Greens co-leader Lorna Slater told this newspaper on Saturday that the SNP/Green government intended to produce a new independence leaflet ahead of another referendum next year.
Last time around, the Salmond/Sturgeon duumvirate produced its white paper 10 months before the Scots voted. On a similar timescale, Indy workers are expected to lay their eggs in nine months. Does that sound like a likely prospect to you? No, me neither.
Since 2014, all new thinking has focused on the pro-union side of the argument. The arguments in favor of independence have not advanced one iota. In fact, he backed down. The collapse of SNP pensions is just the latest example.
Jim Sillars, the former deputy leader of the SNP, delivers an uncomfortable truth when he says the nationalist movement is ill-prepared for an independence referendum. Sillars also acknowledges that the UK government and pro-union parties have not stood idly by. “During the six lost, promise-filled years of Indyref2, they’ve been thinking in the south about better ways to save the union…” he points out.
He’s not wrong. The landscape has changed since 2014 by far more than the deterioration of the case for independence. The British government’s promises to strengthen the powers of the Scottish Parliament have been kept. Practical cooperation to improve local communities, in the form of a network of town and growth agreements, has been rolled out across Scotland. Arrangements to make it easier for the UK government to work together with the Scottish government – and all other devolved governments – have been reformed by agreement. The new model is closer to a form of shared rule, where the responsibilities of each government intersect.
The latest evidence that the UK government is seriously thinking about how to make the UK work better is the publication of the Leveling Up white paper.
At over 300 pages, the white paper is serious work – a real door stopper. It is a real attempt to translate the “race to the top” from a hollow slogan into a practical program of action.
The ambition of the document is revealed in a relentless focus on two of the most persistent problems that have plagued the UK over the past 30 years: regional economic inequality and low productivity. Not all regions of the country have benefited from the same share of economic growth, with divisive results.
Realism comes from a recognition that tackling the problem is complex and the work of years, not weeks and months. Don’t expect to find such openness in a Scottish government, quick fix, independence prospectus.
The central idea of Leveling-up – based on extensive international experience – is that the UK economy will grow stronger and faster if it grows more steadily. And it will grow more evenly if decision-making is less centrally concentrated. That is why at the heart of the plan is a radical extension of English decentralization.
Although the objectives of the white paper have been widely welcomed, there are concerns about deliverability. Skeptics on the left argue that to make a difference requires levels of funding, which the Treasury will not provide. Right-wing skeptics dismiss the prescriptions as socialist interventionism that Gordon Brown would be proud of. Market forces cannot be reversed, they argue.
Skeptics miss the point. The white paper is the start of what is meant to be a long journey, not the final destination. This is not the last word when it comes to resources. In any event, the “race to the top” is as much about more effective local control of public investment, to direct resources further and produce better results. The Scottish Government takes note.
Nor is the white paper an anti-London and South East prospectus. We do not strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. The aim is to reduce the country’s overreliance on its more prosperous parts, creating in each nation and region complementary magnets, or clusters, for investment and economic activity. The public sector has always played an important role in creating the conditions and infrastructure for thriving markets and businesses.
British government documents often made only nominal references to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In this white paper, the needs of decentralized nations are fully recognized and integrated into the heart of its thinking. The distinct roles and responsibilities of decentralized governments are respected, with the recognition that progress towards upgrading will only be achieved through effective cooperation. This provides a potential-rich agenda for the new Prime Minister and the Council of Heads of Devolved Governments, and its associated inter-ministerial groups, to pursue.
By comparison, the Scottish Government’s policy-making efforts are a barren wasteland. To be sure, there has been work on a 10-year “transformational” economic plan, promised for last November, and yet to be released. Various explanations for the delay are offered. A first draft would have been too “bland”. Either the project, using existing powers, should not be qualified as “transformational” at the risk of making independence superfluous. You couldn’t invent. Imagine the intellectual somersaults taken inside St Andrew House to devise a plan that delivers on its promises, but not too much.
The whole exercise is a contradiction in terms anyway. How can the Scottish Government come up with a stable long-term economic plan – giving Scottish businesses the confidence to invest and grow the workforce – while simultaneously promising to blow it a few months later, with the bomb of a half-armed independence flyer?
All of this highlights the weakness of seeing everything through the prism of Scottish nationalism. The reluctance to consider the possibility that the drivers of Brexit and Scottish independence may have common roots. This feeling of economic exclusion and alienation from Middlesborough or Rochdale is no different from that of Glasgow or Dundee. And that solutions up to the challenge require cooperation, not separation.
So who are the real agents of change? Those with a serious program to reform the UK from within? Or those who have no credible plan for Scotland outside the UK?
Lord Dunlop was an adviser to former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron