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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle