From the great lexicon of vacuous political clichés, one which should be treated with particular scepticism is the injunction to “look to the future and not the past”.
This plea tends to come from those with a vested interest in moving hurriedly on. Yet forgetting the past is risky for, as the great Scottish Secretary Tom Johnston, put it: “A people that does not understand the past will never comprehend the present nor mould the future.”
Before anyone starts moulding the future, real or imagined, around the latest dubious masterplan for Scottish independence, there is a bit of unfinished business which requires accounting for. I refer to the White Paper published by the Scottish Government in 2013.
It is the new orthodoxy for this tome to be described as “fanciful”, “wildly over-optimistic” or – to quote my fellow-columnist Darren McGarvey – “now discredited”. All are true but they are euphemisms for the White Paper having been built around pillars of calculated deception, which should be neither forgotten nor forgiven.
On prospects for oil revenues, on the deficit which an independent Scotland would have faced, on the critical issue of currency, on the right to EU membership, on the costs of setting up a Scottish state, on the prospect of financial institutions moving their headquarters ... the list goes on and on. Every one of them “now discredited”.
Yet it was this bogus prospectus that was used to divide Scotland. The current First Minister and her closest associates were in the vanguard of orchestrating the denigration of anyone – politician or otherwise – who dared challenge assertions which were underpinned by the authority of a White Paper.
While nobody now defends that document, it has never been apologised for. Surely, in the light of Andrew Wilson’s revisionary text, the hour has come. Before anyone is asked to “move on”, Ms Sturgeon should address this monument to utter recklessness in the cause of independence – or expect her future veracity to be judged accordingly.
Apologists resort to the line that it was “no worse than Boris Johnson’s £350 million for the NHS”. While this sets a low bar, the critical difference is that the White Paper was not the work of a campaign group but of civil servants, under political duress from which they needed protection. They too are due an apology, not least from their former Permanent Secretary, Sir Peter Housden.
So what of Andrew’s opus? It has been faintly praised for “realism” and it is creditable that every central contention from the White Paper has been discarded, much to the distress of those who preferred the fantasy. Beyond that internal debate, we should apply a simple test. The last Labour government lifted 900,000 children out of poverty. What comparable benefit does Mr Wilson offer?
For all his “realism”, the difficulty is that the entire work starts from a conclusion on which his facts need to be based. It seems a pity that a serious piece of work on the Scottish economy was not allowed to lead where the evidence took it rather than being dragooned into a pre-determined destiny.
For example, why did it only look at small independent states as comparators? If the endeavour was about identifying what is best for Scotland, surely role models should include those nations-within-states and European regions which are doing extremely well, thank you, regardless of constitutional status.
Catalonia is a case in point. While the SNP’s only interest is in attaching itself to the coat-tails of the pro-independence minority, the more interesting story is about Catalonia’s economic success as part of Spain. The positive lessons to be learned were, by definition, excluded from Mr Wilson’s investigations, yet Scotland has far more in common with Catalonia or the Basque region than with Singapore or New Zealand.
In truth, there is little interest in learning from best practice unless there is a constitutional peg to hang it on. We hear constantly about Norway but show not the slightest interest in emulating Norwegian policies from which Scotland could benefit in the here and now if we could be bothered to do so. The long-standing commitment to job dispersal into the most peripheral areas is an obvious example. If we are looking for relevant exemplars for addressing Scotland’s challenges, should it matter where they are found? Many social and economic problems derive from an industrial history which has largely run its course. Parallel experiences, and hence solutions, are more likely to be found in regions with similar histories than in pastoral idylls which happen to be independent states. Should that matter if we can learn and implement?
To refer back to one of my own hobby-horses, if there is a formula somewhere in Europe for regenerating town centres which could be implanted into Scotland to see if it could be made to work here, does it matter a toss whether the model is to be found in a big country or a wee country or a wee bit of a big country? Just get out there looking and then get on with it.
I was keen to identify something in Andrew Wilson’s report which I could heartily endorse and found it in this statement: “Purposeful actions must commence immediately and will quickly begin to reap rewards. But that action must be long-term, inter-generational and cross-partisan.” He then called for a “cross-partisan collaborative approach to policy-making against a long-term national strategic framework”.
All fine words – and I agree. There is not enough ideological difference at Holyrood to prevent such an approach to some of Scotland’s economic fundamentals. But Andrew is not so naïve that he does not recognise one insuperable barrier to any such consensus and it is called constitutional uncertainty.
The logical conclusion of his report should not be to prolong that uncertainty but to kick it into touch and get on with the real challenges using existing powers. What a pity he could not say so – any more than we are likely to obtain an overdue apology for that blackest of White Papers.