2014 v 2016: An Open Letter To Angus Robertson (and all YES campaigners)

Kevin Williamson joins Alex Salmond and other non-SNP campaigners on stage at launch of YES Scotland (PHOTO: Craig McLean)

 

Dear Angus

Now that both sides in the Indy debate have launched their respective campaigns you would think Scots would now be engaged in intelligent respectful debate, explaining what the two options actually mean, with an intellectual rigour and clarity.

Unfortunately this is not where we’re at. There is still one significant hurdle to be cleared before the real debate can begin in earnest. Let’s cut to the chase.  There is widespread confusion among politicians and media pundits regarding the Independence Referendum planned for Autumn 2014 and the Scottish general election scheduled for May 2016.  Many pundits are treating the two events as if they are the same thing.  They are not.

The 2014/2016 confusion isn’t confined to media commentators and proponents of NO.  Many active in the SNP camp have contributed to the fog, sometimes accidentally, sometimes wilfully,  by conflating SNP policy with the political direction of an Independent Scotland.

To this end, and as a priority, we need to establish a clear timeline in the minds of all participants so that misunderstandings over 2014 and 2016 are avoided.  A timeline to 2104 was included in the Your Scotland, Your Referendum consultation document but what comes after that seems to have gotten lost in translation.  Could I suggest that those involved in the YES campaign flag up the initial timeline but also spell out the four main stages of the Independence process from now until May 2016.  To summarise:

STAGE 1.  2012-2014:  PARLIAMENTARY ASSENT

Referendum Bill presented to the Scottish parliament, debated, amended voted on and passed.  White Paper published.  The Westminster parliament will also decide its position on Scotland’s referendum.

STAGE 2.  AUTUMN 2014: THE REFERENDUM

The citizens of Scotland make a YES or NO decision on whether they agree/want Scotland to be an Independent country.

STAGE 3.  2014-2016:  INDEPENDENCE NEGOTIATIONS

If YES wins the current SNP Scottish government has a popular mandate to negotiate a settlement with the London government, based on the terms set out in the White Paper.

STAGE 4.  MAY 2016:  SCOTTISH GENERAL ELECTION

After negotiations are concluded with London the people of Scotland go to the polling booths in May 2016 to elect the first ever government of an Independent Scottish state.

With just four clearly defined stages in the process this shouldn’t be the intellectual equivalent of explaining the Higgs Boson. But like with the elusive particle the reality, it would appear, is a different matter.

Most of the media focus thus far has, predictably, been expended on the first procedural stage.  Who has the authority to run the referendum? What should be the wording of the question? How many questions on the ballot paper?  What are the legalities?  And so on.

The third stage – negotiations with London – will be determined in part by the specifics of the White Paper, and in part by the resolve of the negotiators.  The influence the people of Scotland will have on these negotiations is unclear.

It is the two pivotal moments in the Independence process – the 2014 referendum and the May 2016 election – which concern me here. all the evidence suggests that the unique differences between 2014 and 2016 still need to be explained until the penny finally drops.

To illustrate the ongoing confusion between 2014 and 2016 I could use any speech or statement made by the NO campaign, or I could pick up any of today’s newspapers and delve into to the politics pages.  Here is one example, far from being uncommon:

Last week Mandy Rhodes, editor of Holyrood magazine, directed a question to the SNP (via Twitter):

“With 2 years to #indyref be good to hear what SNP would do on banking or welfare reform more than what they will do about a nuclear alliance.”

The question seems perfectly reasonable, on the surface, but upon closer examination reveals itself as both loaded and absurd.

As we’re both only too aware the current SNP government cannot implement policies on banking reform, welfare reform, nuclear weapons or NATO.  These policy areas are deemed “reserved” to Westminster, at least until after a successful YES vote.  Clearly there is no point addressing questions on these matters to Alex Salmond’s administration.

However, if YES wins in 2014, an exciting but unprecedented factor comes into play for the first time in Scottish history.  From May 2016 onwards ALL government policy will be decided by the people of Scotland – as expressed though elections – rather than deferring back to London.  This is normalisation.  Its why we’re involved in the YES campaign.

