The divide between Scotland's people and its political class has never been greater

While the SNP obsesses over independence, voters are more concerned with an unemployed population the size of Dundee.

The 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England was described by Daniel Defoe as one "of policy" and "less [a] union of affection". The author of Robinson Crusoe was arguing that the economic benefits for both countries were what sustained the Union. Last week, Alex Salmond was inadvertently trying to reverse this settlement. But if he proved anything, it was not that there is a policy-based case for independence, rather that he deems such issues to be esoteric.

One of the big economic arguments unveiled last Tuesday to entice Scots to vote for separation was to acquire "economic levers" such as corporation tax, which they would subsequently reduce by 3% in order to undercut the UK rate. This 3% cut, the SNP claims, would increase productivity by over 1% and create 27,000 jobs after 20 years. So vote Yes in 2014 and then wait 20 years.

Even if you ignore the moral arguments about a race to the bottom in corporation tax, or that Joseph Stieglitz, one of the Scottish government's own economic advisors opposes the idea, or the fact that this modelling was based on a 3% reduction when the UK rate at the time was 26%, or the fact that the British government now plans to cut the main rate of corporation tax to 20% by 2015, the idea that 27,000 jobs after 20 years, around the same amount of time it took to build the Taj Mahal, is some sort of economic lever worth ending a 300-year-old Union for is clearly absurd.

This is best highlighted when you consider the economic problems facing Scots. For example, in the past fortnight we’ve seen that unemployment in Scotland stands at around 199,000, which is greater than the population of Dundee, Scotland’s fourth largest city. The dole queue in Scotland is so long that if it was assembled in one straight line it could stretch from Edinburgh to Glasgow. The suggestion that voting for independence in 2014, so that by 2034 this figure would still continue to be larger than the population of Dundee is simply laughable.

It is not surprising to discover that unemployment, not independence, is the top concern among Scots in numerous polls. In Scotland, as in most parts of the UK, constitutional issues like referendums, rank low among most voters’ concerns. Well-respected pollsters like Peter Kelner have observed that separatism is a "minority passion north of the border".

Only at the start of the year, the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found support for independence at its lowest since devolution – it’s barely changed since. In fact, support for independence is so low that when separatist campaigners get even within 10 points of the opposite camp, not only do the SNP see this as a "boost" but they also send out a press release. I honestly can’t imagine any other mainstream party highlighting the fact they are so far behind their rival in a political race.

Nevertheless, when one considers that Scottish public’s opinion on separation has barely moved any further in the last 12 months than it has in the previous 168, it becomes clear that the divide between the people and the political class in Scotland could not be any further apart. All the referendum is doing is providing a Scotch Mist that conceals the real issues afflicting Scots.

20 years from now, if the referendum outcome is as all the polls suggest, Scots will not look back and count the 27,000 jobs announced last week. They will instead wonder why, when their country’s politicians were confronted by a city’s worth of unemployed Scots, they chose to ignore the public’s main policy concern and focus on their antipathy towards the Union.

James Mills is a Labour researcher and led the Save EMA campaign

Alex Salmond speaks at the launch of the Scottish independence White Paper last week in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood