It's time to look beyond independence

Share this article

THIS week the SNP gathers in Inverness. Last week, the former leader of the Welsh nationalists spoke up about the SNP’s failure to adjust to devolution, commenting: "There is still a role for them but not as a nationalist party."

He added that the SNP’s only chance of government was to cease to pursue "Scottish independence as if this is the real issue" and transform itself into a "party of government within the devolved set-up". Strong stuff. Alex Salmond’s riposte was a characteristic smear. But Dafydd Elis-Thomas’s analysis recalls George Robertson’s claim that devolution would kill independence stone dead.

The SNP has played an important role in Scottish political history, helping put home rule back on the agenda in the Sixties. And, despite its refusal to participate in the Constitutional Convention, it contributed to the climate for change. But devolution is proving difficult for the SNP.

Its campaigning successes have invariably centred on claiming that Scotland gets a raw deal. In the Seventies and Eighties, it was "Scotland’s oil"; in the Nineties, "English interest/exchange rates were damaging Scotland"; since devolution, there have been calls for "fiscal autonomy".

Since those calls for fiscal autonomy came from the SNP, many assumed it was code for independence. As devolution bedded down, few examined the financial fine print. After all, Scotland was benefiting from the highest public spending ever.

But what is fiscal autonomy and could it make a difference? That was the question posed in the last of the Allander Series of papers on the Scottish economy.

Hallwood and MacDonald, the Allander economists, were devastatingly clear. They could not find an example of fiscal autonomy operating in any other federal or devolved country in the world.

The SNP is arguing for something no other established devolved or federal country has chosen - not, for example, in the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany or Italy.

We await the SNP’s answers about its flagship policy. But it appears the emperor has no clothes. Frightened to argue for independence, the SNP is touting something that does not exist under devolution - and they should say as much. Post-Fraser, I detect little appetite for something never tried or tested successfully elsewhere.

The SNP’s apparent dishonesty in implying that fiscal autonomy was an option for a devolved Scotland has left others wary of discussing the financial arrangements found elsewhere in devolved and federal countries. These arrangements are typically described as fiscal federalism, and there are almost as many variants as there are federal and devolved countries.

Under the Barnett formula, Labour has delivered the most generous funding Scotland has ever seen, with further spending growth promised. Scotland today knows its budget for the next four years: many households in Scotland would give their right arm for that degree of certainty. Clearly, it would be madness to say no to that committed cash. Equally, as the First Minister made clear last week, we should keep an open mind about arrangements in other devolved and federal countries.

In Inverness this week, the SNP faces a challenge: can it bring itself to admit that fiscal autonomy is not found in other devolved nations and is simply code for independence? Can it admit that more financial powers do not necessarily bring growth? Can it rise to the challenge of Dafydd Elis-Thomas and move beyond independence?

The omens are not encouraging. Alex Salmond first led the SNP when Neil Kinnock was leading the Labour Party. He has had more than a decade to get the policies right. He will make little headway unless he is willing to learn from all those nations with decades-long experience in perfecting a devolved systems of government. The future, as Dafydd Elis-Thomas knows, is devolved.

• Wendy Alexander is Labour MSP for Paisley North.