After September the European question looms
The referendum debate has secured change; it is just a question of what form that change will take
When a group of SNP activists met in a Highland hotel in 2005 for a two-day summit on the future of their party they had one aim, to work out how to win. Robertson, Pringle, Murrell and Noon; they may not be household names but within the SNP and within the political annals of the future they will be writ large. Nine years on they have changed, the party has changed and more importantly, Scotland has changed. For regardless of how the referendum goes, this debate has secured change and without their hunger for power, we would not be where we are now.
Stephen Noon, now chief strategist with the Yes campaign, gave a PowerPoint presentation at the gathering of just 25, entitled ‘Credibility and Perception’. For many, that was a point where the axis moved. It helped forge a new approach for a battle-weary party and a group of power thirsty, bright young things, which won it its first election in 2007 and may still prove to be the foundations for a longer lasting legacy.
When I gave evidence to the House of Lords’ committee on constitutional change earlier this year, I referenced this move. How the SNP had shifted the political theory, as described by the Overton window, whereby an idea moves from being unthinkable through to being radical, to becoming acceptable.
Today, Scottish independence is now an acceptable proposition, whether you believe in it or not. It is the staple fodder of conversations in pubs, clubs, kitchens, staff rooms and public halls the length and breadth of this nation. And to be debating the pros and cons of a constitutional position that up until a decade ago would have been thought the madness of a few is nothing short of a miracle.
But for those on the ‘No’s, it continues to remain more of a confidence trick and in their mistaken assumptions, bias and prejudice about what drives Salmond and who the SNP really are, they have been subtly but effectively boxed into a corner where in their fight to condemn independence, they forget to praise the achievements of the devolution that they helped to win. Ironically, it is now the SNP, the party that was so fundamentally opposed to devolution in the first place, that is now the party that promotes the Scottish Parliament at every turn, albeit within the context that independence should be the final stop.
And on this journey, Labour has been left behind. It cynically dismisses the ‘new SNP’ as the old wolf in sheep’s clothing. [Err, forgive me, but…Granita] and while its politicians look back on some out-dated Braveheart version of the SNP, they are the ones who have become rooted in the past. In doing so, Labour has predominantly made this a debate between London and Edinburgh, using Westminster politicians, past and present, instead of the stars that could remind Scots of the important and radical steps Labour took within the Scottish Parliament, within devolution and within the UK. Where has Jack McConnell been?
Last week the former First Minister made a first and major intervention in a debate that he has all but been excluded from. On the anniversary of the official opening of the Scottish Parliament he started a fight-back. He laid bare the flaws in the argument that this is a fight to save the Union. He argued this is a fight to save devolution. Scotland, he said, is a better place because of the Scottish Parliament. McConnell said he will “fight to save Home Rule inside the UK”.
His rallying cry came just days after a flying visit by Ed Miliband to Edinburgh where he spelt out his message to the Scots, ‘Vote No, to vote Yes, to vote for change’. It has a meandering logic but it is flawed. First, Scots have continually voted for Labour at Westminster and got the Tories, so why would it be any different this time? Second, there is no guarantee that Labour will win in 2015. And thirdly, having had Labour in power at Westminster for 13 years previously, was Scotland’s lot so radically improved by just that or by the devolution that it provided, which also then opened the door to the SNP to show credibility in government, which takes us to where we are today.
At the same event, Johann Lamont spoke with a great passion that all too often gets overshadowed by the presence of her UK counterparts. She served with McConnell in the early days and she is right to remind us that housing is about more than bricks and mortar, that a parliament is more than just a building and that politics shouldn’t just be about politicians. But politics is also about solutions. And so, when Jackie Brock, chief executive of Children in Scotland, asked Lamont the simple question about what Labour’s plans were for childcare, she deserved more of an answer than a litany of SNP failures and to be told that the party is working on it. Scottish Labour has been in opposition for seven years; why couldn’t Jackie Brock get an answer to her question?
Miliband said: “Together we can change our country and go on to improve our world.” He listed examples of inequality he would aim to tackle if elected in 2015, including low wages, rising energy prices, zero-hours contracts and youth unemployment. It was an attempt to reframe the argument that independence is the solution to inequity by arguing that No means solidarity and that Yes will mean a race to the bottom. But watching Miliband speak to the press after the event revealed another looming problem for his new ‘vote No to vote Yes’ argument. What about Europe? With an enthusiastic EU advocate like Jean-Claude Juncker now likely to be appointed president of the European Commission, with David Cameron looking increasingly isolated and a referendum on whether the UK exits the EU probable, regardless of who gets into Number 10, it does beg the question; instead of Scotland voting ‘No’, to vote Yes’, should it actually vote ‘Yes’ to say ‘No’?
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