Tom Gordon: Next prospectus for independence will be a sitting duck

IAN Murray is no fool, but he is a wind-up merchant. The Shadow Scottish Secretary enjoys a reputation as a staunch but impish champion of the Union, a reputation that has seen him, uniquely among Labour colleagues, hold on to a Westminster seat in Scotland.

So when the Edinburgh South MP wrote to the UK Cabinet Secretary Simon Case at the weekend asking him to stop civil servants working on a new independence prospectus, it was obvious he did not expect to be taken entirely seriously, but he did want to stir things up.

The prompt was the news that eleven officials on combined pay of £700,000 have been ordered by Scottish ministers to refresh the White Paper of 2013.

This core squad’s “work to prepare an independence prospectus” will also draw in various other officials from across government as and when required.

This, Mr Murray said in his letter to Mr Case, would be “a deeply inappropriate use of public funds” at the best of times, but especially during a cost of living crisis.

That last bit was a dead giveaway that the letter had been written primarily with headlines, not results, in mind.

Although if you’re a Labour politician in Scotland, I suppose a headline is a result.

Regardless of his by-now transparent motives, Mr Murray asked Mr Case “to investigate and rule on the deployment of Scottish Government based civil servants on developing SNP party policy”.

It is, of course, an absurd request.

As not just the SNP, but also some of Mr Murray’s fellow Unionists pointed out, the civil service exists to support ministers and their policies, whatever their flavour.

Consider the alternative.

Would Mr Murray rather have civil servants down tools and refuse to work on policies not to their taste? Should unelected officials be allowed to frustrate, or better still sabotage, the programme of an elected Government?

It would certainly be a new twist on democracy, but it’s hardly desirable. Even Levelling Up is entitled to a slice of the civil service’s time, God help it.

In extremis, if a senior civil servant thinks a policy is a particularly dubious or high-risk use of public money, they can always seek a written direction, forcing a minister to instruct them to proceed regardless, thereby establishing exactly who’s to blame if it all goes wrong.

And it’s not as if Nicola Sturgeon her Indyref2 plan from people when they voted for the SNP. She has a perfect right to try to advance it. As I’ve written before, whether she should is another matter. The UK Government also has a countervailing mandate to block Indyref2 it can cite.

So Mr Murray’s request is a non-starter. But he is also not a fool and not without purpose. In the short-term, he gets to aggravate his opponents and tickle his supporters by doing so.

Longer term, he reminds people the SNP have promised to produce an all-singing all-dancing prospectus on independence, and I think he secretly can’t wait for it come out. Because when it does it will be a sitting duck.

The last prospectus, remember, came out in November 2013, deep into the referendum campaign. Alex Salmond had announced the date eight months earlier.

So the 650-page White Paper was part of a political whirlwind that kept spinning for almost another year. There was always something new to grab the attention.

But if Ms Sturgeon brings out a new prospectus in the absence of Indyref2 – because, as I suspect, the Prime Minister of the day will simply block it – there will be no campaign to hide any shortcomings.

To paraphrase Nye Bevan, she will have sent it naked into the echo chamber.

It will be picked over constantly and without mercy, and there will be no parallel document from the UK side for cover. It will need to be bomb-proof.

Perhaps that is why there has been so little progress on a prospectus to date.

Because many of the issues involved are now a lot more complicated than they were, and the voters, having seen years of grim machinations over Brexit, are more sceptical about easy answers.

Indeed, there is a growing body of academic work on what a new prospectus would have to do differently given the upheaval of Brexit and the climate crisis to name but two examples.

As we report today, UK in a Changing Europe have just issued a paper on the “profound” changes for trade, the economy and the border with England an independent Scotland would face because of the UK leaving the EU, challenges that simply didn’t exist back in 2013.

Gavin McCrone, whose report on Scotland’s oil wealth in the 1970s became a Nationalist touchstone, has just written a book on the multiple implications for independence called After Brexit.

The Herald will soon look at how the debate has moved on too.

But when the Scottish Government will get round to joining in is not at all clear.

Despite lively debate elsewhere, the contribution from the SNP is scant.

Ms Sturgeon, like Mr Murray, knows a new prospectus – even if unused – would be a big test for her Government, a test of its intellectual rigour and its willingness to look problems squarely in the eye.

It has to be tough enough to withstand the attacks it will draw – possibly for years while Indyref2 remains over the horizon.

And even if does, it is entirely possible it will ultimately be junked because of the passage of time, and whoever is leading the SNP when next the stars align will have to order yet another version, as their opponents joke about third time lucky.

And that is even before we consider the Greens. The 2013 prospectus was an SNP only affair. But the Greens being in government with the SNP changes that.

Their deal commits both parties to make the case for Scotland to be independent in the EU, but “recognising each party’s right and duty to set out its own arguments for, and visions of, independence”.

What does that mean in practice? One White Paper? Two? One and a half?

Whatever it portends, it sounds like another layer of complexity and grief that Ms Sturgeon could well do without.

No wonder Mr Murray did what he did.

From almost any angle, a new independence prospectus is going to be a bruise for the Scottish Government, and Unionists are going to keep punching it.

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