Brian Monteith: New honesty from SNP has been long overdue

Brian Monteith welcomes an outbreak of independent thinking, albeit a small one, among Nationalists

Alex Neil has broken ranks and questioned positions taken by Sturgeon in her attempt to whip up support for a second indyref. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Alex Neil has broken ranks and questioned positions taken by Sturgeon in her attempt to whip up support for a second indyref. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Whatever criticism has been levelled at the SNP in the last five years, the last word you would read or hear is that it has been “indisciplined”.

Quite the reverse, such has been the unwillingness of its elected members to say or write anything at odds with the line put out by Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon or John Swinney that it has been criticised as Stalinist or compared to being a religious Cult.

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It is not just that the SNP members of Holyrood and Westminster are so committed to delivering independence that they do not want to rock the boat or give unionist opponents ammunition to attack their leaders with, the party law as passed at a 2015 conference is quite explicit in stating, “no member within, or outwith the Parliament, publicly criticise a Group decision, policy or another member of the Group”.

The difficulty with this adherence to top-down thinking is that when new circumstances occur there is no time and no breathing space for open debate or the formulation of strategy and tactics – what the leadership says goes. As First Minister and party leader Nicola Sturgeon’s word is the law and woe betide anyone who suggests an alternative in public. Not only is this obviously illiberal and the antithesis off objective reasoning so beautifully advanced by the Scottish Enlightenment, it is ultimately self defeating, for no leader, not even Nicola Sturgeon, is always right.

Whether you consider it a comical irony or necessity of political management, the bald truth is that the party of Scottish independence does not allow independence of thought and denies the most basic of human rights by censoring its elected members. The current cadre of elected SNP politicians, who’s job is to represent the views of all of their constituents, has been reduced to simple automatons to repeat the dear leader’s imperious commandments and vote without thinking in support.

That was the plan, and it has survived pretty well intact until recently but for two men who have possibly struggled with their consciences or their inability to ignore the obvious.

George Kerevan, MP for East Lothian and a member of the House of Commons Treasury select committee and one of three SNP MPs tasked with developing a new referendum-proof currency policy was the first to be more honest with the voters than has previously been allowed. Writing in London’s financial daily City AM, Kerevan admitted that to reassure foreign exchange markets a new Scottish currency pegged to Sterling would require the government to “cut its budget coat to fit its fiscal means”. For avoidance of doubt, Kerevan stated this approach would require at least five years and be “painful in the immediate short term”.

Such frankness appeared to be contagious, with his Westminster colleague Angus Robertson who, when pressed about Kerevan’s views on BBC Radio Scotland, conceded that there are “downsides” to independence and the SNP should be willing to talk about them.

Still, it has taken nearly two years for this honesty about the failure of the SNP economic policy as presented in its White Paper to surface. With the EU referendum still fresh in our minds it has taken the second Braveheart, the former Cabinet member Alex Neil MSP, less than two months to slay the anti-Brexit policies of Sturgeon by espousing a healthy dose of realpolitik and pragmatism. Writing in the Holyrood magazine, Neil has contested two core positions taken by Sturgeon in her attempt to whip up support for a second independence referendum on the back of the UK’s Brexit vote in June.

Firstly Neil has argued: “It would prove particularly difficult to win majority support if there is any suggestion independence could lead to the creation of a ‘hard border’ between Scotland and the rest of the UK.” He went on to say: “If independence is defined as Scotland becoming a full member of the EU, keeping an open border with the rest of the UK is likely to be very difficult to achieve.” This is because full membership of the EU would likely mean Scotland becoming a member of the Schengen area.

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The second challenge to Sturgeon comes in a warning not to rush towards a second referendum using Brexit as a reason. Neil argued: “The idea that we could suddenly be swept to independence on the back of an emotional tidal wave of support resulting from the Brexit vote isn’t supported by the available evidence.”

Instead of cranking up the sense of grievance over Brexit, Neil suggests looking to achieve the best possible deal for Scotland in the Brexit negotiations, in particular securing as many new powers that the Scotland Act affirms should come automatically to Scotland. These include legislative powers over farming and fishing, as well as authority over employment regulations that could require all public service contract bidders to use the living wage. Neil also argues that Westminster must deliver Scotland’s share of the savings that should come from the UK no longer paying a membership fee to Brussels.

Cogent, well-argued dissent based on issues rather than personalities is a healthy and natural Scottish trait and should not be emasculated. The political realities being introduced to our national discourse by Kerevan and Neil are good for Scottish democracy, and may come in time to save the SNP from being overcome yet again by hubris and arrogance.