The Scottish independence White Paper passed the political test

The whole document was designed to highlight the governance-focused nature of modern Scottish nationalism - and largely succeeded in doing so.

After more than a year of faltering starts, the Yes campaign has had a good week. Last Saturday, 1,100 left wing activists poured into the Marriot Hotel in central Glasgow for the second Radical Independence Conference (RIC).
Four days later, on the other side of the Clyde, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon launched their long-awaited White Paper on Independence, bringing some policy substance to RIC’s slightly unfocused, grassroots enthusiasm. The RIC crowd - a coalition of young socialists, greens and SNP social democrats - didn’t welcome everything in the White Paper. But they seem to have accepted it as an initial blueprint. The Yes campaign now has a clear point of focus for 2014.
And the White Paper is nothing if not clear. Over 10 chapters, 650 pages and 170,000 words, it explains the current and future shape of Scotland’s finances, the SNP’s defence, economic and welfare policies and Holyrood’s policy options after Scotland leaves the UK.
The headline pitch - to provide 1140 hours of free care to all Scottish three and four years olds by 2024 - was quickly and predictably dismissed by the SNP’s opponents as uncosted. But this overlooks the SNP’s broader economic argument, as laid out in pages 65 to 79. First of all, Scottish public expenditure is lower as a proportion of GDP than that of the UK as a whole, which means independence would grant Scotland greater fiscal room for manoeuvre. Secondly, independence would allow Holyrood to make savings, including by substantially cutting Scottish defence spending.
The third part of the SNP’s argument - that independence will generate a "growth dividend" - may be overly optimistic. But unionists have yet to explain why Scottish growth rates have so consistently lagged behind that of comparable European nations.
What the White Paper lacks in fresh policy announcements it makes up for in important, if subtle, shifts of emphasis. The SNP says Trident should be removed from Scottish waters within the lifetime of the first independent parliament. This represents a firming-up of its position not, as the Guardian suggested, a softening of it.
The Scottish government also wants to divide UK debt on the basis of Scotland’s “historical contribution” to the British Exchequer ("historical" meaning from 1980/81, the point at which North Sea oil revenues started rolling in) or according to population share. Previous references to Scotland taking a GDP share of British debt seem to have been abandoned
Perhaps the most significant feature of the White Paper launch was the weakness of the unionist response. Better Together had promised a "pretty big offensive". Instead, it delivered a stream of platitudinous complaints, the most obviously false of which was that the document "lacked detail".
These lines were scripted well in advance, which partly explains why they were so flat. Alistair Darling is running out of original ways to attack the SNP’s proposals. Sooner or later, of course, the Scottish electorate will to expect him to produce some proposals of his own.
There are, nonetheless, a number of troubling inconsistencies in the SNP’s vision. Page 91 of the White Paper states, "An independent Scotland will not replicate the economic structure of the UK". Yet, on Tuesday, the first minister made the case for currency union on the grounds Scottish productivity and employment rates matched those of the UK. The White Paper also reaffirms the SNP’s commitment to a shared system of financial regulation, to "fiscal discipline" and to securing "credibility with the financial markets", all of which are entirely in keeping with the Westminster consensus.
But none of this is new. The SNP is not a party of the old left, nor is it run by a cadre of tartan libertarians, as some commentators insist. Nationalist economic strategy is essentially Brownite. It assumes revenues generated by a dynamic free market should fund a generous welfare state. Hence the simultaneous pledges to cut corporation tax and deliver Swedish-style childcare provision.
The White Paper reflects the SNP’s ideological ambiguity. It is a solid but not inspiring prospectus for independence. In fact, the whole document is designed to highlight the governance-focused nature of modern Scottish nationalism - and largely succeeds in doing so. 
The challenge now for supporters of independence is to marry the White Paper’s pragmatism with RIC’s sense of urgency. One without the other isn’t going to be enough, but together they present a formidable challenge to the unionists increasingly lacklustre and repetitive campaign.


Alex Salmond and deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon during the launch of the Scottish independence white paper at Glasgow Science Centre. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.