But what Mandy Rhodes is asking is something very strange, she’s asking the current SNP administration to comment on their party’s 2016 electoral manifesto now, in 2012, almost four years before the 2016 elections!  Has any political party EVER published its electoral manifesto four years in advance of an election? How could they?  Why should they? Political parties debate and change their policies every year.  SNP policy in 2012 may change in 2015 along with political circumstances.  Given the economic uncertainties rocking Europe at present, and given the sheer magnitude of the 2014 referendum decision, it would be perfectly reasonable to suggest that no political party will emerge into the sunlight of 2016 as they stand at present.

Mandy Rhodes also chooses to direct her 2016 manifesto question to the SNP alone.   Why?  Does she think a) the SNP will be the only party standing in the 2016 elections? Or b) the result of the 2016 elections is a pre-ordained win for the SNP?  Both assumptions are of course ridiculous.

This is not credible journalism.  Yet every journalist and political commentator in Scotland repeats similar arrogant/disingenuous/incorrect assumptions when they try to equate current SNP policy with the political realities of an Independent Scotland.

If YES wins then the SNP, like every other political party, will put a manifesto to the people of Scotland in 2016.  As in any election; to the victor the spoils.  The party or coalition of parties who win a majority in 2016 will form the first Scottish government and will formulate policy according to their manifesto pledges.  But whether the SNP will emerge from the 2016 election as clear winner, or even the party with most seats, is Mystic Meg speculation at this stage.

So listen up Mandy (and you Angus!).  Here’s the reality:  If the 2016 Scottish government is elected on a manifesto committed to abolishing the monarchy; or withdrawing from NATO; or nationalising the banks; or implementing land reform; or joining EFTA instead of the EU; or rejecting sterling in favour of the Euro or a Scottish currency; or lowering corporation tax; or increasing all tax bands; or privatising the NHS; or pumping money into local services; or legalising cannabis; then THE PEOPLE OF SCOTLAND WILL HAVE SPOKEN.

This cannot be stressed, underlined, or shouted from the rooftops loud enough.  2014 is a referendum on relocating power, relocating the tools of democratic governance, from London to Scotland.  2016 is about the people of Scotland picking up these tools and using them in any damned way we choose.  I’ll say it again:  2014 is about DEMOCRACY.  2016 is about POLICY.

You understand this better than most Angus.  Yet on occasion you step back from essential clarification.  For instance in October you will present a Defence policy motion to the SNP conference. It’s a detailed thoughtful resolution, albeit contentious on NATO membership.  However something important is getting obscured in the crossfire between NATO supporters and SNP members who want Scotland to join non-NATO Partnership for Peace programme. This internal SNP debate is being presented as if the 2012 conference decision will determine the Defence policy of an Independent Scotland.

Let’s be clear on this. Nothing in the SNP’s Defence policy – current or amended – is guaranteed to be the Defence policy of an Independent Scotland. The SNP’s political mandate from the people runs out in 2016 and any changes to SNP Defence policy will only apply to the SNP’s transitional government of Scotland from Autumn 2014 to 2016.  No longer than that.*

If in 2016 the Scottish Greens, say, stand on a manifesto of cutting defence to Irish levels of spending (0.9% GDP), reducing Scottish military personnel to a few thousand, or immediate withdrawal of Scotland from NATO, then if they get a majority that is what will happen.  This is how democracy works.  If Scottish Labour win a majority – not inconceivable once the Independence question is settled – the incoming SLP government would have the mandate to decide on these matters.

These are self-evident truths yet the question remains: why are senior SNP officials not going out of their way to explain to the Scottish people that SNP policies will be put to the Scottish people in the 2016 election and can only be implemented if the SNP get a working majority?  This means explaining that your Defence resolution  – if passed at conference – will NOT be the pre-ordained Defence policy of an Independent Scotland.

For instance your motion states:  “On independence Scotland will inherit its treaty obligations with NATO.” This is a good starting position since inheritance of all international treaties creates a clear framework for a transitional government to proceed with, prior to democratic ratification by the people.  But the words “On independence” muddy the waters rather than clarify. If we are serious about uncoupling SNP policy from Independence then policy such as this should refer exclusively to the transitional government of 2014-May 2016. After that all international treaties including the one with NATO are negotiable and up for grabs.

In a nutshell the SNP’s Defence policy will be one Defence policy among many.  It may never become reality. As the late great Joe Strummer used to say: The future is unwritten.

