Stephen Noon: Beyond the SNP

ALTHOUGH I’ve worked for the Scottish National Party for most of the past 18 years, it was only in 2007 that the SNP became the party I had voted for most often.

ALTHOUGH I’ve worked for the Scottish National Party for most of the past 18 years, it was only in 2007 that the SNP became the party I had voted for most often.

And, to this day, it remains the case that I’ve voted overall for other parties (all the major parties bar one) more than I’ve voted SNP.

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There is, of course, a simple explanation. I lived and worked in England and so there was no need to vote on the basis of the Scottish constitutional question. Like most people, I voted by judging which party or politician had the best policies for my local health service, local economy, police on the beat or bin collection. It was a useful experience, allowing me to see politics and elections in the complex, disinterested and non-tribal way that most people see them. I was the archetypal floating voter.

Looking ahead, it is possible that the SNP may never secure a majority of my votes. The reason I joined the SNP is the belief that gaining independence is essential if we are to create a more successful and fairer Scotland. Being independent is the key to unlocking a range of benefits for our society and so it has to be the priority for, and the purpose of, my vote.

But, after a Yes vote in 2014, that position is transformed. In 2016, Scottish politics will be freed from the constitutional question. The issue that has dominated political discourse for at least 50 years will be no more.

In this new world, with the most significant dividing line in Scottish politics erased, independence-focused SNP-ers could safely choose to give one or even both their votes to Labour (or Green or Lib Dem), and Unionist Labouristas could happily give one or both votes to the SNP.

While for some this thought will have them spluttering into their porridge, most of us will recognise this as a real opportunity for a fresh start for Scottish politics, and for Scotland.

A Yes vote allows us to call a halt to the damaging changes to Scottish society that are the consequence today of the Westminster system. That is the power we can wield in 2014. However, it is only in the first election to an independent Scottish Parliament that we can truly choose Scotland’s new direction. Our new nation, and its new social and economic trajectory, begins with the votes cast in that Holyrood election in May 2016.

Think about it for a minute and explore what will be a new political landscape.Who will be leading Labour? It could be one of their current MPs, raising the prospect of a future First Minister Alexander (or Curran or Murphy) rather than a First Minister Lamont. A Labour Party, for once fielding its strongest team and forever liberated from the destructive belief that “Scottish Labour” answers ultimately to the party in London.

What will the Conservative and Unionist Party even be called? Murdo Fraser’s dream of an independent Scottish party will have become a reality; a party able to cast off its toxic legacy, just as the Liberal Democrats will have cast off the dark shadow of Deputy PM Clegg and his Tory deal. And what of the Party of independence? Will Scotland still want or need an SNP?

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We will have a multitude of coalition choices, including a currently inconceivable Labour and SNP partnership. And we’ll have a host of new policy options, so, for example, the political argument between investing in public services or spending on Trident under devolution becomes a real policy choice when we are independent.

With a Yes vote, the election in 2016 will be filled, left, right and centre, with many such new horizons. So much that is set in stone today will be little more than political dust.

So think about it, what will determine your vote in 2016?

Beyond the personalities and party positioning, the driver must be the policy opportunity that independence presents. The ability, finally, to bring together thinking on health and welfare, education and employment. We will have a Scottish Parliament that can act on the economy or inequality rather than just ask for action elsewhere.

My vote will go to the party I think will deliver in three key areas.

First, they must persuade me that they understand the opportunity independence presents for genuine institutional renewal in Scotland. The current No campaign argument that historic UK institutions ought to be maintained for the sake of stability and order stands only if those institutions are strong, coherent and enduring. But the evidence of recent years tells the opposite – the Westminster system is broken and so much of the institutional landscape has proved itself dangerously unfit.

A tax collection system that is creaking, cumbersome, complicated – an open invitation for avoidance; a Parliament rocked by an expenses scandal, incapable of delivering fair votes and with a second chamber that fails any and every democratic test. We are witnessing the murky reality of a “national” media that is painfully London-centric: allegations of hacking and collusion with the Metropolitan police, even the BBC in crisis. And, most damaging of all, the failure of financial regulation on a massive scale, with a system designed to protect and promote the masters of the financial universe in the City while expecting the rest of us to pay for their mistakes.

It takes a uniquely warped view of the world to believe that an independent Scotland couldn’t or wouldn’t do better than this.

There is huge potential, offered by Scotland’s advantageous size and high degree of social cohesion, to deliver genuine institutional reform. This is one of the real opportunities of an independent nation – we have a fresh start and the ability to deliver a more open, more efficient and more engaged public realm.

