Christine Jardine: SNP lose touch on independence
A No vote is not negative but a recognition that the balance of power has shifted over the decades, writes Christine Jardine
It was with a mixture of expectation and trepidation that I approached Nicola Sturgeon’s article on why we should vote ‘Yes’ in the independence referendum in The Scotsman’s sister paper, Scotland on Sunday, last Sunday.
The expectation as a political commentator – and voter – was that I would read something new. The trepidation came from having long ago nailed my colours to her opponents’ mast and wondering if she might just this time bring forward an argument that would make me, and many others, doubt our commitment to the UK.
By the end I was simply frustrated and disappointed.
Frustrated that the central argument in her thesis – that only a Yes vote could guarantee change for Scotland – ignores the reality of Holyrood’s present relationship with Westminster and the political journey our two parliaments have travelled since devolution.
And disappointed that with the Yes campaign struggling for support in the opinion polls the SNP’s second most influential figure does not appear to recognise what the voters are telling her party: the change we want, and the change she promises are two different things.
There were elements of her argument that will find little opposition. The numbers of children living in poverty is not acceptable. Neither is fuel poverty. Her appeal to the values of social justice, enterprise and democracy places her in common cause with many across the political spectrum.
But it is in her claim that a Yes vote is “the only guaranteed and certain opportunity of achieving these powers – and more” and that a No vote is a “vote for nothing” that Ms Sturgeon is ignoring the evidence.
In setting out what she describes as her “positive reasons” for wanting Scotland to vote Yes, her argument seems to lean heavily on the past. Her depiction of Scotland is one which harks back to a pre-devolution era.
It is true that in the 1970s Scotland in which both Nicola Sturgeon and I grew up many people felt a growing frustration that our government at Westminster didn’t reflect the political balance in Scotland.
Through the 80s and 90s my journalism career was dominated by stories about the Constitutional Convention and the campaign for devolution.
It was a movement led by the senior Scots in both the Labour and Liberal Democrats and delivered by Tony’s Blair’s first government.
The SNP had not signed the Claim of Right, which set out the case for a self-government for Scotland, and they were not part of the Constitutional Convention which provided the impetus and vision which led eventually to the Scottish Parliament becoming a reality.
And the second phase, finalised just last year in the Scotland Act 2012, was delivered by the Lib Dem secretary of state for Scotland Michael Moore.
It devolves to Holyrood powers, which it will be able to use from 2016, to set a new Scottish income tax rate, borrowing powers worth £5 billion, and responsibility for stamp duty, land tax, landfill tax, powers over air guns, speed limits, drink driving and more.
The biggest transfer of power since the Act of Union, it is also not the last offer which the UK parties, as the SNP likes to call them, have made.
The Lib Dems have unveiled proposals for a federal UK to be included in their 2015 manifesto. It’s a constitutional arrangement they say offers the best of both worlds – giving Scotland the financial levers to ensure social change whilst maintaining the security of being part of the UK. And as recently as last week Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie offered to work with Alex Salmond to increase Holyrood’s powers. The offer was rejected.
Labour too is establishing a commission with the aim of strengthening Holyrood and even the Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has embraced the idea that our constitutional journey is not over.
Against that background the Deputy First Minister’s argument just doesn’t make sense. The choice is no longer between independence and the status quo. We’ve already moved on and will move on again. And that is where I find myself longing for some constructive dialogue with the SNP. Where we go to next will be critical.
In Nicola Sturgeon’s article there was one aspect which leapt out and briefly fulfilled that expectation that I would read something new and encouraging. When she spoke about “the range of identities in modern Scotland” and asserted that her concern is “principally about the welfare of the people of Scotland” I was with her 100 per cent.
I’m not convinced that the sort of pseudo Nordic society that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP advocate is the way ahead.
There are some aspects of Scandinavian society that I applaud – the generous welfare system in Sweden for example.
But I also recognise that it brings with it a higher rate of taxation than we currently face and no system is ever as easy and perfect as it may look from the outside.
There is one final aspect of Sunday’s article that is worth pondering: “We shouldn’t underestimate the fact that the Scottish experience is regarded as an exemplar of democratic change.” For the past decade we have moved on in a reasonable, considered way. Always with public debate, but not always with the SNP.
At this crucial stage in our history, when the opinion polls, surveys and both governments’ consultation exercises are sending us a consistent and clear message about what the voters in Scotland think, we need all our politicians to listen. Yes we want change, but No we don’t need independence to achieve it.
• Christine Jardine is a former Liberal Democrat special adviser to the UK government.
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