By similar measures, if anyone in the SNP is whispering to anyone in the business world (or in the media) that corporation tax will be lower in an Independent Scotland then they are being very disingenuous. For two fairly robust reasons: 1) the SNP 2016 election manifesto has yet to be written by its own party members, and 2) the SNP may struggle to win the 2016 election on a “slash corporation tax” agenda, especially if the Scottish Labour Party re-positions itself to the left of the SNP, determined to make the richest in society pay their fair share.

Incidentally, this scenario may not be as far-fetched as it seems because Independence could force the SLP to break with conservative values designed to win the south of England. It is more probable than possible too that the SLP will break with the structures of the British Labour Party in order to re-position itself favourably within the new emergent Scottish political spectrum.

The currency of an Independent Scotland during the transitional period between Autumn 2014 and the May 2016 election will be, by necessity, the pound sterling.  However if the new Scottish  government decides to have a referendum on joining the Euro, or having our own Scottish currency, then so be it.  The SNP have no mandate after May 2016 and for that election will simply be one of many political parties soliciting the support of the Scottish people.

Everyone in the Independence movement needs to bust a gut explaining the difference between 2014 and 2016 to the Scottish people. If this means taking to task senior SNP Ministers as well as political pundits or prominent NO campaigners then so be it.  Let’s call it essential preparatory work.

Remember, it is in the NO campaigners interests to equate Independence with SNP policy, but not ours. That way they can make the SNP the focus of their campaigning while ignoring the democratic possibilities which make Independence so enticing.  It is these democratic possibilities (rather than SNP policies) which are the YES campaign’s strongest card.

This open letter may seem like a long-winded way of stating the bleeding obvious.  Yet in times of confusion the obvious needs to be stated.  Perhaps addressing this letter to yourself, Angus, may be seen (in some quarters) as a trifle unnecessary.  But you are an important player in this process and can help shape the parameters of the process itself.

To this end it would benefit the Yes campaign if yourself, Alex Salmond, and everyone involved in the Scottish government and the SNP actively challenged any assumption that SNP policies are the pre-ordained realities of an Independent Scotland.

I would also appeal to all YES supporters to consider this as a call to action to help target – in the most civilised and patient manner of course – any journalist or politician who confuses 2014 with 2016; or confuses current SNP policy with the realities of Independence.  They’ve gotten away with this nonsense for too long.  Let’s chop through the dead wood and prepare the ground for the real debate to come.

Yours for Independence

Kevin Williamson

Vice-Convenor

Scottish Independence Convention

* * *

*POSTSCRIPT:  BY WAY OF A GENTLE WARNING…

If there is anything in the Independence White Paper which attempts to lock a future Scottish government into any policy that cannot be overturned at the ballot box in 2016 then it has to be taken at face value: a fundamental assault on the non-negotiable sovereignty of the Scottish people.  I’m convinced that the democratic credentials of the current SNP administration are unassailable but it is good practice to state from the outset  that should  any Machiavellian manoeuvres surface they will be challenged head on, and by whatever means are deemed necessary.  The Scottish People Decide.  On everything.  It’s why we fight for YES.

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31 replies

  1. Well said Kevin you’re right, it is so bleedin’ obvious that everyone needs to be told.
    Although a member of the SNP, for the next 2 years when I work for the YES campaign I’m working for Scotland. To me it’s above party politics, it’s about the proper Democracy that an independent nation should have.
    Come 2016, will I vote SNP ? Possibly not, I don’t like some of the policies that are coming forward. I’ll revert to my original views of many, many years ago and look at the respective parties manifestos.

  2. Cracking article, Kevin, and this has needed stating for months.

  3. Some times, in fact all the time, the bleeding obvious needs to be stated loud and clear.

    I made a good living out of going into businesses and organisations and stating the bleeding obvious.

  4. Thanks for this, let’s hope something will be done, how about BC/SIC organising open debates throughout Scotland? The MSM isn’t going to change any time soon as far as I can see, and nor sadly, I fear, are the SNP.

    Alison Balharry

  5. Very clearly put and considerate of the realities involved. More so when the people of Scotland vote overwhelmingly for YES to independence after being made aware of the issues covered.

  6. Smart people can convince themselves of anything. This strikes me as one of those hair-splitting procedural arguments that makes logical sense parsed out into individual steps, but achieves a ‘paper’ clarity which actually obscures what is politically obvious.

