Q&A with Blair Jenkins

Published

Louise Wilson

With the Glasgow University Independence Referendum due to take place tomorrow, the Guardian got the chance to ask Blair Jenkins, Chief Executive of Yes Scotland, a few questions.

 Q&A with Blair Jenkins

Guardian: What can we expect to see from the Yes Scotland campaign in the coming months? How are you planning to go ahead with persuading people to vote ‘Yes’?

Blair Jenkins: We have moved into a new phase of the debate where discussion is now focused on the “why” of independence rather than the “how” – substance as opposed to process. Over the course of this year we will be concentrating on specific aspects of life, spelling out in detail why we believe independence offers the best path for tackling problems where Westminster has consistently failed, and showing why independence is the way to create the kind of Scotland we all want for ourselves and future generations. This month, for example, we will be focusing on how Scotland could and should be a fairer country and why this goes hand-in-glove with nurturing a prosperous, thriving economy.

Guardian: After chosen to be Chief Executive of Yes Scotland, you explicitly stated that the campaign “will not be dominated by party politics”. Do you feel this has been the case, considering much of the Independence coverage focuses on the SNP and Alex Salmond?

Blair Jenkins: The Yes campaign is a very broad church. Of course, political parties are playing parts, including the Scottish Greens and the SSP as well as the SNP.  We also have support from groups such as Labour for Independence, Lib Dems for Independence and Women for Independence. And we have lots of people who support an independent Scotland who have no party political affiliation, including myself.  I think the media coverage is increasingly reflecting this.

Guardian: Are you happy with the referendum question being changed to “Should Scotland be an independent country?” after the initial question was criticised for being unfair?

Blair Jenkins: Yes. I think the Electoral Commission is to be congratulated for a very professional job. The fact that both sides of the debate accepted all the Commission’s recommendations speaks for itself.

Guardian: Are you happy with how the students supporting ‘Yes Scotland’ have handled the Glasgow University Independence Referendum?

Blair Jenkins: Yes, very happy. But to be fair, I think students on both sides of the argument have conducted themselves in a very courteous and respectful manner and that should be an example that we all follow.  I think it’s vital that students – and younger people in general – are engaged in the debate because they have the biggest stake in securing the right future for Scotland.

Guardian: Will the result of the GU Indy Ref, whatever the outcome may be, change the campaign plans of Yes Scotland between now and autumn 2014?

Blair Jenkins: We fully understand that to secure a Yes vote in 2014 we have to persuade that very large section of people who currently stand in the “undecided” camp that having all the tools we need to create the kind of fair, prosperous and socially just country most Scots aspire to only come with independence. We will be fully focused on that right up to voting day.

Guardian: How do you respond to claims that an independent Scotland would have to reapply to the EU? Is there any new evidence that states Scotland would automatically remain part of the EU?

Blair Jenkins: There is nobody in the debate who now says that an independent Scotland would somehow be excluded from the EU, not even Alistair Darling. Even the eminent international law experts brought in to advise the UK Government have made it clear Scotland’s membership of the EU as well as other international bodies such as the UN will not be difficult or take very long. The point to remember is that there will be an 18-plus month gap between a Yes vote and Independence Day.  The UK legal advisers believe that should be enough time to complete the necessary negotiations.  So the question of whether we’d automatically be EU members or not on independence day is totally academic – all the necessary work will already have been done – from inside the EU.

Guardian: How will the British military, which is currently heavily intertwined, be split to create a separate Scottish army? What will happen to the Scottish men and women currently in Afghanistan – will they be returned to Scotland? How much will this cost?

Blair Jenkins: This would be a matter for discussion and agreement between the Scottish and Westminster governments. In terms of military hardware, there would be a division of assets in the same way that other assets will need to be reallocated.  The division of personnel would be a mixed question of negotiation and personal choice – some might choose to stay with UK forces, other will want to switch. I believe an independent Scotland would focus defence policy on the security of Scotland – that is not what happens now.  For example, the decision by the UK Government to scrap the Nimrod maritime surveillance aircraft programme (after spending £3.8 billion), was criticised by former defence chiefs and politicians as leaving a massive capability gap  – certainly not in the interests of a country with so much coastline and with such significant assets located in the North Sea. We would likely adopt a defence profile similar to countries such as Denmark, Sweden or Norway and we would continue to work in partnership with other nations over defence – just as our neighbours train, procure and share facilities together.  As an independent country, we could make different decisions on whether we took part in operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.  But countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Norway have been active and influential in places such as Libya.  And, of course, we would see an end to nuclear weapons on the Clyde.   The Scottish Government has proposed using the Faslane naval base as our joint force headquarters (army, navy and RAF) as well as our main conventional naval base.

