Michael Kelly: Missed opportunity to open debate

The answers in the white paper are not all straightforward and are not all clear-cut. Picture: PA

The answers in the white paper are not all straightforward and are not all clear-cut. Picture: PA

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The SNP’s white paper is the last word on independence campaign and will be used to shut down opposition, writes Michael Kelly

Only the most committed SNP supporters were prepared to describe the bland white paper Scotland’s Future as a game changer. It could have been if the SNP had been bolder. It is important to explore why the party was not. The SNP swerved a golden opportunity to tackle head-on the many objections that opponents have to breaking up the United Kingdom and systematically demolishing them. Rather, it went down the path of combining hopes and aspirations with electoral bribes to the women voters they badly need to cobble together with what is an election manifesto, not a declaration of independence.

Nowhere in this lengthy tome is there mention of even one downside factor that might have to be faced during the process of breaking up the state. Throughout the whole session in parliament following introduction of the white paper, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon avoided giving a direct answer to a single question. The SNP baulked at being honest with the electorate.

Critics will say that is because there are no palatable answers for the SNP to questions about the currency, membership of the European Union and Nato, Scotland’s defence, the levels of public expenditure sustainable and the level of taxes necessary to pay for Scandinavian-size social benefits.

But, of course, there are answers. They are not all straightforward and are not all clear-cut. And while there are some that would cast serious doubts on a number of the SNP’s contentions, there are others that could provide much comfort to those who want to feel that many of the aspirations for a fairer and more just society are achievable.

However, that is not the route that the SNP has chosen to go down. And it is a conscious choice. These politicians are not daft. Indeed, First Minister Alex Salmond and Sturgeon are hailed as the most competent of their generation. As old hands at the game, they know the way in which their particular style of presentation will be interpreted from now to next September. But they have picked it because they have assessed it as the best way to securing a Yes vote.

Look at the scenario they are facing. There is not now and there never has been an overwhelming principled, grass roots, groundswell demanding independence. A committed minority has kept the issue live for decades, but its most enthusiastic efforts have failed to shift the general public, a fact borne out by every poll. There is little chance of any arguments at this stage causing opponents to switch sides. So the SNP is not even going to try.

It does hope to shift some of the substantial number of “don’t knows” into its camp. The smooth, comforting reassurances that much will remain unchanged after separation will undoubtedly lead to some recruits on the day. But the SNP’s best chance of a win is in its hope for a differential turnout. And it is justified in believing that those committed to independence will be far more determined to vote than those on the other side. That, together with the efficient election team and tactics that the SNP has built up over the years will ensure that every last Yes sentiment will be turned into a recorded vote.

Looked at this way, it is much more important to avoid making mistakes than to set out to make the case. And that’s how the white paper has been used. The heavy document looks and feels substantial. The debating and presentation skills of the First Minister and his deputy make it sound as if something weighty and significant is being said. From now on, questions will be answered by referring the inquirer to a paragraph in the paper. No further detail will be provided.

The dangers in publishing a document that would take on the tough questions would have been twofold. First, there was the risk that a serious mistake would have been made in one of the vital areas of contention. No hostages were offered to fortune. But second, any such alternative document would have had to recognise that most of the assertions that have been made about an independent Scotland are in fact matters for negotiation with other parties who have their own interests to protect. And that is somewhere the SNP dares not go because it introduces the uncertainty that surrounds the whole project.

Independence has always been presented as risk free. Avoiding the tricky details allows that fiction to continue. Facts would be a bucket of cold water thrown over voters. The comfort blanket of bland clichés can keep the nervous electorate docile.

It is regrettable to those who are sufficiently agnostic to feel the need for further discussion before they make up their minds. But they are not going to get it. No matter how unionists and political commentators attempt to get a discussion going, it is clear from the line taken in the white paper that the SNP is not going to engage in that kind of debate. The white paper contains its last words on the subject and those words will be reiterated over the next ten months with little added or subtracted.

It is a missed opportunity to get to the heart of a number of important matters. For example, many see Scotland’s continued membership of the European Union as vital and the SNP has rightly pounced upon the danger that the Tories’ in/out referendum poses. That could have led to a serious discussion as to what terms the SNP would accept from the EU and to what terms the EU might seek to impose. In particular, it might have clarified the current conflict between the Nationalists’ commitment to joining Europe while rejecting the euro. Now we’ll not know until after our referendum vote and after negotiations with Europe and others are completed.

It is easy to understand why the SNP believes that the approach it has taken offers it the best opportunity of winning. However, the logic of doing it this way is that there should be a second referendum to approve all the negotiated terms. It is going to take more than 649 pages to list them. That’s how uncertain and unclear the white paper exposes the whole proposition to be.

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