Ewan Crawford: SNP have everything to play for

Referendum excitement at its peak as Yes supporters gathered in George Square, to the bewilderment of many No voters. Picture: PA
Referendum excitement at its peak as Yes supporters gathered in George Square, to the bewilderment of many No voters. Picture: PA
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The referendum was meant to be the last word, but learning the lessons of that campaign can galvanise Scottish aspirations again, writes Ewan Crawford

FOR those who work in politics the sheer intensity of debate and frequency of electoral tests in Scotland can feel unrelenting.

We’re less than four months on from the independence referendum but the campaign is already well and truly under way for the most unpredictable UK election in memory and next year the Scottish Parliament elections will be upon us.

This time last year the then Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was finalising a speech, which with hindsight, contains important themes for seemingly disparate future contests.

Called internally “two futures”, the idea was to set out the consequences of both a Yes and a No vote.

For much of 2013 the UK government had started to mobilise the full resources of the British state, a process that would culminate in a shock and awe onslaught in the final week of the campaign.

A lot of this was backed up by various organisations and “experts” carrying out carefully chosen research, which was not entirely unhelpful to those campaigning against independence. At times there appeared to be an avalanche of acronyms – the NIESR, ICAS, SFE, the IFS – and what seemed like virtually every House of Commons committee (curiously presented as impartial observers) all issuing reports of one kind or another setting out hurdles and difficulties to be overcome.

Driving along the M8 to work as a Scottish Government special adviser during those months I sometimes found it easier to listen to music than the clanging sounds of doom coming from the news programmes.

The publication of the White Paper in November had wrestled some of the initiative back and Nicola was determined to build on the momentum.

Re-reading her New Year speech one year on, I was struck by this passage:

“Like other countries, we face some big challenges – constrained public finances, a legacy of debt and a shrinking working population relative to our pensioner population. But these are not arguments against independence. They are products of the status quo. They are reasons, not to keep things as they are, but to do things differently.”

At the start of 2015 all these challenges remain and the constitutional debate is far from over.

For Labour and the Conservatives, I suppose, the plan for the referendum was simple: deal a crushing blow to the Nats, watch them implode and then get back to “normal” politics where Scotland was treated as a region of the UK (albeit one with a football team) and the pendulum of power could swing back and forth between blue and red without too much disruption or inconvenience.

But having worked in both opposition and government I have learned that political parties often overestimate their capacity to determine events.

Like our Unionist opponents I too would have predicted that 18 September would have essentially settled the independence question. But it is the realisation of the consequences of maintaining Westminster control over Scotland that I suspect has maintained the momentum for those arguing for constitutional change.

The victory for the No campaign means Scotland will indeed get Westminster governments rejected by the vast majority of voters here. It means Trident will almost certainly be renewed – at an annual cost of £4 billion within ten years. It means the very real possibility of Scotland leaving the EU even if a majority of Scots want to stay in; of a widening gap between rich and poor; of ideologically-driven spending cuts; and of an ever-greater concentration of wealth and power in London and the south-east of England.

It is no longer fanciful that in the next ten years we could be subjected to a Tory-Ukip coalition with Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage in positions of power.

For all these reasons it does seem as if demand for a second referendum – even if not from any political party, but from public opinion – will see the independence question put again at some stage.

For supporters of independence what then are the lessons of the 2014 campaign?

The biggest lesson of all is that independence is unlikely to be won or lost during the campaign itself. A prerequisite is a popular, disciplined SNP-led government. During the difficult days in the early years of the Scottish Parliament the SNP, not without pain, transformed itself into an effective parliamentary opposition and government in waiting.

The belief was that arguing for the enhanced powers of independence was going to be an awful lot harder if you can’t demonstrate you know what do with the limited powers of devolution.

For the voters it is the best guarantor of effective devolved government they could have: the SNP knows that competent government delivering progress is the bedrock of further constitutional change. But clearly, without the SNP in power the No parties will do everything they can to stop the process. So maintaining the hunger for government is essential.

In making the specific arguments for independence, being so close to the events, I find it impossible to judge objectively the success or otherwise of the strategy pursued.

But I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that both Sturgeon and Alex Salmond fought brilliant campaigns and that we came far closer, in the face of massive opposition, than most commentators expected.

For me one of the highlights was an event at which the then first minister met with Yes supporters of varying nationalities now living in Scotland. As ever with these occasions you worry about numbers: will sufficient people turn-up? As it happened the crowd was huge. The atmosphere was like a carnival. This coincided with the astonishing news that Prime Minister’s Questions had been cancelled to enable the Westminster leaders to come up to Scotland to campaign.

The mood was heady, and despite being the designated office pessimist I believed by the final week that Scotland was going to vote Yes.

