THE UK may have descended even deeper into Brexit crisis in recent weeks, but that hasn’t stopped the architects of the 2014 Project Fear campaign – yes, the same people who said Scotland would lose EU membership if we voted for independence – springing back into action.
In 2014, they told us there was no way Scotland could agree with the rest of the UK to continue to use the pound sterling – this time, with no hint of irony, they’re throwing their hands up in horror at the suggestion that an independent Scotland might in future choose an alternative to sterling if that is in our best interests.
Of course these politicians will always ridicule any suggestion that Scotland is capable of being a successful independent country, because they want us to believe that whatever happens to the UK and no matter what chaos ensues, the status quo is as good as it gets.
But most people in Scotland don’t take that view. In 2014, many who ultimately voted No were open to persuasion.
And today, with Brexit destroying any sense that the UK offers a stable and prosperous future for Scotland, there are even more people now open to the arguments for an independent Scotland. So the responsibility of all of us who support independence is to persuade those who are open-minded that it is the best answer to the questions we face.
I believe we will do that, not with deceptively simple assertions, but with an honest assessment of how we overcome challenges, alongside vision, ambition and a clear prospectus for the future.
Our decision on Scotland ’s future must be imbued with the kind of open, detailed, expert-driven debate that was completely missing from the Brexit deliberations.
The Sustainable Growth Commission was set up by me to make an important contribution to that task, and Andrew Wilson and his team have done an excellent job.
Of course, the commission’s report is not – and was not intended to be – a policy manifesto for the entire Yes movement.
It presents for us in the SNP a framework and menu of options to deal with challenges that an independent Scotland would inherit and ensure a smooth transition to independence, so that we can then maximise our vast potential as a country.
The report has been discussed and debated by members through a series of local meetings and three well-attended national events, and it is now up for decision by delegates at SNP conference next weekend. Ahead of that discussion there are three aspects of the report that I think are particularly important.
Firstly, and most importantly, it demonstrates just how much of our economic potential remains untapped. It illustrates the benefits to Scotland of becoming an independent country. And it presents the evidence that many similarly sized, independent nations perform much better than Scotland does as part of the UK. As a result, their citizens are wealthier.
The lesson for Scotland is clear and, as we face the economic damage of Brexit, surely more powerful than ever. The report then helpfully proposes a range of policy interventions that, with the powers of independence, could help us improve our economy and make it more sustainable, with a much stronger focus on wellbeing. It is neither exhaustive nor prescriptive but, from proposals to close the gender pay gap, tackle poverty and encourage more people to make Scotland their home, to welcome ideas about boosting exports and increasing productivity, there is plenty for us to draw on.
Second, the report makes clear that any fiscal deficit an independent Scotland inherits would be the result of Westminster mismanagement – not a reflection of independence. In other words, it is an argument for change, rather than for staying as we are. Furthermore, the report confirms our inherited fiscal position would be manageable and fundable. Of course, rightly, the report does not shy away from telling us that this position would have to be sustainable – for example, to ensure that the costs of borrowing are as low as possible – but the commission’s work gives us confidence that with the right approach to the economy, this is achievable.
And crucially – in a point underlined and strengthened in the resolution to be debated by conference delegates – it makes clear that this need not and, more importantly should not, be done through austerity or spending cuts.
We have learned enough from the experience of Westminster cuts in recent years to know that such an approach not only takes an unacceptable human toll, it is also economically counterproductive.
The SNP will never pursue an austerity approach.
And, thirdly, the report advocates an approach to independence negotiations and the future relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK that is in stark contrast to the Brexit process.
For example the report recognizes – as indeed the Treasury has already done – that an independent Scotland would have no legal responsibility for UK debt. We would in fact start life as an independent country with near zero debt.
However, the Sustainable Growth Commission suggests, and I agree, that it would be right for Scotland to pay a fair share of servicing that debt – but only if we were able to negotiate a fair allocation of assets too.
The report recommends that any fairly negotiated liability should be dealt with through an Annual Solidarity Payment, together with the costs of any shared services that might be required for a transitionary period or, exceptionally if it made sense for any particular service, on a longer-term basis.
That seems to me to be reasonable and sensible – and crucially, it recognizes the fact that the rest of the UK will always be our closest friend and neighbor.
PERHAPS the most talked about recommendations in the report have been those on currency and the resolution seeks support for those recommendations. In doing so, there are some contextual points that I believe it is important to consider. Firstly, an independent currency is not, for any country, a magic wand that cures all economic ills – and we should never pretend that it is.
Further, it is self-evident from the fact that many independent countries choose to be in currency unions with others, that an independent currency is not an essential component of statehood. Instead, currency is a means to an end – and for any country the choice of what currency to use should be based on the best interests of our citizens and economy overall.
