THE co-leader of the Greens, Lorna Slater, told this newspaper on Saturday that the SNP/Green government intended to produce a new independence prospectus in advance of another referendum next year.
Last time, the Salmond/Sturgeon duumvirate produced their white paper 10 months before Scots cast their ballots. On a similar timescale, the indy collaborators ought to be laying their egg nine months from now. Does this seem a likely prospect to you? No, me neither.
Since 2014 all the fresh thinking has been done on the pro-union side of the argument. The case for independence has not advanced one jot. Indeed it has gone backwards. The SNP’s pensions meltdown is merely the latest example.
Jim Sillars, the former SNP deputy leader, delivers an uncomfortable truth when he says the nationalist movement is ill-prepared for an independence referendum. Sillars also recognises that the UK Government and the pro-union parties have not been sitting idly on their hands. “In the six wasted years, filled with Indyref2 promises, they have been thinking down south about better ways to save the union…”, he points out.
He’s not wrong. The landscape has changed since 2014 in more ways than the deterioration in the case for independence. The UK Government’s promises to further empower the Scottish Parliament have been kept. Practical co-operation to improve local communities, in the form of a network of city and growth deals, has been rolled out across Scotland. The arrangements to facilitate how the UK Government works jointly with the Scottish Government – and all the other devolved governments – have been reformed by agreement. The new model is edging closer to a form of shared rule, where the responsibilities of each government intersect.
The latest evidence that the UK Government is thinking seriously about how to make the UK work better is the publication of the Levelling Up White Paper.
At over 300 pages, the white paper is a serious piece of work – a real door-stopper. It’s a genuine attempt to translate ‘levelling up’ from an empty slogan into a practical programme of action.
The paper’s ambition reveals itself in a relentless focus on two of the most persistent problems to beset the UK over the last 30 years – regional economic inequality and low productivity. Not all parts of the country have shared equally in economic growth, with divisive results.
The realism comes from a recognition that tackling the issue is complex and the work of years, not weeks and months. Don’t expect to find such candour in any Scottish Government, quick fix, independence prospectus.
Levelling-up’s central insight – based on extensive international experience – is that the UK economy will grow more strongly and faster if it grows more evenly. And it will grow more evenly if decision-making is less concentrated at the centre. That’s why at the heart of the plan is a radical extension of English devolution.
While the white paper’s aims have been widely welcomed, there are worries about deliverability. Doubters on the left argue that to make a difference requires levels of funding, which the Treasury won’t provide. Right-wing sceptics dismiss the prescriptions as socialist interventionism that Gordon Brown would be proud of. Market forces can’t be bucked, they argue.
The doubters miss the point. The white paper is the start of what is intended as a long a journey, not the final destination. It’s not the last word on resourcing. In any case, ‘levelling up’ is as much about more effective local control of public investment, to make resources go further and produce better results. Scottish Government take note.
Neither is the white paper an anti-London and south east prospectus. You don’t strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. The objective is to reduce the country’s over-reliance on its most prosperous parts, by creating in every nation and region complementary magnets, or clusters, for investment and economic activity. The public sector has always played an important role in creating conditions and infrastructure for flourishing markets and businesses.
UK Government documents have often made only token references to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In this white paper the needs of the devolved nations are fully recognised and embedded at the heart of its thinking. The distinct roles and responsibilities of the devolved governments are respected, with an acknowledgement that progress towards levelling up will only be achieved through effective co-operation. This provides an agenda of rich potential for the new Prime Minister and Heads of Devolved Governments Council, and its associated inter-ministerial groups, to pursue.
By comparison the policymaking efforts of the Scottish Government are a barren desert. Granted, there’s been work on a 10-year ‘transformational’ economic plan, promised for last November, and yet to appear. Various explanations for delay are offered. A first draft was reportedly too ‘bland’. Or the plan, using existing powers, mustn’t be described as ‘transformational’ for risk of making independence seem redundant. You couldn’t make it up. Imagine the intellectual somersaults being performed inside St Andrew House to devise a plan that delivers, but not too much.
The whole exercise is anyway a contradiction in terms. How can the Scottish Government offer a stable, long-term economic plan – providing Scottish businesses with the confidence to invest and expand workforces – whilst simultaneously promising to blow it up a few months later, with the bombshell of a half-cocked independence prospectus?
This all highlights the weakness of viewing everything through the prism of Scottish nationalism. The unwillingness to entertain the possibility that drivers of Brexit and Scottish independence may have common roots. That Middlesborough’s or Rochdale’s sense of economic exclusion and alienation is no different from Glasgow’s or Dundee’s. And that solutions equal to the scale of the challenge require co-operation, not separation.
So who are the real change-makers? Those with a serious programme to reform the UK from within? Or those with no credible plan for Scotland outside the UK?
Lord Dunlop was an adviser to former Conservative prime minister David Cameron