Guardian: As EU citizens, English, Northern Irish and Welsh students would be entitled to the same free tuition fees as other non-UK EU citizens, what will Scottish independence mean for university fees?

Blair Jenkins: The current Scottish Government has a strong commitment to free education.  That would indeed have implications on independence, as students from the rUK (as “EU students”) would then be entitled to the same treatment when they came to study here.  That will be for the Scottish Government to address.  However, the key point is that it is Scotland which is in the European mainstream that provides free (or nearly free) higher and further education.  As recently as March of last year, a House of Commons library briefing concluded “Most EU [and EEA] students pay no tuition fees, or low tuition fees”. Austria, Denmark, Norway and Finland are all countries that have rejected tuition fees.

Guardian: What is the “setting up” cost of an independent Scotland likely to be, with regards to new government infrastructure that will need to be created?

Blair Jenkins: A number of new government departments would be set up in Scotland – for example a new Treasury or Finance Department, and a Department for Foreign Affairs.  With other government functions, a decision would be made on whether to transfer these to new Scottish offices or, if beneficial, to continue to pay for them to be provided as before – for example the Driver Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) in Swansea.  The people of Scotland already pay for all these services through general taxation – however, far too few of these jobs are based here.  By transferring many of them to Scotland, we will be able to create new and valuable jobs.

Guardian: Will an independent Scotland be able to cope with the inherited deficit? How much is this likely to be?

Blair Jenkins: Again, the precise arrangements for sharing national debt would be subject to negotiation.  But figures released in January 2012 by City firm M&G Investments showed that Scotland’s debt as a percentage of national wealth was smaller than the UK’s.  For Scotland it was 56%, for the UK 63% – as the report said, Scotland’s starting point looks better than the UK as a whole.  And, thanks to North Sea oil and gas, we have an asset worth more than £1 trillion – that’s 10 times our share of the UK national debt. Oil, though, is just one element that gives us one of the best safety nets for the future of any country in the world.

Guardian: Who will qualify for Scottish passports? Will Scots living in England be entitled to a Scottish passport? Will English people living in Scotland be entitled to one? What about dual nationality?

Blair Jenkins: Entitlement to citizenship on Independence Day will form part of the “pre-constitution platform” the Scottish Government talked about in its recent “roadmap” document.  Basically, details will emerge from negotiations, and then subsequent changes to citizenship rules will be a matter for Scottish Governments.  However, we would certainly anticipate a very inclusive model allowing for citizenship based on both residency and ancestry, and allowing for the possibility of dual citizenship. I would expect further details to be in the White Paper, but the First Minister recently spoke of “maximising” citizenship rights. The ties of family and friendship that exist on these isles will certainly continue and prosper.  Just as at present, people will be able to pass freely between Scotland, Wales, England, Northern Ireland and Ireland without the need for a passport or photo ID.  We will continue to use the same currency and to promote business and trade with our biggest trading partner.  The strong cultural links will remain – television and radio, music, the arts, and sport to name but a few.  Under the Scottish Government’s proposals, we will share the same head of state, the Queen.  And while independence means an end to government from Westminster, the two governments will work closely together whenever we have a shared interest.  In the short term, we will inherit the same rules as for UK citizenship, with any changes decided by the Scottish people and parliament.  Shared or “dual” citizenship would be offered in acknowledgment of the close ties and shared history of Scotland and the United Kingdom.

Guardian: What currency will an independent Scotland take? Will Bank of Scotland notes become the ‘legal tender’ officially? Will Bank of England notes be removed from circulation in Scotland? Or will Scotland join the Euro (even if not immediately), assuming its membership in the EU?

Blair Jenkins: The Fiscal Commission Working Group, which includes two Nobel laureates and reported recently, said it made absolute economic sense for there to be a monetary union once Scotland becomes independent.  This would benefit both Scotland and the rest of the UK. So an independent Scotland would at the outset retain sterling. As a fully tradable currency it is a straightforward matter for Scotland to continue to use the pound.   Retaining the pound in common with our neighbours and biggest trading partners will ensure stability and continuity for businesses and individuals.  There are 40 countries around the world in currency unions.