2014 v 2016: An Open Letter To Angus Robertson (and all YES campaigners)
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
Scottish Independence Convention
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*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.