Brian Taylor (BBC) observed before his SNP Conference interview with Nicola Sturgeon - referring to his earlier webcast - that the questions asked by voters were very precise, focussing on specific facts and issues. The old American question “Where’s the beef?” is increasingly being asked – and answered. Since the Edinburgh Agreement and the question of the question(s) being settled and most recently the date of the referendum, the extreme long shot and the long tracking shots have moved towards pin spots and rack focus on hard issues. Come October/November, the advent of the White Paper and the deep detail and, come September next year, the dénouement after the découpage classique.
The launch of YES Scotland was a highly significant event. The objective was clear enough, and many of the consequences intended by its architects are beginning to show through, especially the welcome release for many non-SNP supporters from the imagined constraint that to support independence was to support the SNP and its economic concept of a Scottish social democracy. I am struck by the number of new YES volunteers who have no party political allegiance, show no inclination towards one, but who work effectively and easily with their SNP, Green, Socialist and Labour for Independence colleagues (perhaps even a sprinkling of Tories?) and the rest of the broad coalition that is the YES Campaign.
But there are always unintended consequences of any course of action, any decision, and these may be welcome or unwelcome (the devious political strategist always claims credit for the welcome outcomes and denies responsibility of the unwelcome).
One significant one that has been recognised by more than one commentator – some pro-independence, some anti-independence and some affecting a lofty journalistic neutrality – is that the YES Campaign has catalysed and re-energised the Scottish Left and their vision of what a new Scotland might be, which at many pressure points doesn’t fit at all neatly with the current SNP economic and social vision. (My own belief is that the SNP is unperturbed by this, and may even welcome it, as evidence that the SNP doesn’t own the YES campaign, nor does it claim a monopoly on visions of Scotland’s future. )
To be electable, the SNP had to appeal across a wide spectrum of Scottish society, and in my view, they have been successful in doing this without being all things to all voters, or blurring and compromising their own social democratic vision, in the fashion disastrously pursued by Labour under Blair and Brown, where they in effect became the thing they affected to despise – right-wing, money-grubbing, warmongering, uncaring Tories.
In my lifetime the perception of the Scottish National Party by Scots has shifted from ‘tartan Tories’ to the SNP being a centre-left social democratic party. The former jibe was never accurate: the latter description is a reasonable description of the party, except of course to commentators on the extreme right or left of the political spectrum, whose viewpoint is as polarised and skewed on this – and as divorced from any political reality - as on everything else.
The SNP strategists have always recognised the potential that lay in converting those political and social groups to the cause of independence who were instinctively suspicious of the SNP as a party of government, partly because of political/social conviction, partly because of deep loyalty to other parties, and in some cases because of aspects of religious belief, tradition, (even sporting allegiance!) etc. It is known with reasonable certainty – to the degree that such things can ever be certain – that some of the electorate who contributed to the SNP’s spectacular 2011 electoral victory were endorsing them as a party of government in a devolved administration but were not voting for Scotland’s independence.
It was necessary therefore for the SNP to send a message to the electorate – and to the influential commentariat and powerful social groups – that voting for independence was not a vote for the SNP, nor for a particular economic or social vision of Scottish society after independence, but for the right of Scots to run their own affairs as a sovereign nation. For a political party to deliver such a message demands extraordinary courage, and involves great political risk. It is to Alex Salmond’s credit that he and his ministers have displayed such courage and have willingly accepted the risk. Greater love hath no one than this, that one risks a political career for his core beliefs!
However, the unintended consequence may well be that the message has been received and is being acted on by the commentariat and the social groups - e.g. the political theorists, the Greens, the Scottish socialist parties, the artists’ collectives, the think tanks of left and right, Labour Party members, trades union members, religious groups - but is going straight over the heads of the electorate, who want those arguing for independence to act as one as though they were a single political party offering its manifesto for an independent Scotland.
