Many were struck by the low key nature of the SNP spring conference and indeed Alex Salmond’s performance was notably poor: lifeless, read from a (lame) script. Overall, it was in no way the celebration for which the gathered faithful had prepared themselves.
It was then left to Nicola Sturgeon to salvage the weekend, in which she was partly successful, although her peroration relied heavily on quoting the case of Norway. That this was popular with the SNP audience was about as unpredictable as a Stones encore of Brown Sugar going down a storm, and further suggests that the independence debate has reached a watershed.
If so, however, this applies on both sides of the argument.
On the nationalist side, a great deal of the anti-climax was due to the build-up before event. No-one can doubt that for some of the SNP, the achievement of a referendum in itself is the culmination of a lifetime’s work. For most of us it would not be “the greatest day of our lives” – my own choice would rather be my wedding day, Portsmouth winning the FA Cup in my lifetime and New Labour’s victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005.
Anyone who watches bad films knows that point in the script where the hero (or more likely, heroine) says “this is this best day of my life” and it is – from then on, it is downhill all the way. It is now the job of the No campaign to make sure that this process accelerates.
A good start will be to demand that every time the SNP cites Norway as an example of what they wish Scotland to be like, they are challenged to set out exactly how high tax levels will be to support a comparable level of services. (Likewise, if Sweden is the case they quote, they need to be made to acknowledge that the Swedish model has now embraced privatisation of their NHS and of former state-owned enterprises, or the fact that closed labour markets mean that immigrants take on average 6 years to enter employment.)
There was also a further and more dishonest strand as the SNP sought to raise their spirits in Inverness, and one which has its roots in their residual contempt for devolution. This was the deliberate downplaying of the powers available to the Scottish government in key policy areas, namely the Bedroom Tax and childcare provision.
In the case of the Bedroom Tax, the conference was rightly very heavy on its iniquity but notably light on any intent on the part of the Scottish Government and Parliament to do something about it. Above all, a pledge to even consider an amendment to Section 16 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 would have been of more use to forthcoming victims of the Tax. The fact that the amendment is known to the SNP indicates that the Scottish Government is deliberately avoiding using the powers vested in it since 1999.
Further confirmation of the SNP’s underuse of Holyrood’s powers comes from its position on childcare. Alex Salmond was eager to offer a continental standard of childcare and less keen to do so before independence. But his government has the powers to introduce these services before the Referendum date – again, there is a planned unwillingness to use devolution to its maximum.
Instead, any currently unsatisfactory situation is presented as the fault of the continuing union with England.
Following the publication of the Independence Referendum Act, and the announcement of its date, it will be interesting to see how the two sides rise to the challenge of the next stage of the debate.
The SNP’s leadership of the Yes campaign – as shown at Inverness – is not promising, relying on the hackneyed trope of “Norway does better because it left Sweden in 1905” and talking down the devolution settlement. It is quite straightforward for the No campaign to see off these arguments.
First, we can continue to point out that Scandinavian services need Scandinavian taxation levels, which there is no evidence that the people of Scotland wish to pay (unfortunately).
Indeed, a long memory will recall that the Thatcher government introduced the Poll Tax in Scotland early at the behest of Tory MPs running scared at the prospect of a ratepayers’ revolt, i.e., people outraged at the prospect of paying more tax.
The economic perils of a small country relying on a small number of sectors are also shown by the “arc of insolvency” countries plus the more topical example of Cyprus. The argument regarding national wealth will continue (and will depend on fluctuating oil prices), but the people of Scotland also deserve to know how much independence will cost them personally.
A further element of this debate is the exposure of the SNP’s position as the fools’ paradise that it is: “free” elderly care and “free” university tuition are simply not sustainable. In the first case, it is probably inevitable that it will mean more taxation somewhere along the line; and in the second, we already see that it is maintained at the cost of FE places and students, and indeed of more progressive early years provision.
Secondly, the No campaign must continue to demonstrate the benefits of devolution – and the SNP’s deliberate strategy of under-using and under-valuing Holyrood and its powers.
These examples of the Bedroom Tax and childcare possible are particularly clear, but there is a need for the No campaign to point to the negative campaign of the SNP and its costs in lost opportunities. Above all, we must continue to confirm the values of devolution as the best of both worlds, and point out that independence would sacrifice devolution’s benefits for a future which is uncertain in everything except its cost.
In short, the referendum argument is there for the No campaign to lose, and it may be that history shows that it was March 2013 when the Yes campaign began to run out of steam. However, it will be a sore disservice to the people of Scotland and the UK if the No campaign does not lead this process by turning the heat up at this critical moment.