Jonathon Shafi

Jonathon Shafi

A Failure of Vision

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Jonathon Shafi argues the SNP leadership has proved incapable of producing any compelling vision for an independent Scotland.

This article was reposted from the Independence Captured newsletter.

Cynicism is never a good look in politics. There are good reasons why someone might become cynical, of course. After all, the world is not only a complex place, but a very difficult one to change. Without a sense of strategy, or history, it is easy to write even hopeful moments off. As if to compel their ultimate demise.

On the other hand, it is all too easy to cheerlead. It is a comfortable mindset to assume, or to believe uncritically, that someone else has done all of the hard work. Or in the case of Scottish independence, that the only action required at this time is to support, or to be more blunt, to parrot the SNP leadership.

This week’s newsletter should not be mistaken for cynicism. But nor will it join the chorus of hyperbole that we see in some quarters. That, in my view, does nothing to advance either the independence cause, nor the level of debate in Scotland. It is instead an offering that seeks to root the events of this week in the soberness of reality, rather than the projections of the faithful.

Because after thinking about the so-called launch of the new independence campaign, something isn’t adding up. Settle in for a long read.

The Substance

Much has been said about the mechanics of actually having a referendum. Aside from all of the legal issues, there are lots of unspoken problems which might arise. Yet the issue is presented as if there will be a simple re-run of 2014, once all of the other hurdles have finally, somehow, been crossed. That, at least, is unlikely in the extreme.

But let’s first deal with the substantive arguments put in the Bute House press conference and in the first “scene setting” paper. In doing so, it is better not to think as a dyed in the wool independence supporter, but from a more critical perspective. After all, if as we are told, there is to be a referendum next year, we can expect there to be sharp arguments over the case which the Scottish Government presents.

The use of comparator countries as a basis for constructing the case for independence is nothing new. In fact, it is a well worn argument. But it is not actually a particularly strong one. It seems to me a deeply underwhelming approach to building the intellectual foundations for independence today. It also reveals, once again, that the lead thinkers in this project are not equipped with a theory of the manifold crises gripping the world that allows them to develop something more visionary.

For starters, the economic crisis is a truly global one. It is not a parochial question, nor is it reducible to Brexit. Indeed, as I write, the European Central Bank has announced that it will convene an emergency meeting to discuss a response to the recent sell off in government bonds, which has grown in intensity after plans were announced to begin raising interest rates from record lows. As Karel Lannoo of the Centre for European Policy Studies warns: “if there is a bank failure, it will be the same as 2008.”

Meanwhile, as inflation rises in the United States, an argument about the increased leverage workers have in the labour market is developing. The answer? To reduce workers wages. At the same time, the effects of climate change are already scorching large areas, leading to food and energy shortages. The global food system is being thrown off its axis. And while the First Minister talks of “interconnectedness” the period we are entering is one of de-globalisation, presenting new challenges and opportunities for the independence movement. But only if you have a political compass that goes beyond the offices of Charlotte Street Partners.

The SNP prefer to imagine that they can propose the world of the mid-90s, the high watermark of neoliberal globalisation, as a solution to the problems of the 2020s (albeit with some up-dated vocabulary borrowed from the NGO world).

It shouldn’t need to be said, but the “cost of living crisis” is not something which will pass over the next year or so. As this newsletter has detailed, this is to be a long, and severe, economic crisis which will last the best part of the next decade.

Indeed, we are likely to see an escalation on this front next year. As economist Michael Robert notes:

“Average profitability of capital in the major economies has been declining in the 21st century, but not in a straight line. Profitability rose in the credit boom of 2001-6; and recovered after the Great Recession of 2008-9 up to about 2017. After that it began to fall again and it was likely there would have been a slump in 2020 anyway even without COVID. Profitability recovered in 2021 – indeed profit margins in US corporations reached a record high at the expense of wages in 2021. But profitability is now turning down again, so we can expect investment eventually to do the same. Coupled with the supply chain blockages and rising real interest rates, 2023 looks likely to herald a new slump.”

