Conrad Landin writes:
Just when you think it’s all over, the stetsoned Texan Darius Jedburgh murmurs in the classic BBC serial Edge of Darkness, it’s only begun. The SNP’s “growth commission” has published its report at last — all 354 pages of it.
Much of the anti-independence campaign in 2014 focused on the supposed economic catastrophe that would hit Scotland in the event of a breakaway. So it’s no wonder the Nats want to get their rebuttal in first as they prepare for the rematch.
The commission takes its starting point from the GERS figures — the annual estimate of the Scottish economy within the UK. This mechanism has regularly angered pro-independence campaigners, who say it doesn’t show the whole picture.
The acknowledgement today that an independent Scotland would continue to pay the residual Britain an “annual solidarity payment” of £5 billion a year seems refreshingly honest. It’s almost a mirror image of Alex Salmond’s claim in 2014 that Scotland would be £5bn better off after independence — a claim found to have been based on no economic modelling at all.
There was still material in yesterday’s report which allowed Nicola Sturgeon to strike a message of hope. Reducing the gender pay gap to the level of New Zealand could increase GDP by £6.1bn, the commission said. Doubling overseas exports could generate £5bn more in taxes annually.
Though the report explicitly rejects austerity, the promise of “sensible budgeting” and £1bn savings on state spending sounds like a repackaging of exactly that. According to Michael Sharpe, Scottish Labour’s head of policy, the offering is “closer to right-wing Chicago School ‘shock economics’ than it is to the ‘build a fairer country’ vision that engaged many” in the 2014 referendum.
Even some key Nats are questioning the relevance of the exercise. “By the time there is another vote, whether that is sooner or later, it’ll be out of date in so many aspects that either significant updating or a rewrite will be needed,” former SNP justice secretary Kenny MacAskill wrote in the i newspaper last month.
It is indeed a question of sooner or later, with the SNP’s depute leadership election the latest arena for this discussion. Economy secretary Keith Brown is being challenged for the job by activist Julie Hepburn and councillor Chris McEleny — who has called for a referendum within 18 months.
Polling is not in the Nats’ favour, however. One survey in March put the Noes ahead by four percentage points — and another by 12. An activist who played a prominent part in the Radical Independence Campaign told me this week he had never felt so apathetic about the issue than in Scotland’s changed political climate.
More and more, it looks like Sturgeon is pushing another vote to give her party a continued sense of purpose – and placate the likes of McEleny. It’s no wonder Scottish Labour’s Richard Leonard used First Minister’s Questions to call on her to “put the NHS before the SNP.”
With two crises — over finances and mental health — in NHS Tayside, and missed targets across the picture, the new independence push is a convenient distraction for Scotland’s most treasured national asset cracking down the middle.
Of course, Labour should be wary of making the NHS the be-all and end-all of its strategy. That mistake was made too many times by Ed Miliband, and the voting public deserve a wider, transformative vision.
But if Leonard can show that the SNP is not as competent at running Scotland as it likes to make out, he could be onto something. Sturgeon may soon find that another separation bid is all she has to offer – and it’s not an offer the Scottish people can’t refuse.