Ben Macpherson: Better for SNP to go down a gear than crash on road to Scottish independence

Choosing the next First Minister of Scotland begins a new chapter for our country. Whoever is chosen, our democracy should take the opportunity to reset collectively. Our shared challenges are too big to be looking backwards.
The leadership election is a chance to resetThe leadership election is a chance to reset
The leadership election is a chance to reset

Through difficult times, the SNP has delivered significant progress since 2007, which I’m very proud to have been a part of. But we’re entering a new era now. Today’s Scotland isn’t about ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ – that was 2014. Our situation is complex – we’re not all split into two polarised camps of ‘Unionists’ and ‘Nationalists’. Those overly simplistic descriptors and groupings don’t reflect the multifaceted politics of modern Scotland, and our relationship with the rest of the UK and Europe. True, we are a divided country on the constitution in various ways; but by appreciating the perspectives of others, there is common ground to build on.

As the physicist Professor Brian Cox said last year, politics is supposed to be about an attempt to get along and making sure that the wide mixture of opinion that you naturally have in a country is accommodated.

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Many people in Scotland want some form of more independence and the demographic polling trends suggest this desire is only going to increase. But many also, understandably, want to maintain ties with the rest of the UK for social, economic and emotional reasons. So, what do we do to move forward? Together.

Some of course assert hard-line, ideological positions; but most of us just want our country to get better and for Scotland to progressively obtain more powers, as required, to improve life here for everyone.

It is important to consider that, as well as a commitment to Scottish independence, the SNP is equally committed in its party constitution to the furtherance of all Scottish interests. And so, in the absence of an agreement having been reached with the UK Government to enable the Scottish Parliament to legislate for an independence referendum, and until such time as sustained support for independence necessitates that an agreement must be reached, I think the question for the SNP now is how it pivots to working more with others to build consensus, and responsibly deliver more of a gradual process of further constitutional change for Scotland.

The current circumstances present an opportunity for renewed constructive engagement between all main political parties, Scottish civil society, the other Devolved Governments and the UK Government to pursue negotiating and delivering a new, modern, progressive constitutional arrangement for Scotland and the British Isles, in the common interest and for a new era.

As the other famous Brian Cox, the actor, said recently: “I really don’t believe that this [independence] is a break-up of the United Kingdom - I think it could be a different kind of united. I would like to see a united federation, where each country comes into its own - and its sense of autonomy - and can contribute as a result to a united federation, where everybody comes together.”

This sort of thinking is not only attractive because it could create greater general consensus, but it would also lend itself to methodically and collaboratively working through the realities of delivering further constitutional change on these islands.

Many in the population, including in the independence movement, reasonably question if Scotland is ready, yet, to transition to full statehood. I’m not afraid to admit that such honest and important concerns have some justification. The fact is – and facts matter – Scotland doesn’t yet have all the necessary 21st century state infrastructure to quickly transition to a successful, modern independent country in the short-to-medium-term.

Like many others, in 2014 I believed that transitioning to an independent state would be doable fairly quickly. I have humbly since learned the hard reality. As Richard Holloway wisely once said, in an interview with the journalist Allan Little, “there’s a cleansing humility about doubt” - and there’s nothing wrong with having reasonable doubts about the pace at which constitutional change for Scotland can be delivered, especially if such concerns derive from a determination to make sure more independence is achieved responsibly and proficiently.

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Yes, we do have the combined intellect, imagination and capability to be a thriving independent state, and new high performing bodies that we’ve built in recent years, like Social Security Scotland and Revenue Scotland, show what we can do and do well. But what I have learned from my experience as Minister for Social Security – delivering new Scottish Government benefits and transferring thousands of existing cases from the DWP to Social Security Scotland – is that the practical implementation of constitutional change takes time if it is to be done securely and effectively. Wishful thinking and good intentions will not change that, and anyone suggesting there are shortcuts is not being upfront about the practical realities. Strong institutions and complex, secure digital systems take time to create and develop.

In the current circumstances, positive changes of the sort we would want to implement after an independence vote would take years to achieve. Following a negotiating period, we would be in a long transitional process with the UK Government for many years, and potentially decades regarding some matters and system transfers. We would need to build and maintain good relationships with the UK Government and focus on mutual interests throughout. Brexit teaches us this in spades. We will never be able to just cut all our ties with Westminster. So, whatever Scotland’s constitutional future is, we will need to work with the UK Government and make compromises practically and sensibly for the common good. Therefore, in many ways, an evolutionary process for achieving more independence is almost unavoidable.

I appreciate why many independence supporters want to see faster progress, especially after so much support has been gained in recent years. But it is the responsibility of those of us pushing for constitutional change to make sure an independent Scotland is in the best possible position to start successfully, with the means to do so. We must be ready if we want to take that leap responsibly; because any reckless, overly disruptive path to statehood would quickly make our quality of life in Scotland poorer. Better to go down a gear and take the journey at a reasonably safe speed, than crash trying to rush things. More independence, greater social justice, higher economic prosperity and re-entry to the EU are all absolutely achievable, but these things take time.

Some politicians often talk about something being the only way – they say doing X is the “only way” to achieve Y. Rarely is this actually the case. What really matters is, on balance, what is the best way to achieve something. What is the best way for Scotland to move forward in the period ahead?

Despite how wrongheaded and inept the current UK Government can be, and how much the Union feels like a toxic relationship at times, surely an agreement could be reached in the short-to-medium-term to create a different, better, modern constitutional arrangement – progressing, and certainly not regressing, the current settlement. I would like to see the SNP be pro-active about working with others to achieve that, with flexibility and in good faith.

The SNP should also be open-minded about working with a possible incoming English Labour government and seek further powers for the Scottish Parliament. To me, this should include new powers over employment law, energy, borrowing, drugs, company law, capital gains tax, dividend income tax, inheritance tax and another negotiated phase of social security devolution. Scotland should also be able to formally participate in international affairs and, similarly to Northern Ireland, be enabled to have a closer arrangement with the EU Single Market. And the case and need for a less homogenous immigration system is overwhelming, with strong precedent for more tailored approaches in Canada and Australia.As I’ve already stated, polling demonstrates that support for more powers for Scotland is consistently increasing among younger generations, and so to me it would make sense for any reasonable UK Government to work constructively in a responsible, thoughtful, forward-looking manner to meet the growing democratic demands in Scotland for further and greater home rule. Whether UK Ministers have the foresight and wisdom to meet this reality and challenge of course attracts much scepticism, but it would be in their interests given that support for more independence is only gaining momentum, and certainly not going away.

I’ll conclude with some more words from Richard Holloway, at the Edinburgh Book Festival last summer. He said “I do wish there was a bit more understanding down south of the Scottish predicament – that we’re in a union that seems to have become unbalanced… [And] I just wish there could be a more considered discussion about it...”

Together, now is an opportunity for us all to have that considered discussion, make changes, agree solutions and move forward constructively. Let’s embrace this new era and build on common ground. As has often been said, our journey matters at least as much as whatever final destination we collectively arrive at…

Ben Macpherson is SNP MSP for Edinburgh Northern and Leith and minister for social security