SNP Independence is dead – start again or shut up
The SNP’s model of independence is broken beyond repair. The party should either build a new one or stop offering it as an alternative to Tory cuts, say Alex Bell
There is a strange moment in the TV coverage of the 2015 UK general election. Nicola Sturgeon is in a debate and a member of the audience admits to liking the new SNP leader but not supporting independence. She asks if she should join the party. Sturgeon listens and answers in what seems like perfect modern politicalese – you are welcome, she says. The audience in the studio and at home are comforted by the generosity, the non-tribalism of Nicola. It seems like a perfect example of our political leaders mending fences after a divisive campaign.
Consider what actually happened in that exchange. The leader of a party whose first tenet is independence is asking a person who openly admits she doesn’t want independence not just to vote for her, but to join the party. She is saying, implying at least, that the SNP is for people who are for Scotland – and that alone. There is no prescription to sign up for independence – just sign up for the SNP and its success. (Watch from 0930 onwards)
This shift in the party’s purpose from independence to being ‘Scotland’s party’ is often read as a simple tactic. The leadership are disguising their main aim, sovereignty, until a referendum victory looks likely. In fact something else is at work. The SNP is shifting its emphasis because the leadership can find no way of achieving the core aim safely.
Cut Nicola and no doubt she still bleeds independence, but what she means by that is far less clear than before the referendum. The doubt arises because the campaign towards the 2014 vote, and the economic information since, has kicked the old model to death. The idea that you could have a Scotland with high public spending, low taxes, a stable economy and reasonable government debt was wishful a year ago – now it is deluded.
A lesson of the referendum is that many arguments around independence are simply redundant. We can all agree you can have a nation of any size, governed in any way, seeking to do whatever it wants within the tolerance of the international community. Tranches of what occupied both sides up to September 2014 are simply distractions.
The only thing that matters in Scotland’s argument is this – what will be the likely economic health in the short to medium term, and what will that mean for government spending and borrowing? Dull, but it determines everything else.
2014 was an economic sweetspot for two reasons. It was a good year for oil, and it came after thirty good years. Thus the Scottish economy looked healthy and was able to boast that it had chipped in more to the UK treasury than it had got back over recent times.
That is not the same as being able to say the Scottish economy could afford British levels of spending, which was a significant plank of the Yes promise. That debatable point could be obscured by lots of noise, and the SNP is accomplished at shouting.
But Nicola Sturgeon knows the SNP is good at misdirection. The party’s success has been built on hard work and spin. Behind the scenes she isn’t gullible. It may work in public to rubbish claims by the Institute of Fiscal Studies that there is a gap between what Scots pay into government and what they get out in services, but only fools believe their own propaganda. The fact is a gap exists – Scotland does not earn enough to pay for its current level of spending.
Once you accept that, you acknowledge that the SNP’s model is broken. That model, as expressed in the White Paper and numerous speeches, is that it was possible to move from the UK to an independent Scotland and keep services at the same level, without either borrowing a lot more or raising taxes. It isn’t.
As sure as death and taxes, there will be an economic jolt in the road to independence. Scotland will have to pay to either increase borrowing, raise taxes or cut services to bridge the gap between revenue and spending. And that’s not the only bump.
The second shock to the system will be the cost of borrowing. A new state will inevitably attract higher borrowing costs. Thus the price of the debt we inherit from the UK will go up on independence day. There’s more.
The appeal of the SNP is that it resists austerity. It promised to reduce budgets by (fractionally) less during the 2015 election. In other words, it would borrow more. So on top of the higher cost of borrowing, you would have more borrowing to pay for. It doesn’t end there.
SNP fine print makes it crystal clear that it will not reverse the dastardly Tory cuts on independence. It will not reverse the privatisations or the anti-union legislation of Thatcher and nor will it repair the cuts of Cameron and Osborne. However, it does give the impression that, come sovereignty, it will restore things to what they were. Its central message in Westminster is that the state need not be dismantled. It is therefore reasonable to expect, voters certainly will, that spending goes up on independence. Which will add even further to borrowing.
However, Scotland may not be allowed to borrow that much. A currency Union, either Sterling or the Euro, would come with limits. A brand new currency may not be trusted by lenders. So taxes would have to go up to meet the spending gap and the extra money it takes to ‘repair’ the state.
But there is of course one more bump to overcome – the cost of transferring to an independent state in the first place. Recall all the problems associated with merging eight police forces into one and multiply this by a hundred. What price the transfer to sovereignty? £1 billion, maybe £2 billion.
Thus an economy which couldn’t afford existing spending will be hit by several significant new demands on the Treasury. Without a thorough, independent understanding of those additional charges, you can make no promises on what independence will be like. It is reasonable to assume that all these obstacles can be overcome, but it is stupid to deny they exist.
