What price the Union?

danny Alexander Image copyright bbc
Image caption Danny Alexander was speaking at the CBI dinner in Glasgow

Danny Alexander is unlikely to win any awards for inspiring rhetoric but he speaks with the authority of the coalition government.

So it is worth going over what he had to say at the CBI dinner in Glasgow.

The advance billing was of a speech that would set out the UK government's counter-arguments to the SNP administration, as it prepares the ground for a referendum on independence.

'The Quad' who run the coalition - PM David Cameron, his deputy Nick Clegg, Chancellor George Osborne and Danny Alexander, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury - met earlier this week to talk tactics.

There is a recognition that, with more than 100 days to absorb the shock of the SNP majority, the re-start of politics-as-normal post-summer requires a clearer strategy.

So we got Scottish Secretary Michael Moore with a puzzling message this week that seemed to call for the SNP to stop obsessing about independence and get on with governing, while calling for it to be clearer about its independence plans.

Ties that bind

Danny Alexander was making more of an economic case. Parts of it appear to have been found in a Treasury file dating back to Gordon Brown's days there.

"Stronger together". "Social ties that bind". And "being part of the long-standing and most successful fiscal, monetary and economic alliance in world history".

Familiar also were the fear arguments. We were told an independent Scotland would take on a national debt of £65bn, and would have faced a public sector deficit of £14bn in 2009-10 (with "heroic assumptions" on depleting oil revenue), giving Scotland one of Europe's largest deficits.

Terrifying figures, yes, but are they so much worse than the position of the UK as a whole? It doesn't look like it. If this case is to be maintained, that comparison will surely be tested.

What about the claim that an independent Scotland would have faced a "catastrophic" Irish/Icelandic scale of challenge from the big banks failing in 2008.

A fair point. That could have sunk the Scottish economy. But it is not clear - judging from an exchange of academic views on Radio Scotland and taken up by Radio 4's 'More or Less' last week - that an independent Scotland would have had to accept the full bill for bank activities beyond its borders.

Scottish strengths

So the response of the coalition parties is an appeal to Britain's historic successes, and deployment of the fear factor (the use of negative campaigning against Lib Dems was a lesson learned from this year's referendum on voting reform).

What, then, about the positive story to counter the nationalist vision of what Scotland could become?

That's a significant part of the emerging debate. And judging by Danny Alexander's speech, that seems to remain a work in progress.

His speech talked up Scotland's relatively strong position within the UK, with income per head beaten only by London and south-east England, and employment higher than the UK average.

It is not clear what that proves about independence. That the union is delivering, or that Scotland is strong enough to stand alone?

Trading drawbridge

There was emphasis also on the UK's highly-integrated economy, with two-thirds of goods and services "exports" by Scottish firms going to the rest of the UK.

The implication is that these would no longer be sold to foreign English and Welsh customers?

Some might not. Warships, for instance. It is less clear the English would pull up a trading drawbridge against other imports from north of an international border at the Tweed.

The weakness of the nationalist case around currency. The SNP favours membership of the euro, subject to a vote - but not yet. A shift to the euro if/when England sticks to sterling could add costs to that trade.

And it's something of short economic independence if monetary policy is controlled by a central bank in a foreign city, be it London or Frankfurt.

Perhaps Danny Alexander chose not to mention it because he used to be employed to promote the case for British membership of the euro.

Essential cornerstone

The positive language being deployed by the Chief Secretary is about the UK's togetherness, unity and credibility. The word 'union' seems to be out of favour, meanwhile, perhaps because it has confusing multiple meanings.

And there was a lot of talk of 'economic recovery' - with unity being the 'essential cornerstone' of economic recovery.

Being part of the UK is required for that recovery, goes the argument. And perhaps more significantly, working with Scotland is important to the recovery of the rest of the UK.

Perhaps the coalition's Quad is concerned that English people need to be persuaded of the benefits of being allied with Scotland as this debate develops, even if they don't get to vote on it.