Where's the cry freedom?

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 13 March 2016 in Editor's note

If the SNP wants independence, it needs to start making a better economic case for it

There’s something of a metaphor in the fact that next Thursday – 24 March - which would have been Independence Day had Scotland voted yes, will now be the day a judge considers evicting a small group of independence supporters from a small patch of the Scottish parliamentary estate.

The camp dwellers, otherwise known as members of the Sovereign Indigenous Peoples of Scotland, will use “God’s law” to argue their case to remain. They say that the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said a second referendum would be sparked by a sign of the will of the people and that they are that sign.

The group, who describe themselves as “the sons and daughters of Scotland”, have taken inspiration for their stance from the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath that says “as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule” and they say they will stay put until Scotland is once again free.

The Scottish Parliament says never mind freedom, the camp’s presence prevents others from using a public space and is in contravention of the rules on political neutrality.

But if the judge finds against these 21st century Bravehearts and they are turfed off the people’s land, would that undermine the case for independence? Or has that already happened?

Last week’s figures in the annual Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) report published by the Scottish Government sparked a furious debate about the economic dire straits in which Scotland would have found itself had it voted to leave the UK.

Those on the SNP side argue, quite rightly, that Scotland voted ‘no’ so the debate about ‘what would have beens’ is immaterial, that this calamitous fiscal position has happened with Scotland as part of the UK and that anyway, GERS just offers a tiny snapshot in time.

But the fact is, as snapshots go, it doesn’t get much starker than looking at the balance sheet on the very day Scotland would have declared independence and quite literally seeing red.

In essence, the report revealed that because of the falling oil price, Scotland has plunged almost £15bn into debt and its deficit is now proportionately twice as big as the UK’s.

What that means is that with such a gaping hole between revenue and spending, any government on Independence Day would have had to face putting up taxes, cutting spending or finding a way to borrow much, much more. And no matter what the spin, or party political persuasion, the GERS figures have to be of national concern.

The fact is that if the political situation was reversed and it was Labour having to struggle to justify Scotland’s public spend amid a crashing oil price and a perilous fiscal position, the SNP would be making that very point.

And while there are varied interpretations of how an independent Scotland would get through this fiscally difficult time, the SNP has failed to use the last 18 months since the referendum to address the vacuum left by an out of date and regularly discredited White Paper to bolster its economic argument and provide a new narrative to support the case for going it alone.

There were some in the inner circle that wanted the arguments for independence to simply continue after the referendum. With the vote pushed so tantalisingly close, with political support never higher and with a national sense of inflated pride, it made sense to just keep beating the drum, making the argument, shaping the debate, refining the facts and gathering the economic intelligence that voters had so clearly craved. But that just didn’t happen.

This year’s GERS report was always going to be a sore one for the SNP, coming so close after they lost a referendum on the economics and amid a crisis in the oil industry.

And yet the SNP government seemed so unprepared for it. Where was the detailed counter argument to such an appalling set of figures? Where were the pre-briefings, the rebuttals, the experts wheeled out to offer an alternative narrative, where was the Council of Economic Advisors?

All that this particular GERS report compounds is the feeling that since September 2014 there has been an abandonment of the economic argument for independence by the SNP. That rather than doing something about that economic Achilles heel, the party appears to have done little or no work on building a new case for Yes.

You don’t lose a vote and then not refine your message and expect to win any time soon.

And yet bizarrely, Sturgeon has boxed herself into a corner over having a second referendum in the case of a Brexit vote if Scotland votes to stay in, even though she admits these are not the circumstances in which she wants one.

Sturgeon has an amazing platform to nation build. If she wants independence, she should use the experience of the GERS report to start building her economic case; she needs to get some experts in, take advice, cast her net wide, look internationally, explore alternative economic levers and use that wealth of political capital she has banked along the way to start floating some difficult choices and some radical ideas. And be challenged.

Just 18 months ago, Scotland came as close to independence as it has ever been. The question to ask on 24 March is, is it any closer now?

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