NICOLA Sturgeon has unveiled plans for an economic commission to examine how the £15 billion black hole in Scotland’s public finances can be brought under control, as she launched a new independence push.
The SNP’s Growth Commission will also have the task of resolving the thorny issue of what currency an independent Scotland would use after the 2014 plans to share the UK pound were criticised when Westminster ruled it out.
The commission was announced as part of the First Minister’s “new independence initiative”, which aims to target two million Scots voters in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.
The SNP leader told the party’s MSPs and councillors that she was embarking on the country’s “biggest ever listening exercise” with a wide-ranging survey to ask Scots how they voted in the EU referendum, their views on independence, as well as issues such as the economy, Trident and currency.
The economic commission will be headed by former Nationalist MSP Andrew Wilson, and will include finance secretary Derek Mackay.
It is being established to examine the projections for Scotland’s economy in the post-Brexit climate after a recent Scottish Government report suggested it could cost the economy about £11bn a year. It will also consider monetary arrangements and how to reduce Scotland’s deficit to a “sustainable level”.
“The commission will inform our thinking on how growth can be sustained in the here and now and during the period of uncertainty caused by Brexit,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“But it will also examine the projections for Scotland’s finances in the context of independence and consider a policy programme – with social justice at its heart – to grow the economy and reduce Scotland’s deficit to a sustainable level. It will also consider the monetary arrangements that would best support a strategy for sustainable growth.
“And while its work is intended to inform SNP policy, it will also seek views from across the political spectrum.”
The new “conversation on independence” will run until St Andrew’s Day and Ms Sturgeon said the Brexit vote – in which 62 per cent of Scots backed staying in the EU – has changed the political landscape. She was addressing an “away day” of the SNP parliamentarians and councillors in Stirling yesterday.
“We must not assume that people’s views — yes or no — are the same today as they were in 2014,” she said.
“Instead we must engage the arguments with a fresh eye and an open mind. And before we start talking we must listen.
“So today, we are launching the biggest listening exercise in our party’s history. We want to understand in detail how people feel now about Europe, Brexit and independence. We want to know the concerns that people have and the questions they want answered. We want to build, if we can, a consensus on the way ahead.
“The wealth of information and insight that we gather will then inform the next stage of our campaign.”
People will be encouraged to take part in an online survey to offer feedback on the SNP’s position on the prospect of a second independence referendum. Ms Sturgeon has said this is “highly likely” after the Brexit vote, as she seeks to protect Scotland’s place in the EU. She made it clear yesterday that Scotland “must have full access to the EU single market” which looks increasingly unlikely UK-wide as the Tory government appears set to restrict freedom of movement to curb immigration.
Last night, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said: “Nicola Sturgeon has shown today that she is prepared to ignore the priorities of the people of Scotland, in pursuit of her own narrow Nationalist agenda.
“If she was really listening, she would know that most of us don’t want to go back to another divisive referendum debate – we want Scotland to move on”
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said: “The majority of Scotland had hoped Nicola Sturgeon was listening on 18 September, 2014.
“In the coming week Nicola Sturgeon has the opportunity to lay a programme for government before the most powerful Scottish Parliament ever.
“The First Minister has the opportunity to transform our country for the better, cut the gap between the richest and the rest, rebuild our NHS to make it fit for the 21st century and ban fracking from Scotland.”
Alastair Cameron, director of Scotland in Union, said: “The First Minister says she is listening but shows a tin ear to the majority of Scots who voted No and don’t want another referendum.
“Nicola Sturgeon should listen to the business leaders calling for her to get on with the day job – that means governing for all of Scotland not just the SNP members who are pressing for a referendum the country doesn’t want.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “Nicola Sturgeon says she is ready to listen. This is what she needs to hear. Independence is not the answer to the problems in our NHS. It is not the answer to closing the attainment gap in our schools. It will not help a single parent access childcare. It will not fix the roads or help businesses.
“Every day spent on independence is a day the Scottish Government can’t use to make Scotland’s public services the best again. It is time Nicola Sturgeon got back to the day job.”
Hugh Aitken, CBI Scotland director, said: “For many businesses, the immediate priority is to ensure that the needs of the devolved nations are represented in the discussions on the UK’s future relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. This is of vital importance.”