By David Torrance
I suppose I run the risk of provoking the Mandy Rice-Davies defence ('well he would say that, wouldn't he?') in saying I found the Scottish Government's white paper underwhelming, but it's nevertheless true. Sure, it's difficult to make any government document truly exciting – even the 1997 Scottish Office white paper ('There shall be a Scottish Parliament') was rather dry and technical.
But then Donald Dewar hadn't predicted it would 'resonate down through the ages', as the First Minister said of Scotland's Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland.
Typical Salmond hyperbole, perhaps, but in raising expectations so high he unwittingly handed his opponents some ammunition. His claim that it was 'the most comprehensive blueprint for an independent country ever published' was also mocked, but to my mind it's perfectly reasonable. I for one can't think of a credible precedent.
Even the Parti Quebecoi, which was responsible for two sovereignty referendums in the Canadian province in 1980 and 1995, produced nothing of comparable length and depth. And it's certainly very detailed. The section setting out 650 questions and answers (taking up nearly half the document) is reasonably effective (though some are unintentionally comical) and an obvious attempt to cover absolutely every base, even down to participation in the Eurovision Song Contest.
But however thorough, in truth Scotland's Future isn't a white paper at all, for white papers are generally statements of legislative intent, and while future legislation is touched upon in its 670 pages, it isn't the document's main concern. Rather it's more of a prospectus – a description Alex Salmond has also used – a statement of intent. There are lots of policy commitments within its pages, mainly old ones with a little more detail, and some new arguments.
But there isn't anything that amounts to a compelling new argument for independence. On Tuesday's launch and in the Scottish Parliament yesterday afternoon, improving childcare was almost presented as that fresh new argument, but while undeniably important it jarred for two reasons: first, the Scottish Government can already do much (if not all) of what it proposed (Salmond argues the cost could only be met under independence, but that is easily contested); secondly, it's a policy commitment rather than a visionary case for sovereignty, and an obvious pitch for the female vote.
Perhaps it will help shift votes in the direction of 'yes', but it didn't feel like a game-changer. Indeed, the policy content of the white paper is sometimes so heavy that it resembles a rough draft of the 2016 SNP manifesto. On one level, this is an incredible blurring of the lines between what an impartial civil service ought to produce and a political party, and on another it probably isn't a bad strategy. If, as some pro-independence supporters privately acknowledge, a 'yes' vote is unlikely next year, then it makes sense to focus on 2016 when the present Scottish Government will be seeking a third term in devolved government.
That election remains eminently winnable for the SNP, for the party is still consistently popular (as is Alex Salmond), which is remarkable considering the length of time it's been in office. But as all the opinion polls demonstrate, independence is considerably less popular than the main party proposing it, a gap that averages around 15 points. And if you include pro-independence supporters in the Labour Party (difficult to quantify, but at least a sizeable minority), Greens and the rather small and fragmented Scottish Left, then that means (and this isn't an exact science) only between half and two thirds of SNP voters actually support independence.
This is only a problem if one is convinced that victory is possible next September. If not – and sometimes I wonder if the SNP isn't playing a longer game – then it makes perfect sense to maximize the chances of victory in 2016 (and let's face it, the Scottish Labour Party is still in no position to offer serious opposition) and also make full use of the new powers coming northwards, not to mention whatever the Unionist parties come up with early next year.
But even that highlights another tension present in the white paper, and that's an economic one. Even setting aside the currency union proposal (Unionists generally over-egg the pudding on this one, although it remains a weakness in the pro-independence case), the general belief permeating its 670 pages is that an independent Scotland (governed by the SNP) would somehow make work an economic model which, at the very least, has been called into doubt since the crisis of 2007/08.
In other words, the belief that tax cuts (chiefly corporation tax) will always produce growth, that the only problem with tax evasion is in the collection (rather than nods and winks from politicians), and that the economy will carry on growing for ever and that only the 'Westminster system' produces volatility. In other words, independent Scottish neoliberalism good, Westminster neoliberalism bad.
That doesn't really stack up, and indeed it's an ever-present irony that the SNP's economic vision for independence chiefly amounts to a better-managed version of the Coalition's economic vision. Think of it as neoliberalism in one country. And indeed all the criticisms above apply equally to UK governments over the past 30+ years, which makes attacking the 'Westminster system' on the one hand, while essentially aping it on the other, well, a bit odd.
It was Keynes who observed that 'practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist'. Alex Salmond is undoubtedly a practical man, but the white paper, which bears the indelible stamp of the Salmondism that has dominated the SNP for almost a quarter of a century, is also the slave of an economic orthodoxy which, if not defunct, is certainly wearing a little thin.
David Torrance is a writer, journalist and broadcaster.
He is also author of 'Salmond - Against The Odds' a biography of Scotland's First Minister
[Newsnet Scotland has great pleasure in announcing our first ever public discussion on independence.
The event on Monday December 2nd will be held in the European Parliament Office, The Tun, 4 Jackson's Entry EH8 8PJ Edinburgh, and will start at 6 pm and end at 8 pm.
Hosted by Dr Mark McNaught, the discussion - which will be filmed - follows on from the publication of the Scottish Government's Independence White Paper.
The event venue seats forty five people and audience participation is actively encouraged. Tickets are free and can be booked by clicking the link below.]