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Perhaps the Liberal Democrats will get my vote by proposing a genuinely democratic and representative second chamber. Replacing our 59 MPs at Westminster with a 59-strong Scottish Senate, elected on a regional and proportional basis, with the power to make the government think twice on it’s most controversial legislation.

Second, they will need to demonstrate that they have the ideas to turn the London effect on its head. Instead of sitting back while London’s centrifugal force creates a dangerous social and economic imbalance on these isles, a Scottish government worth its salt will find ways to turn our proximity to London into one of our greatest economic advantages.

Today, Westminster’s economic orthodoxy views growth in the south-east and London as most efficient and unemployment in the north as a price worth paying. Gaining independence gives us the ability to begin a much needed rebalancing of the economy of these islands, and not just for Scotland. A north of England that gets relatively poorer and economically weaker year after year may suit Westminster, but it is clearly not in Scotland’s national interest.

So I might vote for a party in 2016 that proposes extending the Glasgow-Edinburgh high-speed rail line to Newcastle, to create a tri-city economic zone. Such a move would draw the 2.6 million people of the north-east of England into Scotland’s economic sphere, creating new opportunities for businesses and workers on both sides of the Border. It would make it easier for Geordies to shop in Glasgow or work in Edinburgh, and vice-versa; or to choose to fly from Edinburgh, allowing our capital’s airport to attract new international routes. Instead of waiting 40 years for London to connect high-speed rail to us, we could choose to connect to each other and in doing so bring together almost eight million people to create a counterweight to London’s gravitational pull.

And, finally, my support will go to the party that has a plan to reverse the 40 years of growing inequality that has flowed from Westminster – to the party that can translate the collectivism of our society and its values into a country that is more caring and more equal than today.

According to Sheffield academic Danny Dorling the UK is the fourth most unequal country in the developed world and on existing trends it is set to become the most unequal. That is a direction of travel that was not reversed by Labour rule in London, with income inequality higher in 2007-08, after a decade of Labour government, than in 1996-97.

So where has this left us as part of the UK? Figures published by the Office of National Statistics and reported earlier this month, show that, taking total assets, the top tenth of all UK households own 44 per cent of the nation’s wealth. The bottom half of households – that’s most of us – own less than 10 per cent.

The top third of households in the UK have so much money saved for retirement that it is worth more than their investments in housing and property while the bottom 10 per cent have on average negative financial wealth, which in effect means they are worth nothing.

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We know there is an alternative to this Westminster way of structuring society and dividing the spoils. We only have to look across the North Sea to the Scandinavian nations, countries that sit at the very top of world wealth, equality and wellbeing league tables. If we so choose, Scotland can move towards this fairer, more social-democratic way of living.

So in 2016, I may give one of my votes to a Labour Party that proposed reducing the tax relief on pension contributions for the very wealthiest to deliver instead universal free childcare on the Scandinavian model. So rather than the top 10 per cent of earners receiving 50 per cent of the 
tax relief, as happens in the UK today, we use the saving to remove one of the biggest burdens on hard-working families and actually make work pay for tens of thousands of young Scottish mum and dads.

Or, I may vote Green, on the back of a pledge to use the £250 million annual saving from having no nuclear weapons to deliver low-cost district heating, starting in Scotland’s most fuel poor communities. A policy that would end the scandal of 900,000 Scottish families having to choose between heating and eating in this, one of the most energy rich nations on the planet.

Or, I may vote for an SNP that took up an idea of the late Stephen Maxwell and decided to allocate just one per cent of the revenues from our offshore energy wealth to create an endowment fund for Scotland’s poorest communities, giving an asset and an income to those very people who today, in the UK, are “worth nothing” in savings terms.

So in an independent Scotland, I will give my vote to the party that shares my vision of the kind of country I want for myself and future generations. We can all have that choice if only we decide to take it.

Happy New Year.

• Stephen Noon began working for SNP leader Alex Salmond in 1994, and was based in the Westminster Office of the SNP from 1996 until 2001. In the run-up to the 2007 election he was head of the SNP’s Policy and Governance Unit. From 2007 until 2010 Stephen was a special adviser in the Scottish Government, first as senior policy adviser and then providing First Ministerial support. He was a member of the SNP’s Campaign Committee for the 2007 and 2011 elections, with responsibility for message and policy development. He is currently Chief Strategist of Yes Scotland.