POLITICS is about so much more than a sterile argument about the constitution, writes Brian Wilson
I was reflecting this week on a hugely significant landmark in Scottish political life, with truly transformational consequences. I refer to the 50th anniversary of the Highlands and Islands Development Board’s establishment.
Here was an act of radical political commitment, utterly unmatched by anything which has come out of Holyrood in 17 years. Post-war, pre-devolution Scottish politics was peppered with similarly significant actions, many but not all from Labour, which translated into lasting outcomes of profound significance. But where are they now?
Scotland has an army of politicians and a dearth of ideas about how to transform anything. That is largely the result of so many having obsessed for so long about the constitution and nothing else. “If only we had the powers” they cried while the question of what these powers might deliver fell by the intellectual wayside, somewhere around the mid 1980s.
And still it goes on. I will return on another occasion to the origins, successes and unfinished business of the good old HIDB and its successor body. I mention it now only to make the point that radical, progressive change is not dependent on arguing about powers, so much as politicians of stature being available to develop big ideas and turn them into reality.
I would contend that in these terms Scottish politics has never been more impoverished. The staple diet of debate consists of girning about “more powers” without the slightest evidence that existing ones are being used to deliver anything of much significance. The vested interest of Nationalism will always be in blaming everything on a lack of powers. The vested interest of Scotland is in nailing that lie and insisting on something more useful.
Yesterday, I chanced upon Radio Scotland’s “Big Debate”, which was actually a sterile set of exchanges, commemorating last year’s referendum and the “powers” then promised. Pressed by Gordon Brewer to specify any such commitment that has not subsequently been delivered upon, the Nationalist representative was conspicuously unable to do so.
But what does it matter? Regardless of what powers are delivered, or how they are exercised, they will always be dismissed as inadequate. The question is how long the electorate is prepared to go along with it. Or is there some point at which the bluff is called and people insist once again on talking about outcomes and ideas rather than powers and process? I don’t know. Maybe it has gone too far.
Take another example. The discussion moved on to how the Scottish Government should use the new tax powers at its disposal. It became apparent that none of the participants had much intention of doing anything. The Nationalist wittered on about not wanting to make Scotland “uncompetitive” which seemed to mean not asking people to pay higher taxes than the rest of the UK.
Yet we have had interminable moaning about the need for additional tax powers. Now the likelihood is that, just like those available to Holyrood for 17 years, they won’t be used. So might it not have been more useful to devote all that political focus to the £35 billion which actually exists and how it could be used to better effect in improving services and narrowing inequality?
The great imperative for the Nationalists around this anniversary of the referendum has been to avoid any discussion of the implications if they had won, instead of losing. This is hardly surprising since, one by one, the falsehoods on which their economic case was built have been laid bare – not least, the crucial question of oil price.
This is now airly dismissed as irrelevant since oil was “a bonus”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The assumption of a price in the region of $113 was critical to making their numbers stack up. Yesterday, one year on, the price of Brent crude stood at $48 a barrel. The difference, in terms of economic impacts, would have been breathtaking.
In part, this was due to another great hole in the Nationalist prospectus – retention of sterling. As Professor Ronald MacDonald, one of the world’s leading currency authorities, wrote this week: “At the time of the referendum, I calculated that Scotland would have had a current account deficit of around 5 per cent of GDP and that would need to be covered by foreign exchange reserves.
“With the fall in the price of oil, it is likely that this deficit would now be in the region of 8 to 10 per cent of GDP… (Retention of sterling would have meant that) such reserves could only be obtained by the country collectively saving around 8 to 10 per cent per annum, which would require additional extreme austerity.”
Professor MacDonald concluded: “Clearly the level of austerity facing an independent Scotland would be unprecedented and unsustainable resulting in a classic currency/financial crisis with the Scottish economy plunged into a deep depression that in all likelihood would be generational in length. The current austerity programme pursued by the Conservative government across the UK would be a picnic compared to the retrenchment of the state and the loss of tax base facing an independent Scotland.”
This is the charge sheet that the SNP leadership should now be facing, instead of being allowed to posture endlessly about more powers, broken vows and pretexts required for another referendum, as if they were the victims of a temporary set-back rather than perpetrators of a massive attempted con-trick.
They seek to exploit the sense of injustice that exists in response to austerity measures. Yet – just one year ago – they were urging the same people to vote for an irreversible change which would have inflicted on the weakest “a deep depression that in all likelihood would be generational in length” making current austerity measures look like “a picnic”.
That is the prospectus that was rejected on 18 September last year. Given half the chance, they will try to go for it again, regardless of the consequences because independence for its own sake is their sole objective – honest if stated that way, dishonest if not.
Time is short to learn that true radicalism in politics is about ideas that transform people’s lives and prospects. That is totally different from the brand of politics which puts constitutional change before all else.