However, and not least because of the attitude of the UK parties to the proposal of a sterling union in 2014, I now consider that the balance of advantage does lie in a careful, managed and responsible transition to an independent currency.
Such a move would afford us greater flexibility and, if we make the right choices for the economy, would be the best way to support the fairer, more open, trading economy we want to build in Scotland.
So the SNP is being asked to adopt, for the first time, a policy position that is in favor of an independent currency. The resolution sets out that we will do so when the conditions are right, and only when we have completed the necessary preparations. Our ambition is to complete these steps within the first term of an independent Parliament. That is significant and important.
However, and this is just as important, we must not underplay or oversimplify the complexities and challenges involved – not least because the people of Scotland won’t believe us if we do.
Instead we must give people the confidence that the process will be well planned, robustly governed and, above all, that both process and timing will be driven by the interests of the citizens and businesses for whom these are critical matters.
Lastly, the party is being asked to agree that until we can safely and securely introduce a new currency, an independent Scotland should continue to use our existing currency, the pound sterling – just as Ireland did for a period when it became independent.
Using the pound sterling will protect jobs, wages and investment in the transition period and gives individual savers, pensioners, mortgage holders and businesses the stability and certainty they need. So the money in their pockets and bank accounts the day after independence will be exactly the same as the day before.
Now, as we know, there are some who argue, quite legitimately, for a different currency option – and there are those who will tell us for political reasons that nothing can ever work.
There are also some who want changes to the detailed plans the Sustainable Growth Commission put forward. Those views will be debated fully at conference, but there are a couple of broad points that I will briefly address here.
Firstly, it has been argued that we should set a faster timescale.
One of our big advances since 2014 is that we have now established new institutions in areas that were previously wholly reserved and are now partially (far too partially!) devolved.
We now have a tax agency, Revenue Scotland, an independent Fiscal Commission and a Social Security Agency. We collect revenues and we make payments. That means the transition to independence in these areas will be much more straightforward than it would have been five years ago.
However, it also means that we have much more experience now of the task of establishing new institutions. And to suggest that we could establish a Central Bank, with functions over and above those set out in the commission’s report, more quickly than suggested in our conference resolution would not, in my view, be credible.
Secondly, some say that the move to introduce a new currency should not be conditional on a vote in Parliament that is properly informed by independent assessments and, perhaps most significantly, that the six tests recommended to guide the process should be rejected.
My view is that the six tests – that we have a functioning and credible Central Bank, that our fiscal position is sufficiently strong, that we have a sufficiency of reserves to manage our currency, and that a new currency would meet the needs of citizens and businesses and the economy overall – are reasonable.
Of course, it is also reasonable to debate the precise detail of the tests and what criteria should determine whether or not they have been met – and I am sure the independent Scottish Parliament will do exactly that.
However, it is another thing entirely to suggest that the process should not be governed by any tests at all or that there should be no objective input from the independent Central Bank. To do so would be tantamount to telling people we will press ahead regardless of our state of preparedness, or the state of the economy, or indeed the interests of the country as a whole.
That would not be a responsible approach to take. And it would undermine rather than enhance the case for a Yes vote. My job – as the SNP leader hoping to lead the party into and through a successful independence referendum – is to put forward policy positions that are ambitious, but also credible. We know the level of scrutiny that our case rightly came under in 2014. In the wake of the Brexit fiasco, we can expect that scrutiny to be even greater next time around. Let’s embrace that challenge and rise to it.
However, let’s also remember a basic point of democracy. It is perfectly legitimate for there to be different views inside and outside the Yes movement, on currency or any other issue.
Vigorous debate is healthy and we should never shy away from new ideas. Being able to have these debates openly and honestly, and accommodate different views, is a strength of our movement, not a weakness.
The very essence of the case for independence is that the important decisions about our future will be taken here in Scotland by governments we choose, rather than at Westminster by governments that, very often, we have rejected.
So to make it possible for future independent sovereign parliaments to decide on the best way forward for our country and to build the fairer society we all want to see, we must first ensure a smooth transition to independence and a solid foundation that we can then build on. That, above all, is what the Sustainable Growth Commission is about.
For the first time in my lifetime, polling suggests that people now believe their economic future will be stronger with independence. Our challenge is to build confidence in the route map that will take us to that better future.
I am looking forward to the conference debate. After all, talking about the opportunities of independence is much more positive than resigning ourselves to the deep despair of Brexit.
Turning our debates into reality depends on winning a majority for independence – and that means persuading Scotland in all its diversity that it is the best way forward. It is that task, more than any, that unites our movement. And it is that task to which we must devote our energies.