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.

Photo: Getty
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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.