In the interests of transparency, I should begin by declaring that Andrew Wilson, chair of the SNP’s Growth Commission and the man First Minister Nicola Sturgeon hopes will reinvigorate the campaign for Scottish independence, is a good friend of mine. I hold him in the highest regard, considering him a man of integrity and great kindness. His departure from the Scottish Parliament after a single term, in 2003, robbed our politics of one of its brightest young stars and – like many who know him – I hope, one day, he’ll return to Holyrood.
We could do with more Andrew Wilsons in public life.
This particular Andrew Wilson, after some time away from the spotlight building his strategic communications company, Charlotte Street Partners, finds himself back at the heart of our national political debate as he attempts to rebuild the badly damaged case for independence.
Across more than 350 pages, the Growth Commission’s report – Scotland, A New Case For Optimism, published on Friday amid great fanfare – seeks to present a new and, crucially, plausible argument for ending the centuries-old Union. Wilson and his colleagues on the commission have consulted widely, seeking the views not only of those sympathetic to the idea of independence but of those who remain sceptical.
The document’s cautious tone and frequent concessions that the establishment of a new independent state would not be without cost stand in stark contrast to the Scottish Government’s 2014 White Paper, the promises and claims contained within which became increasingly laughable as one read on. Former first minister Alex Salmond may have presented the White Paper as the most detailed prospectus for a new state ever published but, in reality, it was 600-odd pages of wild assertion, reckless optimism, and downright bollocks.
The engagement of Wilson to head the Growth Commission and build – from scratch – a new case for independence suggests that view of the White Paper is accepted by senior SNP figures.
So has Wilson succeeded?
Nationalists have already hailed the document for its substance and its authors for their integrity and seriousness of purpose. Unionists, naturally, have pointed out support for independence remains a minority pursuit and dismissed the work for leaving big questions unanswered.
When it comes to the matter of the detail of establishing a new country, unionists have an inbuilt advantage. Nationalists must persuade voters to take a step into the unknown; unionists, on the other hand, can point to the here and now and ask whether a) things are all that terrible and b) whether it’s really worth risking constitutional change with all of its implications.
Wilson and his colleague have not, I think, succeeded in solving the SNP’s problems when it comes to the issues of currency and the economy in an independent Scotland. The report’s suggestion that Scotland would engage in a period of Sterlingisation – a concession, surely, that the commission’s authors don’t reckon the UK government was, as Salmond claimed, bluffing when it ruled out the possibility of a currency union in the aftermath of a Yes vote in 2014 – is hardly inspiring. Why should something considered a poor second best four years ago now be rated a genuinely appealing option?
On the economy, the commission’s authors describe how 12 small nations have grown and prospered and suggest an independent Scotland might follow their examples. But sceptics might say that the selection of a different dozen would have produced a very different pictures of the harsh realities facing some small economies.
When it comes to changing minds, I doubt the commission’s report has the power; those who are in favour of independence will cling to it as a game-changer, those who are opposed will dismiss it as little more than a well-written wish list.
Both will be wrong. The Growth Commission, under Wilson’s chairmanship, has not created a blueprint for an independent Scotland but it has given the SNP ideas for government and, while doing so, it reminds the party about a long-forgotten strategy that once served it very well, indeed.
When the nationalists won their first election in 2007, they were not carried to victory on a tidal wave of pro-independence sentiment.
Instead, SNP leader Alex Salmond employed a more cautious approach (hard to believe, now, isn’t it?). A vote for his party was not a vote for independence, it was a vote for competent devolved government. Let us show you what we can do, said Salmond, and then if you ever want to talk about independence, I’m listening.
This softly-softly approach led to rather cautious government. After 2007, the SNP was so concerned about ending, once and for all, the accusation that it wasn’t fit to govern that it didn’t dare take on controversial reform of public services for fear of any backlash.
After 2011, the SNP was so concerned about any potential negative impact on the independence case that it continued its rather managerial approach.
With recommendations about how economic growth might be encouraged under the current devolution settlement, Wilson’s team might concentrate the minds of SNP ministers who, as their party’s star slowly falls, really do need to focus – and be seen to focus – on the domestic agenda. In the absence of an SNP-affiliated think tank, the growth commission has put forward ideas which might be developed into policy.
Scotland, A New Case For Optimism does something else of considerable value. It attempts to change the tone of our debate. There is not a trace of Salmond-style bluster in a single sentence of the report. Instead, it recognises with some humility the challenges the Yes movement faces and it accepts that the views of those who oppose independence are held in good faith.
My friend Andrew Wilson has not delivered to the SNP a document containing the secret to referendum victory but he has made a powerful case for a Scottish Parliament using its existing powers to their fullest and because of that, the Growth Commission report should be considered by nationalists and unionists alike as a document of some substance.