The word unprecedented should really be banned from all utterances for the rest of 2020.
But where the SNP is now as a party really is without much precedent. A party in its third term of government, riding high in the polls with a leader whose approval ratings eclipse the other UK party leaders never mind the Scottish ones who frankly don’t even rank.
However, the SNP cannot afford to be complacent. The question for us now is what to do with this hegemony. Especially, in the lead up to the 2021 elections, less than 12 months away.
Unlike other political parties in the UK the SNP exists not just to win elections and form governments but to achieve structural change . The structures we seek to change are socio-economic as well as constitutional. We want to win independence for Scotland, not just as an end in itself but to make sure that the vital decisions about how we run our economy and our society are taken closer to home so that we can do things differently and better.
Back in February, I was invited to give a lecture on why Scotland’s future is best served as an independent nation in the European Union and how we get there.I identified that the Brexit process has made many of those who voted No in 2014 reconsider their position on independence. I said that my experience is that there is a substantial cohort of former No voters who would support independence if it meant independence in the EU, but they had questions they felt had not yet been adequately answered.
These questions revolved around three issues: the economic case for independence; how the process of accession to the EU might work and how an independent Scotland might avoid a hard border with England.
I argued that my party had yet to answer these questions satisfactorily although I believed satisfactory answers existed and what was needed was good clear articulation of the answers to voters. I welcomed the policy papers promised by the First Minister on 31 January as a means to address these issues. I also welcomed her announcement of a Constitutional Convention as a means to reach out beyond the party and the Yes movement.
Beyond the pandemic
Since then the Coronavirus crisis has engulfed not just Scotland and the UK but the world. The FM has rightly put campaigning for an independence referendum on hold. The policy papers and the commencement of the Constitutional Convention have inevitably been delayed Unquestionably, the public health crisis must be the focus of the Scottish Government but the SNP as a party still has the bandwith to continue to consider the issues I identified earlier this year.
Fighting the virus has not led the UK Government to put their plans for Brexit on hold. They are adamant there will be no extension of the transition period. The current state of the negotiations on the future relationship between the EU and the UK is such that there is a substantial risk that the UK will leave the single market and customs union without an agreement with adverse consequences for the Scottish economy that have been well rehearsed elsewhere.
The UK is no longer the stable entity it appeared to be to No voters in 2014 . This perhaps explains why the appetite for revisiting the constitutional question has not been dimmed by the current crisis. This week an Ipsos MORI poll for BBC Scotland suggested that two thirds of Scots would like to see an extension of the transition period of up to two years.
It also suggested that (excluding don’t knows), 55%of Scots want an independence referendum within 5 years. This compares to 47% in a You Gov /Times poll conducted around this time last year.
It seems that fear of the economic consequences of Brexit is still fuelling the desire for a second independence referendum despite the coronavirus crisis, and that if anything the UK Government’s handling of that crisis may be increasing support for a second independence referendum (the polling was carried out before the Dominic Cummings fiasco).
Reframing indy case
The challenge for the SNP is how we approach reframing the case for independence in the wake of the crisis.
Within the party there is a widespread recognition that the economics of the Sustainable Growth Commission report requires to be revisited. That this is so is a view shared by both its enthusiastic proponents and those of us who had our reservations from the start.
The setting up of the Social Justice and Fairness Commission was announced at the 2019 spring conference in order to address the concerns of many party activists about the conclusions of the Growth Commission. The First Minister said that the new Commission would show how the proceeds of economic growth could be shared more fairly and how to end poverty and deliver full employment.
The new Commission recently announced it is looking at the idea of a Universal Basic Income. This is an idea which has been long been advocated within the party by activists such as Ronnie Cowan and is now attracting mainstream attention from think tanks like Reform Scotland. My own discussions with the business community suggest an appetite to explore this option. However a UBI cannot be looked at divorced from the overall economy. It means looking at the taxation system as well as welfare provision.
The questions being addressed by the Social Justice and Fairness Commission will therefore require to be looked at on a wider canvas.
Green new deal
Those of us advocating for a more radical approach would like to see the Common Weal think tank’s proposals for a New Green deal and an economy based on resilience play a large part in the deliberations needed to produce a strong new economic case for independence.
The Common Weal’s plans incorporate imaginative ideas about stimulating domestic industries and looking at creative ways of using our raw materials like timber and our abundant energy resources to drive up domestic production and consumption. Realising local government reform, advancing land reform further and faster and implementing rent control as a deliverable policy are among other proposals from this think tank that are close to the heart of many SNP activists.
The Common Weal’s economic blueprints look to the long term but also incorporate steps that can be taken now using devolved powers. This is the approach I believe is needed to frame the manifesto for the 2021 Holyrood elections.
One area of agreement between the architects of the Growth Commission and the Common Weal is that Scotland should be given more borrowing powers to pay for resilience measures under devolution. Andrew Wilsons’s recent proposals in this respect were favourably received across the board and are supported by our impressive and dynamic new Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes.
The sort of discussions that the SNP should now have are taking place across the UK, Europe and the world. The need to rebuild our economy and society in the wake of the pandemic provides a moment for us to rethink our priorities. If we do not take radical steps now, there will be no change and we will go back to where we we were and that was not a sustainable place.
The good news is that there seems to be widespread acceptance that this is a moment for huge social and economic change. With that acceptance independence becomes a less daunting prospect for many voters, but the SNP still need clear answers to the questions I identified back in February in order to win a majority for independence.
To say that the SNP should now revisit its economic plan for independence is therefore in keeping with the times we are in. My call for a radical rethink is not a challenge for the leadership, nor is it a challenge to the leadership. This new situation is a challenge for all of us and a challenge for our party as a whole.
Featured image: by UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Stephen Pike, flickr via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0