses when the battle recommences in 2018.
    The other issue is who acts as guarantor to Scotland’s central finances and banks thereafter. Scotland’s portion of the Bank of England? A newly formed central bank of Scotland (please not BoS themselves who have proved themselves spectacularly incompetent over many years). The ‘no’ campaign stated plainly that Scotland couldn’t join the EU without such an institution. We need a full riposte – in words of half a syllable to that even Scotsman commenters can understand.
    Sorry if invoke Peter’s wrath of Khan but I believe we do not have solid answers to these questions. Get angry if you want. Shoot the messenger 🙂

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