Euan McColm: Think-tank gives SNP firepower

WHEN it comes to policies, the SNP has made a little go a long way in recent years.

There is a recognition among Nationalist ranks that Nicola Sturgeon will require an agenda that distinctively reflects her own political beliefs. Picture: Ian Rutherford
There is a recognition among Nationalist ranks that Nicola Sturgeon will require an agenda that distinctively reflects her own political beliefs. Picture: Ian Rutherford

If we set aside the party’s central plan – the break up of the UK – then we struggle to find many big ideas.

The SNP’s recent successes have, it might be argued, been down to the calibre of its senior politicians rather than the breadth and depth of its vision for Scotland.

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Yes, there are those big ticket items – the council tax freeze, free prescriptions – which Nationalist politicians will argue are all about social justice.

But those policies have always appeared to be more about winning elections than truly building a fairer Scotland.

Polling shows that, despite defeat in the independence referendum, the SNP is on course to secure a third Holy­rood election victory in 2016.

With things going so well, there may be a temptation for some in the party to adopt an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to its policy agenda.

Surely more of the same – ministerial competence allied with a few baubles for the middle-classes – will be enough to keep things on track?

Wisely, some in the SNP think that would be recklessly complacent. There is a growing recognition among Nationalist ranks that First Minister elect, Nicola Sturgeon, will require an agenda that distinctively reflects her political beliefs rather than continuing on the path identical to that trodden by Alex Salmond.

And one of the most interesting ideas to emerge in post referendum discussions among Nationalist campaigners is the establishment of an independent think-tank which would satisfy the hunger for new ideas.

Remarkably, despite its 80-year history and its ability to learn from the past successful strategies of its opponents, the SNP has never had a serious think-tank aligned with its world view.

Labour may look, for example, to the Institute for Public Policy Research or the Fabians for new ideas, while the Conservatives may browse the shelves of the Policy Exchange, the Centre for Social Justice, or the Centre for Policy Studies, among others. But the Nationalists have never enjoyed the luxury (or endured the frustrations) of having a group of thinkers dedicated to the formulation of policy.

Keeping matters in-house has not always been successful. Among the policies the SNP campaigned on in the 2003 Scottish Parliament election was the abolition of the council tax. The party made this a central plank of its manifesto despite the fact that staff simply couldn’t make the numbers work. The logic was that, well, the party wasn’t going to win and it was better to have some kind of policy, even if it didn’t work, than to have nothing at all.

The days when the SNP anticipated electoral defeat are long gone. If current success is to be sustained into the future, then new workable policies will have to be found.

Party insiders cite a number of reasons why the formation of a Nationalist think-tank is crucial. They say, first, that if the SNP is to continue to flourish in a country that has rejected independence, it has to develop a long-term vision on matters both devolved and reserved.

They argue, too, that the party’s policy agenda is likely to be under greater scrutiny during Sturgeon’s leadership than it ever was during Salmond’s.

Unlike her predecessor, Sturgeon doesn’t easily turn to bluff or bluster when flaws are pointed out. She will want an agenda that’s fully costed, explainable, and defendable.

It would be wrong to suggest that the SNP hasn’t had access to thinkers in recent years. It has. It’s just that most of them haven’t been very good ones.

A small platoon of bag carriers, favoured by Salmond, have been encouraged to look out of windows and have thoughts.

Sometimes, these thoughts have exasperated civil servants. One tells of a Scottish Government special adviser who came up with a great wheeze to put every drop of water in Scotland in public ownership. Every drop of rain, every puddle, and everything that came out our taps would be owned by all of us.

There was some political excitement about the idea, which would make the SNP appear to be a model of fairness and social justice.

It took a civil servant to point out that the bottlers and sellers of mineral water, who owned the land on which their springs rose and who had invested heavily in their businesses, might expect quite substantial compensation should their water become public property.

There are, no doubt, a number of self-proclaimed Nationalist thinkers who would dearly love to play a more active role in the development of ­policy.

But while it might be a lovely thought to imagine another lecture from Lesley Riddoch about how Scotland could be more like Norway, or to anticipate a tract from Pat Kane about something or other, a successful new think-tank would have to challenge contemporary chattering-class Nationalist orthodoxies. Filling it with the usual suspects would be an exercise in pointlessness.

Sturgeon does have access to an impressive resource when it comes to policy formation in the shape of the Scottish civil service. She is popular with government staff who praise her clear thinking and personable nature.

The SNP, however, will not always be in government and it is for those times that the establishment of a think-tank now might prove especially useful.

Next month, Sturgeon will appear at a number of rallies attended by new members of the SNP. A great many of those people joined the ­Nationalists in the immediate aftermath of the referendum and their driving force is the hope of a second vote in the near future.

Sturgeon wants to take the heat out of the constitutional debate and will make clear her belief that the SNP should get on with governing for all.

The referendum is lost and now Nicola Sturgeon wants to prove her party can win every other battle of ideas with Scottish Labour. A Nationalist think-tank would be a useful source of firepower.