Ellen Höfer: The blank White Paper

“When 75 percent of the nation would vote for independence with ‘the right economic case’, when is the Scottish Government finally going to publish one?”

ACCORDING to the most recent Progress Scotland poll, 75 per cent of respondents would vote for independence “with the right economic plan”. So what about that White Paper, Ms Sturgeon? 

For all the talk of not revealing battle strategies to our political ‘enemies’ and blind faith in a great secret plan held close to the chests of those in government, it cannot be denied that there is a gaping hole side-stepped by near enough every SNP representative and loyalist. Try as you might, this hole cannot simply be backfilled with excuses of total focus on Covid-19, nor on impotent, repeated protests over the No Deal Brexit that will definitely drag Scotland out of the EU. Both of those justifications merely emphasise the need for concrete substance on the foundations of gaining independence, while simultaneously showing that gradualism fails to anticipate the rapid changes we can expect in the not-too-distant future.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon promised Scotland a White Paper in her Programme for Government in 2019. None has been published as of yet, and no publication date was announced at the Programme for Government 2020. 

The Sustainable Growth Commission

In order to gauge the trajectory of the currently blank White Paper it is important to understand the context and previous publication which it is likely to be predicated upon. The task of writing the predecessor White Paper, the Sustainable Growth Commission (SGC) was assigned to Andrew ‘Sterlingisation’ Wilson. Having been completed and locked in a drawer for six months, the self-styled “strategy for inter-generational economic renaissance” was eventually published in May of 2018.

The approach that led to the SGC was one based firmly in Wilson’s own professional background in consulting. The team approached 23 organisations in the public and private sector and based the paper around the findings and insights gained. Given that this approach lacked input from the general public, trade unions and third sector organisations, it united Scotland in a wholly unwelcome way: upon release, it failed to enthuse either the independence movement or the general public.

The publication made a neoliberal case for independence, even in name submitting to the delusion that there is such a thing as sustainable growth. Poetically, in 2018, the year of its publication, world overshoot day fell on 1 August, marking the point at which humanity had used nature’s resource budget for the entire year.

The Growth Commission was dense and difficult to digest. The National Yes Registry’s ‘The Gathering 2’ event facilitated constructive engagement with the paper between all interested Yes groups and required whole teams of attendees to read, discuss and analyse sections of the paper, and then present to the whole assembly in order to actually cover most of the contents. Discussion was so avid that despite the sufficiently large hall with breakout rooms, it was often hard to make out what group members were trying to communicate to each other.

The SNP too held the so-called National Assemblies for party members, though according to some of those present, these seemed designed to facilitate less critical analysis and more topical party-line propaganda. In spite of the half-year during which the completed SGC laid unpublished, the SNP leadership took the unusual step of publishing the paper first and allowing the membership to sanction it with minor lip-service adjustments at conference after the fact, rather than debating and informing the process from the start. Nonetheless, Keith Brown, the SNPs campaign director with ‘responsibility for policy development, preparing for elections and building the case for Scottish independence’, was heard more than once proclaiming that he had heard no criticism of the SGC from within the movement whatsoever – which came as a surprise to all those with eyes and ears.

Points of contention

On average, the independence movement had grown increasingly centre-left following its failure in the independence referendum in 2014, and was naturally poised to reject a centre-right vision for the independent country they sought to build. The SGC advocated a transition though an indefinite period of sterlingisation, which at conference was given more impetus with the passage of an amendment stating: “Scotland should move to a new currency as soon as practicable.”

The paper also suggested that an independent Scotland should set up the following standing orders from its account to the coffers of the UK: £3 billion in recognition of formerly shared financial responsibilities, £1.3 billion for a foreign aid budget which the UK should spend on Scotland’s behalf, and an additional £1 billion for use of services provided by UK institutions such as the DWP and Home Office until such times as Scotland would build and staff its own corresponding structures. The so-called annual solidarity payment totalled a gift of £5.3 billion every year indefinitely. 

