The First Minister celebrates her first anniversary in the job, following Alex Salmond’s post-referendum resignation; and her celebration gift, from former Salmond policy adviser Alex Bell, is a blazing piece of polemic pronouncing the case for Scottish independence “dead” – at least as it was argued by the SNP between the publication of their white paper, Scotland’s Future, in November in 2013, and the referendum on 18 September last year.
His words are seized upon, of course, by a triumphant Unionist lobby led by Murdo Fraser for the Tories, who speculates that the Union is possibly now safer than it has been for a long while.
Alex Bell’s argument is essentially that the White Paper was always optimistic, and has now been overtaken by events, notably the spectacular slump in the global oil price. He does, though, use the word “deluded”, to describe the SNP’s current stance; and goes on to accuse the party of “dishonesty” in taking an anti-austerity line, when it has no financially credible alternative to offer in an independent Scotland.
Now it’s unfortunate, in a way, that Bell’s emotive language – hell obviously has no fury like a former adviser – obscures the common sense of most of his argument.
The idea that the SNP is being dishonest in opposing George Osborne’s current austerity policies is an obvious red herring, given that Scotland remains part of a UK which could well afford not to impose such cuts.
When it comes to the case for independence, though, Bell is clearly right that the Scotland’s Future white paper was an optimistic document at best, that its obvious weaknesses in areas such as currency options represented a major reason for the ultimate defeat of the “Yes” campaign, and that it is now out of date. And the most important question arising is surely the one about how any sensible citizen who cares about Scotland’s future should respond to this state of affairs; starting with the truth that for all the merit of Bell’s argument, news of the “death” of the case for independence may have been slightly exaggerated.
In the first place, the UK’s current party of government remains overwhelmingly unpopular in Scotland; and the long grind of being governed by a party comprehensively rejected by Scottish voters has never done anything other than drive up support for independence, in the long term.
Then secondly, the meltdown in the UK’s main opposition party is growing more profound by the hour. Nicola Sturgeon is not in an enviable position, as she tries to navigate a path between the wave of “war fever” now sweeping Westminster, and the traditional anti-bombing stance of her own party. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, though, is in an intolerable situation, as his attempts to inject some rationality and respect for the rule of law into the discussion are caricatured not only by his opponents but by many in his own party as evidence of his cowardice, treachery, and sympathy for terrorists. And the lack of a credible opposition to the Tories at Westminster is another factor that is hardly likely to increase Scottish enthusiasm for the Union.
Then finally, there is the question of the case for the Union itself; for there is now no disguising the glee with which the SNP’s opponents seize on any evidence of Scotland’s economic weakness, and on further proof that we are forever doomed to depend on the largesse of the UK’s economic “powerhouse” in the south-east – that is, on the tax take from the city of London, and from the property-bubble paradise (for some) that is London and its travel-to-work area.
For even if this is true, it represents an image of our national future so unattractive that it is bound to repel at least as many voters as it attracts. It is true that Scotland was driven into the Union by poverty, and that we remain there largely because of the fear of many voters that we still lack the wealth, expertise, ingenuity and clout to make it on our own. In an age of popular democracy, though, it is surely both dangerous and destructive for pro-Union politicians to depend on an argument so relentlessly negative, insulting and depressing; and therefore, incidentally, so vulnerable to any future upturn in Scotland’s economic fortunes.
The SNP, though, should also acknowledge that the argument from fear is a powerful one; and that if they want to defeat it, they must start work now on preparing a vision of a future Scotland that is not just a little better than the White Paper of two years ago, but in a completely different league for clarity of thought and quality of arguments. That the SNP now has an opportunity to raise its policy-making game in this way is obvious. With a dominant position in the Scottish parliament, a popular leader, a divided opposition, and a new mass membership all paying into the party’s coffers, it has the time and resources to set up one or more new think-tanks, or other projects, to develop policy for a viable Scottish future, to rethink the economic arguments, and – perhaps most importantly of all – to demonstrate how Scotland can move from its past as a coal, oil and gas-producing industrial nation, to its eminently possible future as what one independent expert called “the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy”.
Since coming to power a year ago, Nicola Sturgeon has given a strong impression of having become immersed in the day-to-day detail of government, the decisions, the public appearances, the demands of the hour. But in a Britain on the slide towards an ever more reactionary future – in a world darkened by the politics of escalating violence – much more than that is now required. We need a new, well-founded and credible prospectus for a better future. And if the SNP truly shares that aim, now is the time to prove it, with people, with resources, and with genuine support for a new phase of public debate – not so that Scotland will inevitably become independent, but so that if and when we do, we will know exactly why that step was necessary, where we are aiming, and how, and with what allies, we intend to try to get there.