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Alex Bell: The SNP don’t want to do the hard work independence entails

Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon and Westminster SNP leader Ian Blackford applaud each other at their party's 2019 conference (Photo: Andrew MacColl/Shutterstock)
Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon and Westminster SNP leader Ian Blackford applaud each other at their party's 2019 conference (Photo: Andrew MacColl/Shutterstock)

Is there anything as funny as a person walking into a plate glass door? Clunk. As we laugh, we also wince. That has to hurt.

The picture is less amusing when applied to Britain’s exit from the EU.

Brexit has not brought benefits to Britain, says the public accounts committee. In fact, it has increased the burden on businesses, with more red tape and delays.

If none of that sounds funny, you are right. Although, you may smirk on hearing that Jacob Rees-Mogg has been appointed to the cabinet to hurry things along. When he walks into doors, he blames the footman.

This tendency for high promises and long disappointments when it comes to constitutional change is shared across the UK. But this has yet to temper the SNP’s own act of political mis-selling.

This, too, can only lead to regret when people realise the bus has gone, its slogans left undelivered.

SNP leaders’ empty promises on pensions

The SNP’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, and Westminster leader Ian Blackford were caught hawking a dodgy pension policy last week.

The pair claimed the UK would pay state pensions to Scots after independence, since workers had contributed to National Insurance. The example given to back this up was that of a Brit retiring to France, who still collected a UK pension.

No doubt loyalists will dogmatically assert this to be true, but the rest of the nation should be excused having to listen.

There is no National Insurance pot of savings, no legal contract between the Treasury and citizens and, finally, no chance of this happening.

The suggestion had the strange effect of forcing commentators to explain what independence means to the SNP.

In the event of Scots voting yes, the existing UK will cease to exist. It will have no obligations to Scotland, beyond international precedent and its own choices.

As for Scotland, isn’t the point of independence, according to the SNP, that it controls the levers? That’s with the exception of state pensions, apparently.

Why no referendum on EU membership?

No sooner had Sturgeon and Blackford rubbed their noses and tried to regain personal dignity than the FM bumped into another glass door.

You will know she thinks it is abhorrent for arrogant leaders to deny referenda to the people. It now turns out she is that kind of leader.

Johnson not granting indyref2 is bad, but Sturgeon will not grant a referendum on rejoining the EU.

Nicola Sturgeon with EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels in 2019 (Photo: Olivier Hoslet, Pool Photo via AP)

The first minister asserts that choosing independence and applying to Brussels is a one-vote deal. She says there will be no ballot on an independent Scotland getting back into the continental trade bloc.

It is devious position; a blatant contradiction to resolve her own problems with the SNP’s ludicrously over-promised independence prospectus. A shameless trick.

What it would mean is that indyref2 would become a debate about three things: Scotland’s possible future, the credibility of the SNP’s promises surviving negotiation with London, and the merits of EU membership.

The 2014 referendum asked a straightforward question (Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)

It may appear as if independence and EU membership went together last time, but the 2014 question did not mention Europe. Sturgeon is saying the next question will link the two things.

Devo-max reframed as independence

Which takes us to the deeper truth.

On pensions, the SNP leadership are essentially describing a devo-max policy. This is because they accept that an independent Scotland could not afford all the existing provisions of the British state.

Given that is their policy direction, it suggests the SNP leadership is managing expectations. It is trying to frame devo-max as independence.

The debating chamber at Holyrood: independent enough for the SNP?

The telling detail is Sturgeon’s strange conviction that she would have some kind of negotiating strength with the UK after an independence vote.

Scotland will have legally and democratically chosen to be an autonomous state, but that’s the limit of the vote. Yet, the first minister has implied she’s willing to trade things with London to get other things she wants.

The honest path to independence involves some tough years and lots of radical decisions about how to structure the state so it is more effective at less cost

Similarly, by insisting indyref2 is a “buy one, get one free” vote, she makes it even less likely Westminster will ever grant one. For a start, the Electoral Commission would never allow it on the grounds of confusion.

The questions are: what is Sturgeon prepared to trade, and why has she made getting indyref2 even harder?

SNP are retreating from independence and trying to save face

This is a cabal of politicians who have finally come to realise their mistake. In overselling independence, they created a promise that could never be delivered.

More importantly, they came to see they don’t actually want an independent Scotland if it imperils things they like, such as stable pensions.

A Yes banner lies crumpled in Dundee City Square after the 2014 referendum

The honest path to independence involves some tough years and lots of radical decisions about how to structure the state so it is more effective at less cost. But the SNP leadership are not radicals. They are old-fashioned Tories.

These are people walking into doors for deliberate effect.

They want to appear as if they are striving for independence while making human mistakes when, in fact, they are retreating from independence and gearing up for a face-saving compromise.

It’s funny, to a point, but also shameful.


Alex Bell has worked for news titles including the BBC, The Observer and The Herald, as well as writing a book about global water resources. He was also head of policy to Alex Salmond’s government

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