Former SNP minister says party needs to relaunch major independence campaign
Herald Scotland, by Andrew Whitaker
Alex Neil is a rarity for the SNP as a former cabinet minister-turned-backbencher voicing opinions at odds with the leadership of a party that in the eyes of many didn’t appear to do dissent.
"I don’t think it’s gone wrong for the SNP", Neil says as he sits in a Scottish Parliament cafe affectionately nicknamed by MSPs as "Margo’s" after the late heroine of the independence movement Margo MacDonald.
"But we need to resuscitate the campaign for Yes," says Neil, who was a long-time ally of MacDonald both during her time on the left of the SNP and later when she sat as an independent MSP.
It’s the very last day of what has been a bruising parliamentary summer session for the SNP, one that saw Nicola Sturgeon put the party’s referendum plans on hold in the wake of shock election losses. Neil reflects on recent events: "You’ve got to recognise that we’ve been in government for 10 years and 10 years is a long time," says Neil, who stepped down from Sturgeon’s government in 2016 after being a minister for seven of those years.
Neil, a minister under both Alex Salmond and Sturgeon, continues: "We’ve never had a government in for so long under devolution – the maximum before was eight years of coalition with Labour and the Liberals.
"Alex was more a chairman of the board, whereas Nicola tends to be a chief executive," he says when asked about life in the cabinets of the two leaders. And he’s quick to add: "I’m not saying one is better than the other."
But sitting in the Holyrood cafe sipping a glass of Irn-Bru, Neil says he’s confident the SNP can regain its mojo and revive the independence campaign.
"I think the message of the election is that we’ve got to adapt and change and we’ve got to put our foot on the accelerator, but I’m sure we will learn that lesson and regain the initiative," he says, referring to the 21 Westminster seats the SNP lost.
There no hint whatsoever of "I told you so" from Neil who warned the party months ago to postpone a second referendum until spring 2019 at the earliest, when the final Brexit deal is known.
It’s a policy shift Sturgeon effectively announced last week, when she said the referendum plans would be placed on hold until Brexit negotiations conclude and which she anticipates should be in autumn 2018.
"I think the case for independence is stronger than ever, quite frankly," says Neil, who shocked his party when he revealed he had voted for Brexit in the EU referendum.
It’s a stance that Neil insists has not led to any SNP backlash against him. "I’ve never had one ill word from anyone, not the party whips or any type of pressure," he points out. "No-one has tried to discipline me or alienate me and I’ve not been sent to Coventry.
"I don’t think anything I’ve done by contributing to policy debate has been disloyal. It’s quite the opposite, I think."
Neil, who says the climax of the Brexit talks is the right time to set out a prospectus for an independent Scotland, once the rules of the game become apparent, continues: "We have to respond to Brexit by pushing the case for independence."
Salmond’s health secretary in 2014, Neil believes launching a campaign to build support for independence over the summer and beyond is the answer. He says: "Looking back, one of the mistakes in hindsight we made is that after the 2014 referendum we stopped making the case for independence.
"I think we need to correct that mistake and run a massive campaign over the next few years to try to persuade many more people of the case for independence."
Neil, who is in a reflective mood ahead of a planned holiday to Spain, claims the SNP has got clogged up in referendum processes rather than making the case for independence.
He says: "One of the things that we need to put right is that we’ve put the process before the substantive case. The referendum’s a technique and independence is a strategic objective, so let’s stick to the strategic objective and let’s use that technique."
Neil adds: "The SNP needs to reach out much more than we’ve actually done to the other independence groups such as the Scottish Independence Convention, Women for Independence, and Business for Scotland."
He also predicts that "there will also be a much bigger Labour for independence campaign in a second referendum as there are people who are still Labour but have become convinced of the case for independence".
But Neil, who began life in Labour before quitting to form the defunct breakaway Scottish Labour Party with his long-time ally Jim Sillars and later joining the SNP, says he will never rejoin his original party.
"I’d never ever go back into the Labour Party – the SNP is a left-of-centre party whose objective is independence."
Intriguingly though, Neil says that under independence the SNP and Labour would become closer, and cites what he says is common ground with Jeremy Corbyn.
He says: "Having said that I think there will be a realignment in an independent Scotland. It’s almost inevitable. I don’t think it will be an institutional arrangement with Labour – I think it will be more of a co-operation of people of a like mind.
"There is a broad consensus in Scotland on a lot of policy areas."
However, Neil says focusing on regaining an overall majority at Holyrood in 2021 is now the SNP’s best bet for securing a second referendum.
He adds: "It’s much more difficult to get a referendum without getting an overall majority – I believe we can get that overall majority in 2021 but there are certain things we need to do to get that overall majority,
"We’ve got to put plans in place for the longer term in terms of reforming the health service, finances and taxation, industrial policy. And we have to improve living standards for everyone."
But as Neil finishes off his Irn-Bru he says it’s the fight bubbling with the Tories over the UK Government’s £1 billion funding deal with the DUP in Northern Ireland that could prove decisive.
Neil calls on SNP ministers to go further than simply launch a formal dispute, saying they should sue the UK Government over the deal.
He says: "I think they have breached a fundamental part of the financial settlement. The fiscal framework has been agreed and I think they have breached the principles of the fiscal framework."
It’s a fight Neil believes could herald similar action by the devolved government in Wales, as well as by the elected mayors of regions such as Labour’s Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester.
He says: "If we won that legal case I think it would force Theresa May out of Downing Street."
In a statement that could give supporters of independence a ray of light after a chastening few weeks, he says: "What a tremendous blow for freedom that would be."