    The fact you’re politely asking the SNP’s main electoral strategist to shift the terms of the 2014 campaign he *also* happens to be in charge of says it all. There will be no ‘de-coupling’ of 2014 and 2016 because the SNP quite simply own the referendum — otherwise, you wouldn’t have to defer to Angus Robertson in raising this issue. I’m pro-indy but the SNP are quite obviously and deliberately using party policy debate (on paper, directed toward 2016) as a 2014 campaigning tool.

    Let’s not be disingenuous: the rationale and timing of the NATO u-turn is about the 2014 campaign, as will every other eye-catching or backsliding, let’s-not-scare-the-horses policy we can look forward to in the next two years (including corporation tax). Why else would they be picking the NATO fight one year into a 5-year Holyrood term? If any other party underwent such a ‘conversion’ in ideology 15 months after being elected, we’d be accusing them of bait-and-switch. (Page 7 of 2011 manifesto: ‘[we will] continue our strong opposition to nuclear weapons’.)

    • You make an assumption that SNP strategists need 2014 referendum coupled to SNP policy in order to win. I’m challenging the strategic logic of that and the assumption that SNP policy will be the realities of Independence. Where will AS and AR etc stand in this? Well that depends on whether they want YES to win in 2014. Because limiting the possibilities of Independence to current SNP policy is a surefire way to lose.

      • Sorry, but for most of the population there *is* only one SNP policy, and that is independence. Every other policy of the party and government — including the referendum — is viewed through that prism.

        I agree that the possibilities of independence aren’t confined to current SNP policy — thank christ for that. I’m all for pro-indy arguments which aren’t SNP policy. But you’re dreaming if you think Angus Robertson is going to break his back ‘widening the discussion’ in that way. Those arguments are just going to have to be made from outwith the ‘official’ Yes campaign, as far as I can see.

  7. I am not sure why this article is so long. As far as I can tell, it makes one basic obvious point (which people have been banging on about ad nauseum) and rambles on for umpteem paragraphs.

    My timeline for the referendum is as follows:

    2012 – referendum campaign launched.
    2012 – 2014 – endless bickering between SNP and various fringe groups that turns off the mainstream voter.
    2014 – ‘No’ wins by 60-something percent.

    • See the next time you do a spot of time travelling into the future could you come back with something useful – like the winner of next year’s Grand National?

      KW

    • Wow, I don’t know where people get the idea that unionists are negative. That’s possibly the most uplifting and positive comment I’ve ever read on any website in the history of the internet.

      (Incidentally, you realise “‘No’ wins by 60-something percent” would mean “NO” getting over 80%? Not even in the wildest of unionist dreams will the “NO” vote get anywhere near that.)

  8. Thanks Kevin,
    This helps to make the position clear, and needed to be set out so effectively.
    I am strongly for independence, and I am an SNP member, but the question of Scottish independence is much too important to be linked with one party and its democratic procedures. It would appear that the Labour party is now spliting into three sections on this issue. The official line which is tied up with the Tories and Lib-Dems which wants the status quo. The pro-independence group, and the Devo-Max group.
    There are many people currently in the Labour party who have much to contribute to the democratic politics of an independent Scotland.
    I hope that there will be a strong Labour party in an independent Scotland, and that it will put forward a credible left manifesto for the 2016 election.

  9. “There is widespread confusion among politicians and media pundits regarding the Independence Referendum planned for Autumn 2014 and the Scottish general election scheduled for May 2016. Many pundits are treating the two events as if they are the same thing.”

    I am an Independence supporter but I haven’t noticed any of the confusion you mention either in the media or elsewhere. Yes there are idiots asking the SNP to spell out details of what would be post-Independence matters in the event of success. But that is not the same thing.

  10. The vision of what an independent Scotland might be like has to be in there with the independence referendum. The unionists are making some sort of case for straying with the UK and in general these seem to be holding back aspiration relying on ‘be afraid’, or ‘you’re too small’. Surely, if independence about our country’s potential then some policies to realise that have to be given?

  11. What a very long and puzzling piece. Why isn’t it possible for the SNP to say: these are our views, and this is what we will pursue after independence? Did the SNP gain its present position by having no policies? It certainly didn’t gain me as a member that way, or any of the voters I know (and that’s a big number).

