Andrew Wilson: Transforming SNP for new Scotland

Andrew Wilson believes an independent Scotland could follow the Nordic model, which achieves high economic performance without sacrificing social cohesion. Picture: Jane Barlow
Andrew Wilson believes an independent Scotland could follow the Nordic model, which achieves high economic performance without sacrificing social cohesion. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Independence is just the beginning for the SNP, which must remodel itself to lead a new Scotland, says Andrew Wilson

WE WILL soon have clarity on the definition of the starting point for our independent journey as a country which will create the highest common denominator for progress. Independence is a changing, elusive and tantalising objective but an imperative for creating the economy and society we seek.

What happens next is the most important thing. The referendum is not D-Day but Day One, and in an era of transformation and reform around the world the SNP has to be confident in leading reform in this country, whatever the result next September. The vision of what we will do with independence when we have it matters enormously.

The next transformation for the SNP is from nationalist to National Party – the unifying leaders of the country as we go about creating the society we seek. There is no existential threat to Scotland and Scottish identity any more and we must define ourselves by much more than that. No party is better placed to lead the country on our next step in the journey and we must bring others with us as we seek to deliver on our exciting vision of a vibrant economy underpinning a much fairer ­society.

As individuals, as a party and as a country we must embody the change we seek and continue to truly transform the culture of politics in Scotland for the better.

It is in the creation of the future that our success will lie as a party and a country. Not just in the abstract of policy but in the creation of confidence in the idea, in our ability to lead and in the culture of our conduct that will ultimately determine what it feels like to live in the Scotland we seek.

When I last gave a lecture at the SNP conference, it was 1999 and an astonishing 14 years ago. My theme that day was quite controversial in its time but much less so now. It was that we would find a faster route to independence if we recognised the reality of British identity in many of us and separated that from the British political and governance system. In other words we should be intensely relaxed about our sense of Britishness and the many shared British institutions that could, should and would survive post-independence.

This was not a new idea but my emphasis was and it stirred a debate, I believe positively. The party now embraces the sense of this, which is a good thing, although I am not sure we have yet articulated it well and often enough for it to have resonated. This matters because it helps people not engaged in the day to day of how government and politics works to visualise what changes and what stays the same.

To win we must create the highest common denominator that unifies the majority for Yes. In doing so we must also work very hard to ensure that the large number of people living in Scotland who could – if selected – play for England (I am one) feel as part of the future we seek as anyone else. Because the reality is we will.

Too much we still allow this to be portrayed as about our attitude to them, rather than our own private battle with ourselves. As we know in our hearts, this question is about “us” not “them”.

We need to do more to help the rest of the islands understand this and our motivations to take the edge out of the emotional response this debate wrongly elicits in some people.

And that is also about our discipline and culture, in the way we put our arguments and tackle our opponents. In my estimation, so much of the more emotional, negative and puerile arguments come from the No campaign at all levels. But all of us must recognise the responsibility we bear for the conduct of the national discourse at all times. Because we are the stewards of the argument for progress and reform, we have to be better than that and better than everyone else.

Politics now passes so many people by that how we prosecute it needs to change to keep up. Parties have to continually develop or they will ossify.

In the daily noise of news and debate it is easy to miss the deep underlying trends and changes in tide as they occur. One such observation for me is that as the era of unending growth ended and boom and bust were un-conquered again, much else changed.

Partly because of globalisation and the information revolution and partly because of the cultural change in attitudes for the millennial generation it is clear we are in a remarkable epic era of reform and transformation that could continue for a decade and more.

Every major institution is going through the same process or is about to: the media, the churches, parliament, sport, banks, energy providers, big business, markets, global institutions, government, politics, the monarchy, the family – shaken to their foundations by the relentless scrutiny of the public gaze exposing every frailty in real time.

The way things are and have been is changing now and forever and the sooner we face up to that reality the better.

Reform is needed almost everywhere we look, and how institutions and leaders deal with that process is one of the great tests of our time. And even the way leaders lead is changing.

So what of the Scottish National Party in the midst of all this reform? Where next for this remarkable organisation?

It has gone through many transformations in its existence, from pressure group to movement to governing party. And yet it has lived its own cultural change and assumed the mantle of leadership and positivism with remarkable ease.