Critics also despaired at the central ethos of growth. Two years before the SGC was published, the Brexit referendum had taken place and economic forecasts of all the possible Brexit scenarios were damaging to both the UK overall and member nations’ economies. A few months after the Growth Commission was released the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned all nations around the globe that all of humanity had a mere 12 years to make the adjustments necessary to limit the climate catastrophe to a warming of 1.5°C and there is and was no denying that rather than sustainable economic growth instead is the industrial power drill in the flooding hull of our shared life vessel. 

Points of contention

The two years since the publication of the Growth Commission have seen so many impactful developments that even the first minister decided a new White Paper was required. In the 2019 Programme for Government, Sturgeon declared: “The Scottish Government produced a comprehensive plan for an independent Scotland in 2014. The government will now undertake the necessary work to update that plan and ensure that people have the information they need to make informed choices over the future of the country.”

The UK Government agreed to extend the less-than-fruitful negotiations with the EU, missing two initially scheduled Brexit dates before the UK eventually, officially left the EU on 31 January 2020. While no longer a member of the EU, the UK and its member-nations have since found themselves in the padded purgatory of the transition period, in which the impacts of the UK’s exit cannot be fully perceived by the public even while irreversible damage has already been done. This has allowed the UK Government to intentionally steer towards the most devastating of all Brexit scenarios: the No Deal Brexit without buffer or time for preparations. 

In March this year, the world was faced with a whole new devastating problem. The Covid-19 pandemic has so severely impacted global communities, markets and economies that any dreams of fiscal stability have been wiped out, and despite efforts to find and produce a vaccine that would allow for a return to normality, there is as of yet no definite end date in sight.

The pandemic has led to one of the first minister’s most telling announcements about her intentions for independence on the Andrew Marr Show; filmed outside her Glasgow home, Sturgeon stated she believed that she would be “on the wrong side of public opinion” if her attention was on anything but the Covid crisis, and that constitutional matters would not be on her mind until its end was in sight and its economic legacy would become clear. 

Many used this line of argument in their attempts to shut down criticism over the non-publication of the delayed White Paper – along with the general lack of progress on Scottish independence – and did so with moderate success. That is, until the Welsh Independence Commission – set up and tasked by Plaid Cymru Leader Adam Pryce in order to not interfere with day-to-day business and to draw in the most expert voices – published a comprehensive, progressive White Paper on Welsh Independence last month. The rapidly rising support for Welsh independence in the last few years can hardly be attributed to Nicola Sturgeon, nor to the unionist Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford; Plaid made a strategically acute move in offering a concrete vision for Wales beyond Brexit and the Coronavirus. So why is Scotland refusing to give itself the same opportunity at this pivotal time in history? 

Scotland, alongside every other nation on this planet, is on a deadline entirely unrelated to Covid, Brexit and independence. The IPCC warning from 2018 leaves us with less than ten years to transform our economies and societies to meet the deadly challenge of the climate crisis. Luckily, Scotland has an embarrassment of sustainable potential, from green energy sources to renewable natural materials like wood and, not least importantly, vast amounts of underused, mismanaged land. A transformational 25 year Green New Deal plan for Scotland like Common Weal’s ‘Our Common Home’ is arguably the only sensible, practical, progressive case the Scottish Government can make for independence. Such transformational policies cannot be achieved under the current constitutional arrangement with the UK. 

According to the Scottish Government, Scotland’s new White Paper was supposed to be based on its Citizen Assemblies, with a random selection of paid participants from across the population discussing independence – a significant departure from the methodology of the Growth Commission. The final of the six assemblies was postponed due to the pandemic, and in her Programme for Government last month, Sturgeon did not mention the now overdue White Paper, nor did she offer a projected publication date. Until now, the incessant assertion from the most loyal of SNP officials was that the independence movement would need to shift the polls to reflect significant pro-independence support – a shift which now appears to be occurring.

For anyone trying to glimpse the bigger picture of Scotland’s political trajectory, it is glaringly obvious that at the very top of the Scottish Government a significant miscalculation has taken place, leaving Scotland without a White Paper fig leaf preserving its modesty. When 75 percent of the nation would vote for independence with ‘the right economic case’, when is the Scottish Government finally going to publish one? 

Picture courtesy of Jordi Gabarró Llop