    Won’t it be a shame when after the divide we find that all the parties are pro-EU, pro-NATO, and pro-large scale benefits scroungers – oops, I mean ‘Royalty’. Might as well have stayed in the Union, really. Wasn’t Team GB great? And did those feet in ancient time?

  12. There is confusion out there between the Yes campaign and the SNP, give it 6 months to a year and you will see Blair Jenkins and Dennis Canavan leading people from all political parties and none to an independent Scotland.

    • Yes, time is on our side. All political campaigns have teething problems and this campaign is so unique this applies even more so. As 2013 gets into its stride my guess is that a very powerful grassroots YES campaign will be well into its stride and any doubt it is completely independent of SNP-control will be removed.
      KW

  13. Whilst setting a manifesto for 2016 sounds absurd, without setting some outlines for policy after that date, you’re asking people to vote Yes whilst being blindfolded to what they’re voting for. Purely being independent isn’t the vote winner. Its what you’d do once you are independent is what people vote for. IMHO, an interim, outline manifesto must be out there in early 2014.

    • Hi Steven – the last thing I’m suggesting is the depoliticisation of the 2014 vote. I totally agree with you that political parties – and everyone else too – needs to inspire a YES vote through explaining the type of Scotland we could live in if we break free of zombie control from London. This will conjure up many different Scotlands and I’m sure political parties will put flesh on the details in their 2016 manifestos. This is quite different from presenting SNP policy on NATO, currency, monarchy, etc as a foregone conclusion for Scotland from 2016 onwards. The Scottish people will decide on these things when the time comes.
      KW

  14. I would invite all parties to produce draft 2016 manifestos before the referendum. Then the Scottish people would see some of the fantastic opportunities independence will bring. For example the Labour Party might undertake to bring the state pension into line with the European average (by trebling it), the SSP might advocate free public transport, the Tories might promise 0% tax rates for anyone earning over £100k, and so on. Sadly not all are likely to seize the opportunity.

  15. Let’s get one thing clear. Continued membership of NATO means subservience to Washington. That’s why our soldiers are in Afghanistan. If this is what Angus Robertson wants then he doesn’t get my vote.

  16. An argument well made , but for me a mistaken one. It’s the negotiations between the Scottish and British governments between referendum and Independence Day. along with extant SNP policy, that will determine the kind of country an independent Scotland will begin as. No country can begin its independence not knowing whether it’s a republic or a monarchy, or whether it’s in NATO or not, to give two examples.

  17. I am a member of the SNP for one reason and one reason only, to get independence from Westminster. After that is achieved I will look at what the candidates and their parties have to offer us in the 2016 general election. I don’t think that is a particularily difficult concept. Presumeably, after they’ve lost a referendum we will have the same old, same old from the people who see climbing the slippery pole of party leadership as a be all and end all of life. Me? I’ll probably find something else to interest me, secure in the knowledge that no matter what party a candidate represents they will not be beholden to Westminster.

    • Absolutely. And from all the feedback I’ve had in various forums, social media, etc, SNP members get this 100& and are quite happy to work fora Scotland which their party may not even govern. Its Independence that counts. The SNP is primarily the political vehicle to deliver the referendum. They’re doing just that and bless them for delivering what they said they would. After that its up to the people of Scotland.
      KW

  18. KW I am particularly interested in how you envisage Scottish voters will participate in the debate on your suggested timeline.
    Should there not be a stage before Parliamentary Assent? Where we debate what type of democracy we (the voters) aspire to.

  19. While I suspect most of us want the apathy campaign of the ‘Better Together” acolytes to lose, we don’t want the victory of the Yes camp to be entirely due to such a negative factor.

    The present SNP government has to present the pitch and make the sale to the people of Scotland and nobody else.

    Scotland as an independent nation, whose sovereignty rests with its people is not a signatory to any international treaty or alliance.

  20. An excellent reminder of the situation as it IS and not as the MSM and ALL the political parties in Scotland and UK would have us believe. We need these factual reminders on a frequent basis from everyone in the Yes campaign. It is the only way the Scottish general public will get the whole point of the referendum. I will try and make a summary of your main points and keep reminding my family and friends that it’s not just “the SNP versus the world/uk”, like the media and the unionists insist it is. I hope other bloggers follow your lead.

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