THE SNP’s LAUNCH of a new “independence taskforce” was greeted with a predictable round of predictable scolds from a predictable group of unionist leaders led by a predictable Scottish Labour leadership candidate. Details of the taskforce, already scanty, were all but drowned out by gurning noises.
Let’s start with those gripes: “As we emerge from the pandemic, what is needed is a taskforce on jobs, health and education – not on independence,” said Anas Sarwar. Trite, maybe, but who could object to jobs, health and education?
Still, I’m sceptical that any of the unionist grouches can do or wants to do anything radically different from what First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is already doing, given the constraints of a likely two further terms of Conservative government in Westminster. Beneath the constitutional divide, most of Holyrood shares her underlying preference for a milquetoast, status quo liberalism: Sarwar and Monica Lennon are Unionist Sturgeonites in all but name.
Their vision, then, would likely involve doing what Sturgeon is doing but “better”, minus the “distraction” of independence. In this imaginary land, constitutional debate would simply disappear with the SNP out of office: all that’s required to nullify the biggest social movement in Scottish history is sticking a unionist in charge.
In a more plausible scenario, the opposite would happen. The First Minister’s authority, at present, shields the Holyrood establishment against the yes movement: this accounts for her esteem among Scotland’s respectable professional-managerial class. A unionist, effectively doing Conservative work in a regional parliament, would find themselves besieged.
Equally, Sturgeon gains the authority of having a vision precisely because she stands for independence. This allows her to fend off and incorporate opposition. Whenever a radical proposal is put on the table, the First Minister can say, with the air of plausibility: “this is impossible under Westminster, but maybe under independence…” A unionist leader would be permitted no such luxuries. With all serious economic powers centred in London, they would simply do what Sturgeon does, minus optimism, authority and anything by way of prophetic vision.
The deeper question hardly anyone in media or politics wants to ask is whether the existing SNP leadership are serious about independence. Thus, unnoticed except in the National, there was a story of the SNP ruling executive turning down a proposal to set up a working group to examine routes to a second referendum. Not the behaviour of a party “obsessed”. Yet such stories are confined to the memory hole, because they don’t fit the polarised narrative that suits both sides of Holyrood, of an SNP leadership hellbent on independence at the first opportunity.
The remarkable thing about independence is that support has risen to almost 60 percent without anyone in public life really making a case for it. Equally, nobody has really made a case against it, beyond the weak and inept: “now is not the time for this distraction”.
This takes care of the “smoking gun” of unionist thinking, which says that the public wants to prioritise anything but independence. The root cause is that nobody in authority has talked about what independence is for or what it can deliver. Not since Brexit came along to consume the discourse. Effectively, the SNP’s case for independence is founded in exploiting vast alienation from Westminster, largely for electoral purposes. Ironically, given 2014’s stress on positive campaigning, it’s become entirely negative in content.
Conversely, the SNP leadership’s old vision of independence remains untested, precisely because their unionist opponents are so stilted and conservative. The Sustainable Growth Commission is surely for the dustbin of history: Andrew Wilson’s recent interview with Andrew Neil was revelatory and embarrassing (Neil effectively did more work in twenty minutes than Scotland’s unionist leaders have done in two decades). But there is little word on what type of economic vision will take its place.
Hopefully, the new “independence taskforce” will begin to answer these questions and will mean the launch of a campaign to explain what independence is for. Hopefully, it’s not just a sop to discontented party members. Hopefully, it will not be another round of what Kevin McKenna calls “operation bulls***”, and it will make an honest case for popular sovereignty and democratic control of state power, against the backdrop of a failing economic order where the old rules no longer apply.