It appears the Scottish Government have very little grasp of the great questions of the era. Otherwise, we might expect a pitch far more attuned to the flagship issues of our time. But there was no attempt to trail-blaze here. That would have been asking too much. Nor was there a sense in which this paper, and this launch, had within its grasp the type of ambition required to lead a national movement to a successful conclusion.

In short, this scene setter didn’t set the scene. It failed to present the big picture. It didn’t even give an overview of the context, global or local, in which the independence debate is being had. Given how many years the SNP have had to prepare for the launch of what is supposed to be the last chance to secure independence, it was alarming to see the sum of their thinking for this momentous occasion. Working up some graphs and rehashing the same arguments is quite honestly a few weeks worth of work at most.

While there were of course copious references to Brexit, the talisman for “progressive” Scotland, the frame has not changed to fit the new circumstances. Listing off comparator nations as the building blocks for the case is the same approach taken in the Growth Commission report. Back in 2007, Alex Salmond pitched independence in terms of Scotland emulating Ireland as a “Celtic Tiger.”

Today, it just doesn’t really add anything to the case. Worse, it’s uninteresting. It certainly doesn’t give the sense of an inspirational vision for independence. Supporters will say that is all to come. Perhaps. But you don’t need to be an expert in political campaigns to know that how you set your stall out at the beginning is important.

Others will be assuaged by the “fairer, greener, happier, more prosperous, Scotland” spiel. But we are well beyond the buzzword salad stage now. The situation is far too grave for that, as tens of thousands of public sector workers in Scotland prepare to lose their jobs.

It’s true that many who already support independence are not that bothered. They just want to see some kind of initiative being taken. That’s understandable given how moribund the SNP’s independence campaigning has been. Loyalists to the present leadership beam that the launch was a real success and that it shows the SNP have had a brilliant plan all along. That is a rose tinted view based on a dearth of political imagination, and one that will crash with reality in time.

Yet imagine a more exciting opener had been produced. A paper that set out the global context. One which had some ideas about the challenges of the century and Scotland’s distinctive role going forward. That would have set the “campaign” off with a bang, and moved the debate beyond technical comparisons between small European nations and the UK. It would have ushered us towards a discussion about what Scotland might achieve with the full powers of independence and a visionary programme in a moment like this. For a launch that asked us “why not Scotland” there was remarkably little about, well, Scotland.

More confounding is that the undecided voter wants to hear something about why it’s all worth it. It’s not at all clear to me why saying “we could be like Austria” is the most compelling argument at this juncture. In reality, if you think the logic through, it’s quite a regressive platform, only superficially “progressive” because it lies in opposition to Johnson and Brexit. It starts from a very defensive position and limits the national ambition to “normality” in a world subject to extreme volatility and change. Yes, even in the idealised version of the countries listed in the document.

It doesn’t add up methodologically, either. First, it’s not clear why picking some countries over others that might have compared less favourably has any real veracity. As a paper, I highly doubt it would pass an academic peer review because of the way the data is handled and assessed. This aspect has been pointed out by various commentators who oppose independence and who have been handed some easy opening incursions. Again, if you are serious about independence, you need to grapple with these criticisms.

More importantly than that in some ways is the way the paper seems to disconnect the countries listed from their own historical development. The simplistic, and unfounded, claim that Scotland can neatly transfer its economy and society into the mould of the comparator countries is not just crude, but it’s no where near the calibre of thought that would be required in setting about an independence campaign worthy of the name. Especially when this is the second bite at the cherry.

Mark Blyth, an economic advisor to the Scottish Government, and someone who is sympathetic to independence, puts it plainly:

Even if we were to overlook all of this, isn’t there a deeper, more glaring, problem?

Once again, it comes back to currency, a topic which many of us have been trying to raise in recent years. If we assume, and there’s no reason not to, that the currency paper retains the existing plan, then the comparator countries are even less applicable. Because Scotland wouldn’t have its own national bank, nor its own currency, for at least ten years and subject to stringent tests. A previous newsletter looks at this in detail and is worth reading in this context.

Not only does this mean that the Scottish Government wouldn’t have control over its economy, it also means that in the heat of a referendum campaign the logic of the position is to say: “we think the UK economy is terrible, but we need to remain bound to its financial institutions for reasons of stability.” It won’t add up then, and it doesn’t add up today.

