My MP, Greg McClymont, is a bright guy. Between Christmas and New Year he co-published a paper seeking to draw lessons from Labour in Opposition in the 1930s and 1980s that might assist our party in regaining power at Westminster in 2015. Its timing got considerable media coverage. Well done Greg.
On the view of Scottish politics we are encouraged to embrace by others however, what conceivably was Greg, as one of Labour’s rising stars, doing wasting his time in this manner? Surely, by the time of the 2015 General Election, Scotland will have long since voted for independence and all of this will be largely irrelevant? If he wants to expend intellectual effort as a “Unionist”, surely it should be to prevent that eventuality? And indeed, shouldn’t that also be the primary task of Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander; and, indeed, Ming Campbell and Charlie Kennedy, never mind Liam Fox or Mary Macleod, who, although representing English constituencies, would surely suffer damage to their long-term Westminster careers if they suddenly became citizens of a foreign country? What are they all playing at?
One of my great political teachers was the late Norman Buchan. And one of the lessons I learned from him was that if I really wanted to know what was going on I should not have regard to politicians but rather to the financial newspapers.
So, let us consider what would be going on in Scotland if there were a widespread belief that we would be independent within the next five years? Our major public companies, ultimately controlled here or otherwise: Standard Life; RBS; Scottish Power and the like, would have significant resources deployed in war-gaming what that would mean for their individual business. They don’t. Foreign powers, particularly the USA, would be in discreet talks with the Scottish Government as to the likely orientation of its foreign and defence policy. They aren’t. With or without the consent of the UK government, the European Union would be considering the exact terms of Scottish continued membership. It’s not. At a mundane level, Westminster MPs and their employees would be making plans as to how they might enjoy a continued livelihood. They’re not; even the SNP ones.
Out on the internet, and in the occasional foreign newspaper relying on the internet largely as its source, Scotland is marching towards independence. In the real world it remains the case that it is difficult even to persuade up-and-coming Labour politicians, or Tories, that, given the choice, the Scottish Parliament is where they ought to expend their efforts. Just as in the real world, despite a domestic opposition in disarray, the Nationalists try to claim inevitable victory from a single opinion poll that gives record 38 per cent (38 per cent!) support, while in reality being reluctant to name a date for the actual question to be put. We are asked to believe that they believe Gramsci’s famous maxim but in reverse: that they enjoy optimism of the intellect but suffer pessimism of the will.
The number one priority for Scotland in 2012 is getting people back to work. That largely depends on macroeconomics. Getting that sorted, we on the left would argue, requires the collapse of the coalition and a UK Labour government. It would certainly be helped by Hollande winning in France and Obama being re-elected with a Congressional majority but, on any view, macroeconomic initiative is beyond Scotland alone, as it would be even if we were miraculously “Independent”.
Those of us, however, who believed in devolution in the first place always thought devolved government’s contribution could be on the supply side. Better training more integrated with the demands of industry; collective marketing of our export sectors; strategic investment in infrastructure; selective financial support for innovation. Making our difference from England a competitive mark of our distinction, not the expression of our imagined grievances.
That’s what the Scottish Government could be doing here and now. Instead it proposes to do nothing while it sits about waiting for independence. Forever.
• Ian Smart is a lifelong member of the Labour Party and a former president of the Law Society of Scotland