The flaw at the heart of the report by the SNP’s Sustainable Growth Commission is that it had to start with an answer and work back to the question.
“Independence” had to be the answer, so the question could not be “what is the best economic and political framework for the people of Scotland?” It had to be “why is independence the best economic and political framework for the people of Scotland?”
It was conceived in the days when a second referendum seemed politically possible and its purpose was to come up with a plausible response to some of the fatal gaps in the party’s case in 2014 – such as what currency an independent Scotland would use and the over-dependence on a high oil price.
The report was ready last year, but by the time it was completed the political mood had changed. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who commissioned it, tried to float the prospect of a second independence referendum in the wake of the EU vote, but had to drop the idea in the face of public hostility.
The electorate did not want to go through a second divisive independence campaign so soon, just to give the same answer again. Opinion polls indicated no consistent increase in the support for independence over the last four years and certainly not enough to justify the political risk of a second lost vote.
Catalonia without the drama
That position hasn’t changed now. The chances of holding a second referendum between now and the next Scottish elections do not look promising for the SNP. The UK Government would not sanction a binding vote, as David Cameron did last time, on the grounds that there is no public demand for one and the country has enough on its plate with the Brexit negotiations without provoking a second constitutional crisis.
With Green Party support the First Minister could get a resolution through the Scottish Parliament, but the vote would have to be advisory, rather than mandatory. The unionist parties would boycott it on the justifiable grounds that there are more pressing issues to deal with, so we could end up with a Catalan situation – an overwhelming vote in favour of independence on a very low turnout.
Westminster would not respond in the extreme way the Spanish Government has reacted and put nationalist politicians in prison, so the First Minister would not have to flee to Belgium. It is more likely that London would just ignore the vote and refuse to negotiate on the basis of it – and in that they would probably have the support of majority opinion in Scotland.
So if there is no referendum in sight, why publish the report now? Firstly, because its non-publication was becoming an embarrassment. It had been lying on the First Minister’s desk for at least six months. Several release dates had been hinted at and then postponed and Andrew Wilson, the commission chair, could not appear in public without being taunted about it.
Secondly, it is to reassure the independence hard-liners in the SNP, who paraded through Glasgow in their tens of thousands a few weeks ago, that the issue is still on the party’s agenda. Another referendum may not be imminent, but it hasn’t gone away completely. If it gives the First Minister a quieter life for the next three years, it will have done its job.
What sort of independence?
But will it satisfy them? Its recommendation that an independent Scotland should keep the pound as its currency for at least ten years would mean the UK would set interest rates, the exchange rate and monetary policy without any influence from north of the border. What sort of independence would that be?
There is also a lot for unionists to get their teeth into. The assumption that an independent Scotland would be able to start debt free is unrealistic [See paragraph 3:126 Sustainable Growth Commission]. Why would the rest of the UK allow Scotland to escape shouldering its share of the UK national debt, when part of that debt was incurred providing Scotland with higher public spending per head than the UK average and rescuing the Scottish banks in 2008?
The report’s authors hope it will restart the national debate over independence, but with Brexit still unsettled, I don’t sense a mood in the country to rerun those arguments again. My guess is it will be forgotten by the autumn.