This is why the issue should have been bedding into the Scottish public mind for many years prior to this moment. As of now, we don’t actually know what the currency position is (other than what the SNP have already advocated for – Sterlingisation) until it is released in a paper, that could be in the words of the First Minister over the coming weeks, “or months.”

Some have argued it’s a smart strategy to fillet the release of these papers. Maybe. But also perhaps not for the reasons you might think. If the case is as incoherent as the Growth Commission, it might be easier to deliver it in separated chunks so that the contradictions in the case become less obvious.

If you are an independence supporter, this is the kind of thing you should be concerned about. Because as much as Boris Johnson is reviled, those arguing in favour of the Union are not stupid people. They are able to unpick arguments and expose faults in the case. They do so with a majority of the public on their side at the present moment.

The Context

Many independence campaigners will be pleased to see some kind of action, after a long period of inaction. Let me re-emphasise: if a referendum can become a reality at some point in the future, it will be the last chance for much longer than a generation. Losing it will kill the question in any practical sense for decades. That is why the period of inaction leading up to this point matters.

Because as we survey the data it is not a positive picture, and it jars uncomfortably with the rather wooden delivery at Bute House. Despite the SNP hierarchy previously arguing that support for independence should be pushed up to 60% to guarantee not just a vote for independence, but a stable victory that could genuinely express the much vaunted “settled will of the Scottish people,” support for independence has flatlined since 2014:

I put this point to an SNP member recently who replied, “ah, but we have not yet started to campaign.” Well, yes, that’s the point. Because of the failure to do so up to now, Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie stand at the podium to make a “new” case for independence, without a majority in the polls. Despite all that has taken place since 2014, they address the question again in 2022 without having shifted the dial. A far cry from Nicola Sturgeon’s forecasting in 2015:

So, while they pontificate about why now is the time to be talking about a new referendum, because of the lack of action in the years previous, polls show limited support even among independence supporters for Indyref2 in 2023:

In addition, because of the way in which the SNP leadership have consciously defenestrated the independence movement, there has been no clamber for a referendum on the streets. Yes Groups that have tenaciously maintained their organisation since the last referendum might take heart from events this week, but they have been woefully let down. They have been told the firing gun has been shot, but left on a battleground with nothing but the remnants of the last war they lost. Even now, at the launch of a campaign, basic questions don’t yet have answers.

There is an unmistakable sense of unreality about the whole thing. The response on social media is also relatively muted. Commentators who are sympathetic to independence have responded not with a sense of, “right, everything is in place and the momentum is on our side,” but with major questions about the whole affair. Notably, there were no rebuttals in place for the front pages, some of them difficult, the next day:

Frankly, it’s not convincing that this launch was meant to be inspiring. The stale delivery, the lack of a nod towards any kind of activism, the slow release of documentation over not just weeks but months, the commitment to making a “statement” on the Bill to the Scottish Parliament. It’s all so lacking in dynamism.

The SNP, it has to be said, used to be good at this. This really wasn’t a campaign launch at all. It wasn’t, in all honesty, directed to the Scottish people writ large. This had the feeling of party management. It had a sense of “we have to do something” and this is what they came up with. There might well follow a “Yes Scotland” style campaign with a board and so on. But, as the next section goes on to discuss, this also requires proper scrutiny.

The Strategy

What follows may be controversial with some readers. But then, this newsletter exists to ask difficult questions. So, do feel free to disagree.

The scene setting paper provided a recycled argument that could have been made at any point in the last 30 years or so of Scottish nationalism. I would have thought they might have opted for a real big ideas starting point to obfuscate the most obvious problem with the launch. The question of how to bring about a referendum at all.