Fate – and events, dear boy – have conspired to let the independence movement come closest to achieving its great goal at a time of unprecedented global economic uncertainty, when a frightened electorate desperately wants reassurance and stability, and when there is no shortage of politicians willing to feed on that uncertainty and fear by exacerbating it and offering simplistic solutions to it and alleged safe havens from it. There has been a great deal of complex and valuable research done in the last half century on how people respond to economic choices presented to them involving risk, gain and uncertainty.
What we can be certain of is that there will be no shortage of half-baked psychobabble being offered to politicians by consultants and theorists who have assimilated the superficialities of such research without understanding a single word of it – that’s what many management and political consultants do …
At such times politicians must trust their instincts while holding fast to their core principles, and create simple - but not simplistic - messages for the electorate. The greatest risk at time of uncertainty is the refusal to take any risks – risk is inescapable and a choice between risks must be made.
The dilemma created by the unintended consequences of the message centres around the fact that while Blair Jenkins and the YES Campaign can say that they are not a political party, do not have a manifesto, and offer no policies but instead, the arguments for being free to decide Scotland’s future in a sovereign state, the Scottish Government must accept that they are a political party, elected on a manifesto, and they must govern within their constrained devolved powers now, bang in the middle of an unprecedented economic and social crisis which won’t wait on the outcome of a referendum over sixteen months in the future and an independent Scotland – and a Scottish Parliamentary election - that is three years away.
And there is the additional inconvenient fact that there is a UK general election in two years in May 2015 that will occur in the by then historical context of a YES or a NO vote back in September 2014.
The Scottish Government’s position in the face of this complex set of challenges, events and watershed dates is to do what it can within the constraints on its powers placed by the devolution settlement and its budget and blame its impotence to do more on the Union, reinforcing its independence objective.
The question is – will this wash with a Scottish electorate groaning under the right wing lash of the Westminster political machine, an electorate that wants action now, and cannot wait until 2015 to make its democratic voice heard by the UK, nor until 2016 to hear the solutions offered in party manifestos by politicians hoping to govern Scotland in a new fully-independent Scottish Parliament.
This is in sharp focus right at this moment over at least two egregious issues – the Bedroom Tax and public service pensions. These issues, although they present an undoubted challenge for Scottish Labour and Coalition parties, still leave them the scope to expediently exploit them by clamouring for the Scottish Government to take immediate action on them, with no regard for the realities of the Barnet Formula and budget priorities, nor the recognition or acceptance of any personal responsibility for offering alternative spending plans, other than to attack the principal of universality of benefits, and cuts to benefits through a Means Test that would yield tiny savings that would be wiped out by administrative costs.
What can John Swinney, who has achieved a masterly disposition of finite resources – resources that are under attack right now from Westminster - do in the face of this? Short of defying Westminster and accepting £100m penalties for doing so – a kamikaze act that would delight the cynical, economically illiterate and ethically bankrupt Labour Party – very little, it would seem.
But the Scottish Government, constrained or not, must be seen to govern – and govern boldly – even within the constraints it faces.
This threat to the YES Campaign demands boldness of the kind that Scots have the right to expect from a government and a party seeking full independence, and a ratcheting up of the courage that the SNP have displayed to date over many issues.
I have some ideas of how this might be done, but since I am unqualified by economic expertise or front-end political experience, I will refrain from offering them. I have faith in the ability of people within the broad YES Campaign who do possess such expertise to advise the Scottish Government on how it might face this challenge and mount a decisive foray from the Torwood.
An extract from my 2011 blog -
A great Englishman once said "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune."
A great Scotsman, Robert the Bruce, was faced by a stark choice on the night of 23rd and 24th of June 1314 - to be prepared to give battle against superior forces or retreat. Emboldened by his victory over an English knight, Henry de Bohun, in single combat, and by the unexpected route of a force of 300 hundred English knights under Clifford, he still was faced with the decision to either give battle or retreat. He chose to give battle, and to risk all for Scotland’s freedom.
Alex Salmond is not a 14th century knight, and he is not playing 14th century politics. But he will not be oblivious to the parallels. Bruce had not intended to give battle, but he reacted to rapidly changing circumstances, especially to the knowledge of the impact of his two unexpected successes on the already low morale of the superior force.