Robin McAlpine: 2014 independence white paper was a mistake we must learn from

I read David Pratt’s column in the National this week with interest. I’d like to suggest there is an important signpost that will help us to know when independence is being taken seriously and when we are getting ready to be able to consider a referendum. It is about preparation.

In 2011, when a surprise parliamentary majority for independence was first achieved, the question of what independence would look like had been parked since the “Independence in Europe” slogan in the 1990s.

So an explanation of how it would work had to be put together in the tiny window between when a Section 30 Order was agreed (enabling the Scottish civil service to work on it) and the early part of the campaign. This meant the 2014 White Paper was basically a fudge.

READ MORE: National columnist David Pratt sparks debate with call for SNP urgency on independence

I don’t write this as a criticism; given the timescales a fudge was the only realistic solution. But it was a fudge that left us exposed during the campaign, particularly on currency questions but also on issues like EU membership and finances.

So be it; not every battle is one you get to hold on your own terms and sometimes you have to work with what you have. But calling a referendum and then cobbling together a White Paper in six months is a last resort, not a good plan.

But it simply won’t be possible this time anyway, and it’s important to understand why. In 2014 the fudge was based on two approaches – a range of sharing deals and the assumption that the UK would remain in the EU. None of this is possible any more and we must learn the lesson of what happens if you give the UK a veto on a key issue.

A Sterling Union is off the table and the pandemic has clarified minds on why “Sterlingisation” isn’t feasible. Even if we wanted to join the Euro it would take a decade. So we have no option but to set up a Scottish currency. That is not something you can fudge.

If we don’t have a rock-solid currency plan we won’t be able to answer questions on trade and devaluation. No-one should pretend that there is no set of circumstances in which a Scottish currency could devalue against Sterling, and everyone should understand what that could mean.

In theory, rapid currency devaluation could result in rising prices in the shops. This would be great for domestic producers and exporters but that argument isn’t going to cut it in a campaign. People will be afraid their spending power will decline.

In reality there are many ways we can prevent this from happening (Common Weal is working on this right now). Scotland can manage our currency to support both consumers and our domestic economy. There is nothing for the independence movement to be afraid of – in the end, this is the core business of being an independent country.

But it isn’t possible until you have a detailed plans for your currency, your central bank and your foreign currency reserves. That isn’t a three-month job for Scotland’s civil servants.

Another example is the border between Scotland and England which is also a very real issue. Again, it is perfectly manageable – but it’s going to need more than rhetoric.

I also caution that those who are talking blithely about rapidly rejoining the EU need to sit down and do some serious work on what that would look like under current EU accession rules. My personal assessment is that very rapid accession would be painful – as would living under European Central Bank rules during the early years of independence. It needs serious thought.

The National:

These are only some examples. We should have realised long ago that the UK leaving the EU made a 2014-style fudge more or less impossible and that the experience of Brexit will make people cynical about hollow promises of “it’ll be fine, trust us”.

What we certainly can’t have this all sprung on us during a referendum campaign. These are much more serious issues than the “what currency will you use?” question of 2014 and, as you can see, the other side is currently better prepared than we are.

Nor can we afford to spend a whole campaign on the back foot answering these questions. We don’t only need to do the work, we need an education campaign to help the public understand the answers – and we need it before a referendum so we can campaign on a positive vision.

Common Weal has started a lot of this work with How To Start A New Country (which is absolutely not a list of Common Weal policies for an independent Scotland but a “policy-neutral” transition plan). Organisations like the Scottish Independence Convention, the Scottish Currency Group, the Banking and Finance Group and a number of constitution groups have done important work too.

READ MORE: David Pratt: Post-election silence on independence from SNP is deafening

But there is a lot more to do and those who say “it can wait until after independence” need a reality check.

Unless we want a Brexit-style mess, it really, really can’t. If the independence movement is to take itself seriously, it needs to take preparation seriously.

So if you want to judge if an independence referendum is imminent I suggest you don’t look to see if Section 30 Orders are being requested or referendum bills are being debated in the Scottish Parliament. I’d suggest you look to see if a heavyweight panel of experts backed by a proper team with some resources has been set up and tasked to get this work done.

I don’t believe it can be done via the civil service without a Section 30 Order, and it lacks specialist skills. Plus, surely we must avoid the mistake of “a few people in a locked room in secret” this time. It needs to be open and transparent. That’s why we proposed a National Commission.

My conclusion is simple; when you see a National Commission (or something like it) on the job and doing the work, then it makes sense to start talking about an independence referendum.

Until that happens? Enjoy the sunshine.

Robin McAlpine is Head of Strategic Development at Common Weal

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