SNP conference delegates will do the unusual, the previously unthinkable – contest a policy laid down by the leadership. In debating membership of NATO and how long the notice-to- quit will pertain to Trident, delegates should remember that a vote for independence will be followed by a transition period until the final act of divorce, during which the goodwill of Westminster will be important in assisting a smooth changeover on things like pension payments, social benefits, collection of taxes and other functions where Scotland is presently plugged into the UK systems.
NATO is not a stand-alone issue. There are ramifications, certain realities based on the external interests of others. NATO’s geographic and geopolitical integrity is an essential state interest for each of the Baltic states, and Poland, with Russia on their borders. They have veto powers over any EU membership issue. Quitting NATO is not without a price.
Take, for example, the mistaken policy of using sterling in a currency union with RUK [rest of the UK]. That will require a treaty between two countries, ours and theirs, and just as it takes two to tango, so it takes two to make a treaty. If SNP policy is seen as damaging to RUK’s state interests, and that of its allies, why should they sign a treaty giving us seats on their central bank, and a say in monetary policy? Alex Salmond says Osborne cannot stop us using sterling. True, but there is a world of difference between using it as one’s currency, and being in a currency union.
Notwithstanding those issues, it would be a fatal mistake if conference believed that a debate over NATO produces a message about independence that will satisfy the Scots to the point where the Yes side soars up the polls from its present low position. If the leadership and the conference combined do not bring forth a firm policy framework that enables activists to answer the question, ‘What do you want independence for, what will you do with sovereign powers that will be so different from the present?’ the conference hot air will evaporate quickly, with no effect on the people and the polls taken among them.
If we want a Yes in a referendum, it might seem obvious that the party needs to construct the case for getting it. The fact is that the party has not, in twenty years, asked voters for an unequivocal vote for independence. In election after election, whether for Westminster, Europe, Holyrood or by-elections, it was ‘parked’ and ‘put on the back burner’, to quote the official statements at that time.
In the 2011 election there was, again, no call for an independence vote – the pledge to hold a referendum ‘parked’ it quite safely, and allowed the party to fight on the minority government’s record. A tactic to gather votes from all sides, including those opposed to the basic policy of the party, but not a good tactic in that, again, a unique opportunity was missed to vigorously promote the imperatives behind the reasons for independence.
The result of this consistent neglect is that now, with a Yes campaign in existence, no member of the SNP can spell out how an SNP government will use the sovereign powers if it becomes the independent administration. Citing past policies from years back is no substitute for the ones needed now, up to date, taking account of the profound changes that face us in Europe and the world; the world as we knew it, and in which past policies were framed, is no more. It vanished in 2007. We need new answers to new questions.
Let the delegates ask themselves if they could man the phone banks tonight, and with confidence answer the practical questions that a voter would ask, such as ‘what will be different in a Scottish welfare state?’ Or ‘will trade union rights taken away by Thatcher be restored in an independent Scotland?’ Or ‘what will be the level of the minimum wage?’ Or ‘what exactly will be your economic policy?’ There are many more questions which will be asked, requiring detailed answers.
The SNP Government says all will be answered in its White Paper in autumn 2013. What is the Yes side to do in that twelve-month gap? The unionists are now exploiting that information vacuum, day and daily, with tales of woe. No wonder independence rates in the polls are between 28 and 32 per cent. If another year passes without a series of policy papers giving answers to the questions people ask, we play into the hands of the No side whose strategy is to keep us down in the low 30s, knowing how difficult it will be to climb from that level to a majority, in one year, before polling day. This is probably the most important conference in the party’s history. I hope it measures up to its responsibilities.
By the way, is any delegate indelicate enough to ask why 2014 was chosen for the referendum?
The Westminster election that will tell us if we face a Tory government, and the scale of the real cuts still to come, will not be until May 2015.
If, during 2014, Labour heads the Westminster polls, as is likely, it will tell its voters, whom we need to vote Yes: “You don’t need independence, you need what you’re going to get, a Labour government.” A powerful No message, while we are fighting the Euro elections which, if there is a surge to Labour, will do the SNP no good in the run up to the referendum vote.
Then there is the not so subliminal Better Together message captured in the £50m commemorative programmes of the 1914 war, in which the Scottish dead will be conscripted once again under the Union flag, as pro-Brits, used in their graves to suffocate the ambitions and needs of the living Scots. The Yes side, by welcoming this despicable unionist ploy, fell into the trap. Referendum in 2014? Someone picked the wrong year.