Brian Wilson: No substance in SNP white paper

White paper continues the Nationalist hype about independence, but offers no answers, writes Brian Wilson
Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon unveil their manifesto for independence. Picture: GettyAlex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon unveil their manifesto for independence. Picture: Getty
Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon unveil their manifesto for independence. Picture: Getty

After all the hype, it was the longest cut-and-paste job in history. Never in the diet of Scottish politics was so much cauld kail re-het in such a cauldron of hyperbole and expense.

The document, which was supposed to answer all of the questions, in fact answers none. It ranges from hoary grievance through dubious assertion to fanciful solutions, which are grounded only in the airy assumptions of their authors.

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Where was Willie MacIlvanney when he was needed at such an hour? This turgid drone through well-rehearsed issues adds as little to the Scottish literary tradition as it does to the sum of human knowledge.

If this white paper is supposed to act as the emperor’s clothes for the next ten months, then let us all avert our eyes – for it is not going to be a pretty sight. In the wake of its publication, the question cries out even more loudly from any rational observer – what is this all about?

Sometimes, like yesterday, the independence campaign seems like little more than an elongated stunt, which its leaders make up as they go along. This struck me forcibly last week when finance secretary John Swinney went on television to address the currency question. I had to return for another news bulletin just to check that I had not misheard him.

Swinney, who is supposed to be the honest one, said with a straight face: “The people of Scotland will be given the proposition that sterling will be the currency of Scotland and the UK government has signed up to respect the outcome of the referendum, so we would expect them to respect the outcome of the referendum and, therefore, to respect the currency position that we have set out as part of the process.”

So here was the Holy Grail, roughly translated – the Nationalists’ entire answer to the question of why what was left of the United Kingdom would agree to share a currency with the departed Scotland. They must do so, according to the newly-coined Nationalist doctrine, whether they like it or not, because they had “signed up to respect the outcome of the referendum”.

At that point, it occurred to a lot of people that this was not a policy, or an assurance you would bet your business or pension on, but nothing more than a wheeze to get the Nationalists out of a tight corner. Yet this alleged obligation to grant everything the SNP has put in its white paper is now confirmed as the sole basis for assumptions about the currency Scotland will be using 30 months from now. This is for real.

It is also utter nonsense. If the SNP wanted to make the referendum a “winner-take-all” affair in which the UK government is obliged to accept not only the verdict on independence but also the detailed manifesto spelt out in the white paper, then obviously the time to make that remarkable claim was when the terms of the referendum were being negotiated.

There was no such negotiation for two good reasons – the Nationalists had not even dreamt up the wheeze at that stage and, even if they had, there was zero prospect of anyone else buying into it. It is only as their difficulties have mounted on the currency question, and the reasons why it would not work for what was left of the UK, that they have dreamt up this “solution” – or stunt.

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In the white paper, they list some excellent reasons why Scotland should continue to use sterling. For example, “there is clear evidence of companies operating in Scotland and the UK with complex cross-Border supply chains”. Absolutely right. But that is surely an argument in favour of not drawing an international boundary between the component parts of these “complex cross-Border supply chains”?

Even more remarkably, the white paper concedes in support of the “shared currency” argument: “Evidence of economic cycles shows that while there have been periods of temporary divergence, there is a relatively high degree of synchronicity in short-term economic trends.” I didn’t know until now that “synchronicity” was a word, but I am delighted to buy into the sentiment.

The usual Nationalist complaint is that Scotland’s economic needs are so different from those of England that we need different measures up to and including the break-up into separate states. Yet here we have the arch-apostles of separation arguing for a shared currency on the grounds that there “is a relatively high degree of synchronicity” between the two economies. Work that one out!

The whole scenario of Scotland insisting that it must keep the currency of the state from which it is departing borders on the bizarre. It is like a prisoner demanding that the terms of his release should include the inalienable right to remain in prison. On what possible basis can they claim that Scotland will be better served by the Bank of England if we are outside the UK than when we are in it?

Border controls is another area on which the assertion that the UK must do as Scotland tells them is simply ridiculous. By definition, there are two sides to a border. The idea that Scotland can run its own immigration policy while insisting on open borders with the rest of the UK is simply not true. We are a small island within which people currently move freely. Split us into two states with different immigration policies and that ceases to be the case.

There is so much in this white paper that it is possible to spit peas through, and the one good thing to be said for it is that the target now exists. But maybe what I found its most offensive aspect was the attempt to confuse social issues that are currently the remit of the Scottish Government with the question of independence.

Apparently short of women’s votes, the Nationalists have made promises about what would happen to childcare by 2024. Big deal, one might say. The obvious point is that nothing of significance has happened since 2008 when they gained control of the Scottish Parliament. Certainly nothing as radical as the childcare and pre-school revolution which benefited the whole of the UK in 1997.

As always, the Nationalists prefer to talk about what they would do if only they had independence. Like everyone else, they should be judged not by what they say they would do, but by what they have actually done. If they believe in childcare or anything else as a social priority, the time for evidence is not 2024 but 2014.

We are, after all, talking about Scotland’s children – not pawns in the Nationalist game.