An independent Scotland hinges on its economy

"THE historic task of this generation is to secure the economic foundation of independence."

These words were spoken by Sean Lemass, Irish Taoiseach and Fianna Fail leader, in 1959. Ireland’s economy made it almost a UK client state and its population had reached its lowest level since independence. He recognised the viability of the Irish nation rested on the sustainability of its economy.

Changes followed; the Sixties seeing investment in education and the Eighties corporation tax cuts allowing the Celtic Tiger to roar. Scotland must learn lessons from Ireland

The end of the last millennium saw a Fianna Fail government transform Ireland within a decade. An economic basket case became the envy of Europe. Emigration ended and immigration commenced. Scotland, meanwhile, stumbled and fell behind its Celtic cousin, despite numerous advantages, not least North Sea oil. The Celtic Tiger’s roar must be matched by the Celtic Lion’s thunder. The SNP must learn lessons from Fianna Fail.

The UK election is a reminder of the adage that "it’s the economy, stupid". An unpopular leader returned because the state of the economy did not merit his expulsion, irrespective of other sins.

The SNP had an excellent result in difficult circumstances. Seats increased markedly though the vote declined due to limited access to UK network media. Holyrood elections will be different with parity of exposure and the Lib Dems being called to account for their failings in office. Lessons, though, must still be learned.

The basic lesson that the SNP must learn is that "it’s the economy, stupid" that not only will win an election but be the basis for independence. No viable economic base, then no constitutional progress. Waving Saltires and nationalist rhetoric will not win the election unless there is the sign of economic advancement. The SNP has always progressed when Scotland aspires to improve and faltered when she has sought shelter, whether from Thatcherism or recession. What then must the SNP do?

Scotland is a small nation blessed with immense natural resources and has boundless talent in its people but lies on the periphery of Europe and needs to trade to survive. It is under-performing as an economy and, as a consequence, under-providing for its people. Ireland, never mind other small nations such as Finland, is progressing further and faster from a lower base with fewer advantages. Scotland can do so much better than this.

Scotland needs to be competitive as a result of its location to maximise the benefits it has in its people and resources. Being on the same island as London, never mind other large English metropolitan regions, means huge competition that needs to be offset. Quality of life alone is insufficient - cost advantage must be offered. Business taxes must be reduced below those of England and other incentives offered to induce location and retain talent.

What does that mean with regard to the Holyrood elections? It means that platform on which the SNP must stand is driving the Scottish economy forward; making Scots individually wealthier and Scotland as a society collectively richer. That growing economy allows social as well as personal progress, and the ending once and for all of the poverty that scars our land.

It funds not just the basics, but the additional services we wish to provide in our communities. In the absence of a sound economic base it all remains a dream or a theoretical position. It’s the duty of the SNP to build that economic base for independence.

How is that done? By delivering on the economy, not being perceived as obsessed with the constitution. In delivering economic prosperity, a confident people will be willing to support further constitutional change. The Scottish Parliament needs the discipline of responsibility for income as well as expenditure. Fiscal autonomy is a prerequisite and an election victory is a mandate for it. But that needs to be implemented and will take time.

As a gesture of good faith, a commitment to immediately reduce business rates below English levels is needed as is a willingness to look at other ideas currently within the constitutional powers and capable of making Scotland competitive.

Growing the economy remains the overarching ethos but other areas must be defended. The current Executive position of spreading the jam as widely but equally as thinly as possible may serve them well in dispensing political favours but ill serves the economy and society.

Spending more in many instances is neither possible nor the solution. Fundamental principles need to be preserved, but priorities must be selected. Dignity and respect for the elderly, a drive to end child poverty, never mind return women to the labour market need to be attended to, and education and infrastructure remain paramount.

Ireland did it in ten years, Scotland can do it in five. EU subsidies helped Ireland but were used primarily for infrastructure where Scotland still leads. By making Scotland competitive, the Scottish economy can be transformed as in Ireland and our society improved as elsewhere.

Independence can only come about if the people of Scotland vote for it in a referendum. Economic prosperity is a prerequisite for winning a referendum. For that there needs to be a sound economic base. The SNP must realise that constitutional progress depends on economic success.

The SNP must seek power at Holyrood dedicated to growing the Scottish economy and with that economic growth transforming Scottish society for the better. With a credible, capable and competent SNP government and with a confident people seeking constitutional powers to match the growing economic strength, a referendum can best be won.

Once it has delivered on the economy it will have earned the right and created the conditions for a successful referendum on independence.

A competitive and enterprising Scotland is not an alternative to an independent Scotland but the basis for it - it is not a business agenda but a Nationalist one. To paraphrase Sean Lemass, the historic task of the SNP is to secure it.

• Kenny MacAskill is SNP justice spokesman