Walking along the banks of the River Tay in Perth on the evening before the referendum, I was making anxious phone calls to Scottish Government officials, struggling to hear properly as a nearby exuberant Yes campaign car cavalcade made its way through the city.

That day the Spanish premier, Mariano Rajoy, had chosen again to question an independent Scotland’s continuing membership of the EU. His latest intervention was far too late to change anything and it would barely be reported even by the staunchest of opponents who would ordinarily be jumping gleefully all over yet another dire warning about the consequences of a Yes vote.

But this was no longer a matter of issuing press lines. It was more serious than that. I hoped and believed we would soon be dealing directly, not with journalists, but with the Spanish government and the EU Commission which had been, to put it politely, less than helpful during the campaign.

I never doubted – and still don’t – that the EU would do anything other than accept the referendum result and reach a common-sense solution to maintain Scotland’s membership.

But the interventions by both Rajoy and the outgoing EU Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, during the run-up to the referendum had been a disgrace.

It is little wonder that many people feel ambiguous, at best, towards the European Union when some of its leaders said they were in essence prepared to disregard the democratic wishes of millions of its citizens and seek to expel them for exercising their right to self-determination.

Supporters of Scottish independence are used to facing jibes about being “narrow-minded nationalists” from UK politicians who routinely use the power of the British nation state to further their own particular interests. The behaviour of some EU figures, no doubt egged on by David Cameron, took this hypocrisy to new levels.

Ultimately, chucking an independent Scotland out of Europe would have been unthinkable because it would have called into question the entire purpose and founding principles of the EU.

Nevertheless it was sobering to say the least that on that day in Perth I believed that in 48 hours the commitment of the EU to its values of democracy, solidarity and the rule of law would be put to the test by a Yes vote. So we needed to be sure that we were as ready as we could be.

Later that evening before Salmond and Sturgeon arrived at Perth Concert Hall for their final rally, a colleague showed me a picture on his phone of the spontaneous gathering in Glasgow. Thousands had packed into George Square turning it into a sea of saltires. It was amazing and uplifting and hard to believe that this was Scotland – we didn’t do politics this way.

And of course for many people in the country that was exactly what they were thinking. The strongest political opponents of independence will, of course, never be convinced.

Their commitment to the Union is as strong, and honourable, as my belief in an independent Scotland. In the words of the scholar, Tom Nairn, for them Scotland is “a land bearable only when merged or extended by association with another”.

But for many others genuinely interested in the competing arguments I suspect that there was some bewilderment at the noisy car cavalcades and the mass, joyful gatherings.

While I was excited and exhilarated others were clearly nervous and even scared – emotions no doubt fuelled by the onslaught of warnings, of which the prospect of being ejected from the European Union was just one.

It would be naive to assume that in any future campaign the No side won’t again raise questions over currency, Europe and pensions or that big business won’t make its presence felt again.

One of the extraordinary successes of the Yes campaign was to imbue a sense of mission among more than one-and-a-half million people that despite these warnings an independent Scotland could indeed build a more equal and prosperous country.

The task then is to ensure that before any future referendum contest that optimistic, aspirational sense of national mission is shared by many more people. Although the polling evidence is mixed there is clearly a big job to do among middle-class Scotland and those over the age of 55.

The answer, I think, lies in continuing to engage and involve these groups, and others, in addressing the challenges set out this time last year by Sturgeon.

A permanent national economic conversation is needed about how best to build greater security and create more opportunity. For much of the 2014 campaign the arguments for independence centred on both the “can” case as well as the “should”. Over the coming months and years, debates over the Smith ­Commission’s tax proposals will inevitably be accompanied by claims over Scotland’s public finances – claims given extra heat by fluctuations in oil prices (and incidentally an important reason to elect SNP MPs to protect Scottish funding).

This means the “can” case – maintaining and reinforcing the story of Scotland’s great economic and financial strength – needs to become a big and permanent feature of the ongoing argument for independence.

On the “should”, the new first minister has already stressed the important connection between economic growth and greater equality. The gap between rich and poor is bad for everyone, not just those on the lowest incomes.

And the predicted falling working population within the Union means fewer job opportunities here in Scotland: bad news again for both higher and lower income groups.

The structure of the Scottish economy has changed dramatically over the last 40 years. No doubt it will change again over the next 40. As a country we need to encourage greater innovation, become more international in outlook and re-industrialise for the 21st century.

Above all we need to become a society where we have confidence in each other to shape our future rather than one where we wait for things to happen to us. Encouraging and including everyone to believe in that central mission will ultimately determine whether or not Scotland does become an independent country. «

Twitter: @ewansc

Ewan Crawford is a lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland and a former special adviser with the Scottish Government