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As phoney war ends we need a rational debate

That is it then; the holiday season is over and this week 2014 begins in earnest.

BATTLE: First Minister Alex Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the launch of the independence White Paper in November.
BATTLE: First Minister Alex Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the launch of the independence White Paper in November.

And what a fascinating year this will be, for economy watchers and of course for the small matter of the constitutional future of Scotland. To some extent the developments in both the UK economy and the debate on Scottish constitutional change in 2013 were no more than the 'phoney war' stage.

It is in 2014 that we will see whether a true and sustainable recovery of our economy is under way. Also, over the next few months we have to see a full and meaningful debate on key issues - including economic - related to constitutional change if the referendum judgement is to be based on sound evidence rather than primarily rhetoric.

Allow me first to assess the overall UK outlook. The story that I have been telling for many moons now looks to be widely accepted. The recovery in output to date is most welcome - as is the much better than anticipated position on unemployment. However, there have to be caveats on the 2013 performance and hence the story going forward.

The only real momentum for our economy has come from consumption. This is the bulk of our economy so should account for the bulk of our growth. But, (caveat 1) this growth has come from increased borrowing rather than real growth in incomes; and (caveat 2) key elements essential for sustainable growth - investment and exports in particular - have been heading in the wrong direction.

As is now widely appreciated, real incomes have been declining - nominal income growth has on average been distinctly below the rate of price inflation.

Therefore real growth in expenditure has come via reducing savings and/or increasing net borrowing; and this at a time when net borrowing remains excessive after the trials of the recession. To some extent this unlikely trend may be due to higher perceived wealth. House prices have started to recover, alongside inducements to borrow for that sector and unsustainably low interest (and hence mortgage) rates.

The Governor of the Bank of England understands this and will both limit inducements to borrow for house purchase and delay as long as possible rate hikes. But the Chancellor may be reluctant to dampen consumer spirits in advance of this year's European elections and next year's UK General Election. The risks are high.

Come what may, the focus has to be on encouraging investment and innovation and making best use of skills, all essential to enhancing productivity and making our economy more competitive in an increasingly competitive global market place. That applies equally to Scotland and the rest of the UK. Hence the key challenges for the year ahead are first to achieve a 'soft landing' for consumption and UK households and second to encourage ever-increasing productivity. Not easy but essential.

Now I turn to the constitutional debate. Despite the White Paper and the torrent of papers issued last year, there remain a host of issues to be resolved. To state the blindingly obvious, before casting our vote in September we need to have as good an idea as we can as to what 'yes' and 'no' would mean.

Taking the latter first, I do hope that in the coming months there can be much greater clarity as to what - if any - further devolution should be expected to take place in the event of a 'no' vote. The various parties in Scotland have various reviews and commissions at work. They all appear to basically accept that some further devolution, including further financial devolution, is desirable.

The changes due following the Scotland Act are limited; most voters want more of the same to be at least considered positively. Of course there are difficulties, with so many different players involved - UK Government, 'Better Together', and three parties in Holyrood. But we need to know what enhanced financial devolution would be planned before casting that vote.

Another key issue remaining unresolved, this time in the event of a 'yes' vote, is that of currency. This is absolutely critical not just for its own sake but also because of the implications for both monetary and fiscal policy regimes and for the 'wider economy'.

I agree that retaining sterling is far and away the preferred option. The prospect of either adopting the euro or setting up Scotland's own currency fills me with dread. But at present we seem stuck in pantomime mode when considering the prospect of a sterling currency union. 'Oh yes we can' says the First Minister and colleagues; 'Oh no we can't' responds the UK Chancellor. Thank goodness our Canadian friend at the Bank of England has at least agreed that the issue should be discussed.

Please let that proper discussion commence - with a focus on the economic analysis not the political rhetoric. For starters, is the currency union a viable and potentially durable proposition for all involved?

And if so what would the implications be for monetary and fiscal policy in an independent Scotland? Over the coming months we must have rational and evidence-based debate between the key parties. Time is not on our side and reaching referendum date without clarity on this critical issue is close to unthinkable.

Jeremy Peat is director of The David Hume Institute

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