Dr Thomas Lundberg, Lecturer (Politics), University of Glasgow
The Scottish Government has published its long-awaited White Paper, Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland. The paper sets out the Scottish National Party’s aspirations for an independent Scotland by enhancing democracy, prosperity and fairness, though critics have already claimed that many of these aspirations are questionable, if not outright unattainable.
Indeed, while acting as a blueprint for what would be a starting point for an independent Scotland, the White Paper supplies a great deal of ammunition to those who oppose independence. Nevertheless, the paper does succeed in collecting the SNP’s statements and positions over a long period of time, putting them all together in one place. The party must hope that this document will sway public opinion, currently sceptical or hostile, towards a ‘yes’.
The ‘yes’ campaign needs to focus on undecided and ‘soft no’ voters. Focus group studies have shown that undecided voters are more likely to swing to the ‘yes’ position after hearing both sides of the debate, so the ‘yes’ campaign must capture nearly all of these people, plus convert a number of people currently opposed to independence. Furthermore, those who don’t have a strong sense of Unionist identity or loyalty may be more open to the potential for being economically better off in an independent Scotland; surveys have shown that if people could be convinced that they would be £500 a year better off after independence, there is a big increase in support for independence. The SNP’s promise of free childcare is worth far more than £500 a year to many families.
The one SNP policy that perhaps most undermines the case for a ‘yes’ vote, however, could be the desire to create a Sterling currency zone that would include Scottish membership. This plan appears quite presumptuous – the UK Government might not agree to a Scottish place on the Bank of England’s governing board, despite the Scottish Government’s claims that it would be in the rest of the UK’s interests to retain an independent Scotland in the Sterling Zone. Because Scotland would be leaving important aspects of its macroeconomic policy in the hands of the UK, this proposal appears to undermine the SNP’s case for independence. A separate currency, perhaps initially linked to Sterling via a peg that would be managed by a currency board that could later alter the peg, would seem to be more consistent with Scottish independence. Other assumptions, such as the seamless continuation of European Union and NATO membership, appear optimistic, though not completely unrealistic in view of Scotland’s wealth and strategic North Atlantic location.
Aside from making a positive case for Scottish independence, the ‘yes’ campaign will need to make the negative case for remaining in the UK. There has been some attempt to portray the UK (particularly under the current Conservative-led coalition government) as a low-quality democracy that is insensitive to Scotland’s needs, with the promise of more spending cuts to come and the possibility of changes to the finance of devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Any change towards a needs-based system will hurt Scotland, which is better off than any region of the UK apart from the English regions of the East, South East and London.
Reactions from the rest of the UK to any Scottish complaints after a ‘no’ vote will call for the Scottish Parliament to use its powers to raise personal income tax rates to make up for any funding shortfall. Scots enjoy ‘freebies’ that English people do not get (such as prescriptions, home care for the elderly, and university tuition fees), so there is no sympathy ‘down south’ for what will be seen as whingeing from those with a highly developed sense of entitlement. The ‘yes’ campaign will need to show how England is more open to a greater role for private sector involvement in public services, as well as more accepting of public spending cuts. This neoliberal label might also be applied by ‘yes’ campaigners to Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, who has criticised the SNP’s universal approach to public services, though her party does not appear to have resolved its policy here and is awaiting the outcome of what critics call its ‘cuts commission’. Outflanked by the SNP on the left, Scottish Labour faces a major challenge to retain its traditional voters, regardless of the result of next year’s referendum.
The SNP, widely seen as competent in government regardless of one’s views on independence, will try to capitalise on the trust it has earned through its performance over the years since 2007. It will need to work with the Greens, Scottish Socialists, the Radical Independence Campaign and others who are less cautious about the kind of independent Scotland they want. While supporters of independence are diverse, they are no more divided than those who oppose independence – Labour and the Tories are already uneasy bedfellows on this issue and have not proposed any significant changes in devolution, perhaps because any changes with a big impact on how the UK as a whole operates are unlikely ever to be enacted in such a highly centralised country – it would be ‘the tail wagging the dog’. The ‘yes’ campaign’s best bet may be to dispel what seems to be the desire of most Scots – some form of highly autonomous home rule or ‘devo max’ – as a myth and persuade Scots to support independence as the only way to get the kind of Scotland they want.