Nicola Sturgeon is boxing clever on a second referendum, but it is still a distraction from other smart ideas, says Tom Peterkin
It was just about possible to detect a sense of frustration when shooting the breeze with a Scottish Government adviser yesterday.
Discussing Nicola Sturgeon’s Programme for Government, the adviser ruefully noted that its big ticket economic announcement was struggling to be noticed amidst the unrelenting coverage and speculation about a second independence referendum.
It was tempting to pose the question “well, what did you expect if a key part of your Programme for Government is a draft referendum bill?”
The truth, of course, is that those close to ministers knew perfectly well that indyref2 discussion was likely to divert some attention away from their Scottish Growth Scheme – a half a billion pounds package for small and medium sized businesses (SMEs). That is the nature of Scottish politics. Nicola Sturgeon’s reaction to the Brexit vote has ensured it remains the touchstone issue regardless of whatever else happens.
As the adviser acknowledged, if for some bizarre reason they had chosen not to mention Scottish independence the omission would have generated banner headlines.
There was, however, an intriguing dimension to Ms Sturgeon’s announcement that she will consult on a draft Referendum Bill that can be tabled instantly if she concludes independence is Scotland’s best option as the Brexit negotiations unfold in front of us.
There appeared to be more than one way of interpreting her remarks. For some, it seemed her statement to Holyrood on Tuesday was confirmation of her determination to break up Britain at a time she ought to be concentrating on solving domestic problems in education, health and the economy.
Others saw a dilution of the indyref2 rhetoric. Ms Sturgeon’s tone was markedly different from her assertion – made in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote – that a second Scottish independence vote was “highly likely”. This time around her words were somewhat different.
“Sixty-two per cent of those who voted in Scotland voted to remain in the EU. That’s why I am determined to pursue all options to protect our place in Europe… To ensure that all options are open to us, this Programme for Government makes clear that we will consult on a draft referendum bill so that it is ready for immediate introduction if we conclude that independence is the best or only way to protect Scotland’s interests.”
Her choice of words raised laughter on the opposition benches – presumably because it was strange to hear a SNP leader use the word “if” when talking of the benefits of independence.
The unusual suggestion that the Scottish Government might actually conclude that there might be an option other than independence was neatly critiqued in a tweet by the former Labour MP Tom Harris yesterday.
“At what point have the SNP ‘not’ believed that independence was in Scotland’s best interests,” Mr Harris said.
Subscribers to the watering down rhetoric theory were also persuaded that indyref2 was on the back burner because Ms Sturgeon’s plans were only for a consultation on a draft referendum bill rather than formally tabling legislation. Perhaps unsurprisingly the Scottish Government adviser maintained that nothing had changed. The legislation had to be prepared in order to trigger indyref2 – if the Scottish Government decides the best way of reacting to Brexit is by making a bid for independence.
There is a school of thought that an ambiguous approach to the prospect of indyref2 is not unhelpful to the SNP. Easing off on the rhetoric reassures voters who are against independence, while putting a draft bill on the table reassures the independence supporters who have flocked to the party.
Nevertheless all this constitutional chatter is a distraction when it comes to the promotion of the Scottish Growth Scheme, which – on the face of it – looks like a sound Scottish Government proposal to help business. Under the proposal, the Scottish Government would offer loans or guarantees to SMEs who might otherwise struggle to borrow at a time when financial institutions are unwilling to expose themselves to too much risk. The theory is that freeing up cash for business will stimulate the economy.
Typically, the Scottish Government might step in to guarantee some or all of the value of the loan the business needs from the bank.
That has the effect of minimising the risk for the bank by transferring some of the risk to the government. If there was a default on the loan, the Scottish Government would repay the amount of its guarantee.
In addition to guarantees, the scheme will also – in some cases – involve Scottish Government loans, which would be taken out of the administration’s capital budget.
To offer these guarantees, the Scottish Government requires UK Treasury permission to increase the part of the Scottish budget which covers spending which is not easily predictable. As yet, the Scottish Government has yet to approach the Treasury about this. As ever, there seems to be some politics at play here.
In the unlikely event that the Treasury object, Scottish ministers will turn round and say they are being obstructed by the UK Government.
The indyref noise may cause some temporary frustration for the architects of this scheme but the genie cannot and has no wish to be put back in the bottle.