There is a paper somewhere in the civil service which sets out the idea of ‘independence in the UK’. Written by officials in 2012, and amounting to little more than a phrase and some bullet points, it tries to capture an idea of what Scotland could become. Few people saw the single sheet document and it’s probably long wiped from any computers by prudent officials.
What the official paper was getting at is that the SNP’s case – UK levels of spending, no tax increases, relatively high government borrowing but a stable economy – was more possible within the Union than without. With declining oil revenues and a long period of low growth, that is more true now than in the last couple of decades.
In the secretive world of the SNP, it’s impossible to know if Nicola has absorbed all of this. John Swinney, Finance Minster for eight years, never lets on he understands it, but if he doesn’t then he is unfit for the job. So we must assume these bright people know that the old model, once optimistic, is now dead.
The party unambiguously denies any doubt and says the only obstacle to independence is public opinion, which they hope to sway in the near future. But its actions speak to a different storyline.
In the final months of the campaign, it was obvious that energy and excitement were unleashed – there was a sense of possibility at large. “Independence” as a concept had escaped the bounds of the SNP and become a word which triggered five million possibilities. That’s all well and good, but its no way to run a political machine.
A diverse debate was a help before the vote, but a risk afterwards. The SNP needed to gain control again and reclaim its central brand, its USP. So the party cleverly co-opted all these independent forces within the nation to join the existing machine. One effect was the SNP stormed to victory in 2015 and remain very much the owners of independence. The other effect was less benign.
With the SNP back in charge of ‘independence’ gone were the voices which were beginning to explore the range of what that policy could mean, or alternate versions to official SNP one. Amid all the cries of ‘Scotland will never be the same again’ and the talk of another referendum, what was in fact happening was the energetic advocates of change were being brought into line and the Party’s version of Scotland’s future restored as the official one.
The other thing which had to be controlled was the flow of information. In some ways this was easy. Critics of the SNP’s version were already feeling bruised by the referendum. In the Unionist camp there are self-reinforcing tales about how internet trolls will savage the outspoken. Academia long ago gave up entering the debate, not liking the heat of real politics. Once the Scottish Government itself stopped talking about and publishing on the matter, the issue imploded.
Yet there is a bizarre paradox here – A government elected on an independence platform makes a virtue of saying it is putting no effort into researching independence. Instead of this being taken as a terrible admission of failure, it is hailed as proof that no new referendum is imminent. The core policy, one with huge implications for every citizen of the land, is proudly not worked upon. It’s like the Labour government of 1945 boasting it knows nothing about how to set up a National Health Service.
Even more bizarre, SNP supporters approve of this. Where once the movement decried the un-examined state, now it colludes in obscuring the facts. For many decades the party called for Scotland to have an independent economic forecasting unit. Now it is in power it actively talks down the value of impartial macro-economic research. Similarly, the SNP of a few years ago would have killed for a fiscal institute shedding light on our tax base , but the Scottish Government resists cries for such a thing. And the party faithful applaud, as if information itself were now an enemy of destiny.
For a government that boasts of its competence, it wins support by being incompetent on its core policy. There is merit, apparently, in not researching our future, or spending money on preparing policy. In any other area of government, this would be a suicide-note.
Scotland’s post-referendum debate has gone deathly quiet. There are plenty who will join in the SNP slogans about a vow betrayed or nasty Tories, but it is evidently untrue to say we are ‘changed for ever’. Instead, we are back in the past, dominated by one party, bereft of intelligent debate, doing quiet deals to get by – in short, back to normal.
The interests of the SNP and the interests of independence have diverged. Independence needs facts and planning. The leadership fear those facts will rip the party apart. The SNP is growing comfortable in its role as the ‘Scotland’ party within a lop-sided UK, while pretending it is still fighting for independence to keep the party together.
We are told the people are in charge, but the Government goes out of its way to deny the people information. This isn’t about Scotland, its about the SNP. The electorate aren’t stupid. They tolerate this contradiction for want of an alternative. Lets pray that alternative turns up before independence does.
This is a morally dubious form of government. Posing as the defender of the poor against Tories when you have no credible alternative and don’t bother to research one is arguably immoral. More so when there is an explicit party policy not to reverse all cuts upon independence. The SNP’s ill-prepared version of independence does not plausibly offer any real alternative.
SNP Independence has become the cocaine of the politically active, fun to join in but dulling the senses, jabbering on at a hundred words per minute while disconnected from self awareness. It is for another generation to do the hard work of thinking through all the implications, and then deciding if independence is the right thing to do. By that point Britain will be different, Europe will be different and the world will have fundamentally changed. Perhaps there is no harm in all of this: some political misdirection; ultimately settling for a better deal than before; nobody shot in the process. But it serves neither devolved Scotland nor the people who wish for independence.