Nicola Sturgeon has described the response to the Growth Commission report as ‘heartening’, insisting some opponents of independence have since been persuaded to reconsider their positions. I’ve no doubt that’s true, and I’m glad to hear it. We need to win converts from the ‘No’ side if we are to forge ahead towards independence.
But as a seasoned politician, Nicola knows only too well that anecdotal feedback can be illusory. My own political experience has taught me to be wary of being swept away by positive feedback. Those who are going to vote for you will say so to your face. The rest just steer clear, staying silent.
The big question for Sturgeon and her party is whether the numbers who will be reassured by the report outweigh the numbers who will be disappointed. I doubt many ‘Yes’ voters will switch to unionism because of this document, but I fear that many could start to lose interest unless the document is either given a makeover or treated with a little bit less reverence by the SNP leadership.
Since 2012 when the first referendum was announced, I’ve taken a critical but constructive approach towards the leadership of the independence movement. Our paths may well diverge more sharply after we have created a new nation state but, in the meantime, I understand that damaging the SNP can only play into the hands of those who would lock us into the British straitjacket for ever more.
And that’s broadly how I intend to approach the debate over the Growth Commission. I’m not impressed by those who threaten to walk away from the ‘Yes’ movement because they disagree with this document. Personally, I wasn’t that enthusiastic about the 2014 White Paper either because it was just one view of how an independent Scotland might look.
The independence cause is about one key principle: self-determination. The rest is just party politics.
Before 2014, we had a multitude of voices singing the praises of independence, but they weren’t always in harmony, nor were the lyrics identical. We will need even more of that in the next few years. Again, we need public figureheads on the ‘Yes’ side who are not under the control of party political spin doctors and will just tell it as they see it. And we need more down-to-earth working-class voices that are able to connect with, and inspire, those who make up the majority of Scotland’s population.
Back to the report. There are some points that most of us, including those of us on the left, can agree with: a 50% reduction in poverty; a national economic strategy, as opposed to a market free-for-all; immigrants to be welcomed to Scotland rather than looked upon as a disease to be eradicated; a commission on gender pay equality; a Scottish National Investment Bank; a new Scottish Central Bank; stronger regulation of the banking system; and a separate Scottish currency.
Some recommendations are pretty bland and neutral. But there are other more controversial proposals, which, to be frank, have come like a gift from the gods to Scottish Labour. And make no mistake, if the public deficit reduction target of 3% of GDP is adopted as policy, it will allow Labour to whip up anxiety across the most deprived parts of the country and will become a millstone around the neck of the entire independence movement.
There is room for cuts. Take Scotland’s defence budget, for example. If it was reduced pro-rata to the level of the Republic of Ireland that would save £2.5bn and make serious inroads into the deficit. So too could new forms of revenue-raising such as tourist taxes, land value taxes, and increased taxation on non-productive sectors of the economy such as gambling and stock exchange transactions.
A package along these lines, along with a short-to medium term financial stimulus, would establish clear red water between the bleak austerity on offer from a post-Brexit British Government and a bold, leftward moving, progressive Scotland.
The report is more credible on currency than the position we had in the past. And yes, a transition period could help some people make that leap towards support for independence. But as many others have pointed out, if we don’t control our own currency we can’t shape our own economy. The Baltic states all took less than two years after gaining their independence in 1991 to set up their own currencies. With technology more advanced than then, early 1990s, the ten-year transitional timetable takes caution to the outermost extremes.
I hope there will be a proper debate around the report. Yes, it’s an SNP document, but 23 organisations from outside the independence movement were invited to comment during the document’s gestation, including anti-independence bodies such as CBI Scotland, the Institute of Directors, and the Scottish Chambers of Commerce.
I would suggest that the SNP should redress the overwhelming pro-business balance of the contributors so far by arranging special meetings for trade unionists, frontline anti-poverty campaigners, women’s organisations and environmental organisations.
Economic arguments are important but we have to balance that with providing inspiration. The young, the low paid, the single parents, the carers, the frontline public-sector workers, the council and housing association, the private tenants, the people of no property, are the majority. They number in their millions. It is they, and not the Institute of Directors nor the Scottish Property Federation, who will decide the future of our nation.
Carolyn Leckie is a columnist with The National and a practising solicitor.