We should never be complacent or risk becoming another establishment institution that will ultimately wither. We need to retain the voice of the outsider to ensure all are served.

Especially as we move through this referendum, we need to think carefully about how we retain our unity, discipline and sense of purpose, whatever the result.

It is crystal clear to me that the only threat to the SNP winning the subsequent election is the SNP itself. Especially in victory, but also in the event of a result we do not seek, it is critical we prepare for our next transformation.

There is, in my view, no existential threat to Scotland and Scottish identity any more. How people view their identity is about much more than our politics and government and as we recognise this in Britishness and we must in Scottishness too. We must nurture it with confidence, of course, but the time is approaching if not already here when it needn’t dominate our politics anymore.

As Professor James Mitchell rehearsed in his lecture two years ago, too much of the distinctiveness of Scottish politics in the past was about opposition to what we are not. The next era must be solely and exclusively about the country and society we seek.

And in leading the country through this next transformation we must have the confidence to emphasise the “National” in our name rather than the “Scottish”, and we must consider what it means to be a “National” rather than “nationalist” party.

For me this means the ability for us to unify the wonderful, rich diversity of our country behind the progress and reform we desperately require. We must let other parties continue to define themselves by us and be confident and clear in our purpose, direction and goals beyond independence.

Of course, other parties can lead in an independent Scotland as well. But we must prepare to assume the mantle of unifying leadership and continuous reform as the progressive National Party. The moment we set our course with Yes, the rhetoric from London will change for the better.

No “beggar thy neighbour” policy worked anywhere and we have been through too much together for too long to believe that anything other than a hugely positive relationship of co-operation between Scotland and the Rest of the UK will be the outcome.

We will have a new constitution to draft that must never be locked in aspic but must have the ability to endure through the decades, and that will take substantial people from different perspectives working together.

And in all circumstances that follow the vote next September the SNP must be positive, engaged and leading. Underlying all of this must be a determination to reform and transform the culture of our politics for the better.

Too much of post-war Scottish politics has rested easy in a culture of life being someone else’s problem to solve. Over many decades our institutions and leaders became world class at lobbying power for resource.

Given the lack of real power in Scotland our politics is historically framed around spending money to dry the tears that flow too often, rather than strengthening 
the sinews of the country itself. The ­election of an SNP government altered that and the referendum changes it ­fundamentally.

I do think there is a broad and growing consensus that the majority will is for Scotland to aim to strike for a Nordic society’s model of success where high economic performance rests alongside remarkable social cohesion and equality. That is the outcome many of us seek, where the middle class is enormous, ­engaged and contributing to the commonweal.

However, we must remember that we start this journey from a position we want to change. We cannot pretend to ourselves that it is a short walk with a free lunch along the way.

There would be an irony if the party of national transformation only wanted to stand still in terms of the way we governed. And there is no point in replacing the scapegoating of the poor we find repulsive with an equally destructive scapegoating of the better off.

The old politics of one side backing economic strength while the other promotes equality cannot stand for the new Scotland. A strong competitive economy and a just and fair society are two pillars on which success will be built.

Too often we are told that the only way to balance a budget is to cut spending or raise tax. The most sustainable way is to grow the economy, attract business and investment and strengthen the tax base. That is the sustainable way to create the society we seek.

And whisper it, maybe the SNP and the Labour Party will be able to recognise that there is so much more that we agree about than disagree and find a way to work together more to create the progressive, unified and successful Scotland we all want.

For too many, for too long, life chances have been something that other people determined. That our problems are the fault of our boss, our teachers, our families, our partners, the council, the government, whoever.

In that thought lies the “get out of jail free card” of irresponsibility. What we must all realise is that we own our own response to whatever life throws our way.

Whether it is in our daily lives or in the major global challenges we face, our response must begin with ourselves and our own attitude, behaviour and actions.

As the generation charged with the stewardship of this country’s next step we must as individuals, as a party and as a country, live and breathe the change we want to see in the world.

In our conduct as advocates of this cause we must personify the Scotland we want to achieve and learn to lead with vision, good grace and unifying hope. A country we can be happy to live in and proud to pass on. «

Andrew Wilson is a Scotland on Sunday columnist and a former SNP MSP. This is an edited version of the Donaldson Lecture he gave at the SNP conference in Perth yesterday.

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW