There was a watershed moment in Scottish politics last week.
A moment when the debate about Scotland’s constitutional future was dragged out of the fantasy freedom land of Alex Salmond and into the colder realism that the road to independence is not paved with gold. Good intent maybe. But it is a long and winding road. (Cue music)
The publication of the Growth Commission Report headed up by Andrew Wilson, the former SNP MSP, marks a dramatic shift in the tenor and substance of the Indy debate. A move from assertion and bluster to one of aspiration and faith. It is goodbye to Braveheart, hello to hope.
For the SNP Leader, Nicola Sturgeon, it puts clear tartan water between her and her predecessor. In 2014, Alex Salmond won the battle about how the campaign should be run. Those who argued for realism lost out. Those who said that the Nationalists should be straight with the voters were silenced. It was a campaign of bravado and browbeating which aimed to silence critics rather than persuade the undecideds.
But now a new story is to be told. One that admits the difficulties. That faces up to some of the hard truths. That says to Scotland: “Independence will be hard, but it will be worth it. The road will be rocky and the journey difficult. But we are Scotland and we can get there. One day”.
Let me say at this point that I have no truck with Scottish separatism. And that the Growth Commission Report has flaws. And that outside of the hard core of Nationalism I detect little or no appetite for Indyref 2, the sequel.
But I understand why the SNP had to produce it. The Party has to appease its core, fundamentalist supporters. The First Minister promised a fresh appraisal and harboured hopes that Brexit would renew demands for Scottish Separation from “Brexit Britain” Promises have been made about announcements over the timing of another Independence Referendum. The Report was a key plank in those plans. The SNP had, it believed, no choice.
And thus it was commissioned. But the polls haven’t moved. And its publication was delayed. And the SNP spring conference, moved to the summer, is nearly here. And so it had to be launched. Warts and all.
So. A few observations about what it tells us.
Firstly, the Arc of Prosperity to which we used to aspire to copy has gone. It is no longer Ireland and our North Sea neighbours that we aim to emulate. Instead, other small nations such as New Zealand and Singapore are the benchmarks.
The Growth Commission is now picking it’s cherries from much further afield. But even if it is selective in its choices, and even if it is optimistic in some of the assumptions it makes, the Report admits that it would be a long haul for an Indy Scotland to restore our economy to where it would be the day before Separation.
A quarter of a century of hard slog to get back to square 1. It admits that tough choices would have to be made over spending and taxes. That we would not, as Mr. Salmond would have had us believe, be a land flowing with milk and honey in an instant. Rather it admits that the milk would be semi skimmed and the honey some way away.
It assesses that Scotland would be better off to the tune of £4,100 per person. Eventually. In truth, elements of an overzealous pro-Indy media overspun this as each of us, as individuals, being in line for some kind of super-separation bounty.
What the Report actually infers is that our economy could, eventually, recover back to pre Indy levels and that this return to where we started is our economy replacing the multi-billion-pound annual fiscal transfer we get from being part of the UK. If we grow at a greater rate than the UK. And if we control spending. And if we double immigration. And if we wait long enough.
Secondly, the Report sets out the levers we could use to make the leap in GDP growth needed to match other small countries and to where should aspire to be. But many of these levers are already devolved to Holyrood. We set most taxes. We can provide subsidies to companies. We run and fund our public services.
The Report makes great play about a rapid increase in net migration to Scotland. An issue Reserved to Westminster. Except that there are 60 million people here in the UK already. And hundreds of thousands more arriving every year from around the world. So if attracting more talented taxpayers to Scotland is a priority, the talent pool is already on our shores. So why don’t more come north? Discuss…
Thirdly, currency. An issue over which the Yes Campaign got into trouble 4 years ago. We will keep the pound come what may, said the bold Alex. In a currency Union with the UK. The UK said no. There was no plan B.
So now the Report recommends using the Pound, if need be outside of a currency union, until we can launch our own currency after a decade or so. This has upset some in the Yes camp. They want a new currency straight away. Using another country’s currency is not Independence they say. But I think there is another story hidden here. It is the quiet but steady retreat from another previous cornerstone of the SNP. Being in the EU.
Because membership of the EU as a new country means the Euro would have to become our currency. And to meet the criteria means meeting several economic benchmarks. And adopting the Euro requires having run our own currency. So real story here is that joining the EU is being fudged even more.
Or at least joining the Euro is being long grassed. Which is a confusing position for a Party trying to make capital out of Brexit being forced on Scotland against our wishes. But an understandable position for a Party where a third of its supporters voted Leave.
But let me be clear. If a Report has to be issued, then I welcome that this is the one. It’s author is an honourable man. He puts some of the problems up in lights. He has done so courteously and reasonably and wishes to engage in debate.
But I doubt the legacy will be Indyref2. It will not be Independence. I think it’s real aim is to renew a policy debate about Scotland’s powers and how they are used. It wears a cloak of Separation but is in truth about Devolution. About a few more tweaks to the settlement. This is not red meat fundamentalism. This is not crying “Freedom”. It closes the Salmond years and consigns him to the dustbin of history. And that, at least, makes it worthwhile for many.
PS – I had planned to bore you with a Muse about my wedding on Jura a week passed Saturday. But space has run out. So just a big thank you from Jen and me for all the best wishes we got.