Time for an Independence of the Scottish Mind

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, August 9th 2015

A second independence may be off the agenda of SNP conference for now, but Alex Salmond regards it as ‘inevitable’.

Such are the pressures and tensions of success. Where do you take a movement which came close to winning independence last September? How do you balance pragmatic and idealist hopes? What do you after the SNP ‘tartan tsunami’ of May this year which carried nearly all before it – and, when your opponents are so weak and disorientated?

There is talk in places of a second referendum sooner rather than later – of the SNP returning to it in 2016, or of a conditional clause in next year’s SNP manifesto predicated on a EU withdrawal vote in England which clashes with Scotland’s popular will.

These are tumultuous times. First, despite the referendum result, the ‘idea’ of independence won the debate last year – something very different from the SNP’s actual offer. Second, the SNP have dominated and defined the post-indyref environment and transition from Salmond to Sturgeon. They have done so by continuing the ‘Big Tent’ politics which have served them so well.

This means that the contradictions of the SNP – seen as left by some, right by others, and centralising and controlling by many – remain and will continue until the 2016 elections. In this, problems in the last year’s SNP independence offer have just been glossed over and left unaddressed.

Last September the SNP’s independence package was full of questions and assertions, as indeed was the Better Together counter-offer. The independence offer was economically illiterate, based on no Scottish currency but an assertion that we could use the UK pound, continued rule from the Treasury and Bank of England, and a questionable oil price of $113 a barrel. This was all wrapped in Salmondnomics of corporation tax cuts with social democratic aspirations.

None of this made political or economic sense for an independent Scotland. Some of us said so at the time and still voted Yes. What all of the above made sense in relation to, and is seldom publically conceded, was as a vote maximalisation strategy for Yes – to win the widest possible coalition.

That was the only way the currency position made any sense – by avoiding questions about establishing and funding a Scottish reserve bank. A Yes vote was about increasing leverage and pressure for change. And in this it worked like a dream.

There are always hot heads in politics. Some people want an indyref as soon as possible. Some even want to shame and name call those who voted for the union. Yet, there is no route to independence through ‘the 45’ mindset and in hectoring, lecturing and insulting No voters.

A future indyref is likely. Not inevitable. Salmond since standing down as First Minister has been deliberately playing to the near 100,000 SNP new members. He has aimed to keep them fired up and focused on the ultimate prize. This is playing to the base, unlike Sturgeon, who has cut a conciliatory figure. It is ‘the old tough cop, soft cop’ routine.

A second indyref will only be held when it is winnable. There will not be another vote where Yes starts off behind. Yes needs to build up a significant lead pre-campaign so that it has the chance of putting together a broad, encompassing pro-independence consensus.

This comes by doing difficult politics. A proper independence offer has to be economically honest, have a Scottish currency (or more unlikely, embrace the euro), not be run by the Treasury, or based on fantasy oil prices. It has to be open to, in the early years of independence, that there will be difficult trade-offs and choices. That means proper debate, dialogue and leadership.

All of the above has to be seen in the larger picture and how Scotland and Britain have changed. Scotland has come to embody what I have called an ‘independence of the Scottish mind’. This means that we are already partially independent in how we talk, think, debate and see ourselves.

Scotland has through much of its history had dominant elites who have administered society and public life, and done so while invoking a popular, people’s language. Think of the Kirk, the Liberals in the 19th century, Labour in the 20th century, and SNP today.

We need a vision of a future Scotland that isn’t just the latest liberal elite account. Which says trust us ‘we know best’ and which invokes radical rhetoric while doing not that much to bring it about.

Independence for some is about faith based politics. Scotland can and should govern itself. Make its own choices and live with the consequences. That isn’t enough for most people.

It is time to get serious and get down to detailed work, to recognise the difficult choices and priorities we will have to face up to as a society. That entails patience, maturity and a tolerance towards those we disagree with. All of which can make not only a better version of independence come forward, but also a better version of Scotland.