Before we get into the detail of this, let’s establish some things we know for sure about the SNP leadership:

  1. They are hyper-cautious. Having spent some time around very mainstream policy circles, it is abundantly clear that the SNP have no time for even menial reform. While they have enjoyed absolute political dominance they have barely tinkered with anything of any structural importance.
  2. They are obsessed with polling. They know that there is no majority for independence. They know that there is no majority shown in any poll for a referendum next year.
  3. They are unwilling to entertain any conflict with NATO, especially at a time of war in Europe. They know, even if their policy is pro-NATO, that the dismantling of the UK at this time will not be viewed upon kindly by the security state or the foreign policy establishment. Note that Ukraine wasn’t mentioned in the pitch.
  4. They are not under any real external pressure to deliver a referendum next year. There is no evidence that their vote collapses if they don’t. There are lots of plausible reasons they could produce to defer the question.

This, and much else, should raise lots of questions about the intentions of the SNP when it comes to their posture around independence. Think about it. Why would a party too timid to introduce a bottle and can deposit scheme, undertake a campaign bent against the British state while there is war in Europe and a protracted economic crisis?

Why would this party, and this leadership, unleash an inevitably divisive referendum (given the inability to build up a consistent and healthy majority), on top of a society that has just gone through a pandemic? A pandemic which is barley mentioned in the pitch in any strategic sense.

The first and most obvious point to make is the persistent unlikelihood of a referendum next year in the first place. In that sense, they know they won’t actually have to fight a real independence campaign, because there is no route to a legal referendum – to which they have committed – that doesn’t involve a huge amount of legal and political wrangling:

This has been covered well already, so I won’t repeat the various technical and legal arguments, except to include one element that has been largely missed so far. A little noticed judgement passed by the Supreme Court in October of 2021 makes the process for getting a referendum even more difficult:

“The Union is a reserved matter under the Scotland Act, but the effect of this has never been conclusively settled, and some academics and politicians have long argued that a consultative referendum may be legal.

“Key to this is the precedent from the case of Robinson v Secretary of State for Northern Ireland  that devolution statutes, as constitutional measures, should be interpreted “generously and purposively” in light of the aims of the provisions, instead of a literal interpretation of the words on the page.

“This suggests that if a referendum bill was brought by the SNP in Scotland, the Supreme Court could potentially interpret the Scotland Act in a “generous” way to allow it. The provision in the Scotland Act that reserves matters that ‘relate’ to the Union could be interpreted in a narrow fashion, allowing the Scottish Parliament to pass a referendum bill that merely asks the opinion of the Scottish people without itself affecting the status of the Union.

“However, the recent Supreme Court judgment deals a final blow to this possibility. The judgment (following in the footsteps of the Continuity Bill ruling) states that the “Scotland Act must be interpreted in the same way as any other statute”, and the Robinson precedent on interpretation seems to have been thoroughly rejected.”

This kind of pantomime and theatre brings about a number of positive consequences for the SNP. As we noted in Referendum Olympics, contesting the national question on democratic grounds is:

“…very fertile terrain for the SNP leadership – and well within their comfort zone. An intransigent Tory government denying the right to Scottish self-determination does two things. First, it means that actuality of a referendum and independence in general is avoided, and therefore retained as a device to marshal electoral support even when domestic policy is failing. Second, it provides the ideal space for arguments about the national question to be conducted. Rather than having to tackle the more difficult challenges such as currency, borders, pensions, EU ascension and so on, the overriding issue becomes one of democracy.”

Sometimes the truth, if we can use that word, is boring in politics. It is exciting to believe that the SNP are really preparing for one last glorious stand off with the Tories, to deliver Scotland independence as a means to building a new and resilient society in a time of global crisis.

It is tedious to speculate that the SNP just feel they have to do something to throw some red meat in the direction of their base. That they don’t really have a plan for executing a successful independence campaign which then goes on to set up a new Scottish state, in the face of all opposition. That they already know a referendum won’t happen next year, which is why they feel assured in taking it forward at all. It is wearing to conclude that this is all happening as a convenient political device to move the discussion away from domestic failings for the next year.

It is dull to say that all of this provides a strong platform for a UK General Election, which might well happen in 2023. It would be a cynical ploy to elevate independence at a time when the public sector is going to be slammed with new austerity, this time from the Scottish Government.

It would be all of these things. Saying them out loud won’t get you retweets or Twitter followers. You’ll also miss out on the circular economy built around the independence Groundhog Day. But these things, are nevertheless, closer to the truth.

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