By Tommy Sheppard MP
Four elections and a referendum: It’s been a helluva five years. With the new SNP Government now sworn in the party can at last move off a permanent war footing. It’s time to take stock, re-group and plan.
And what a change in the political terrain has taken place. The Labour heartlands are no more. Once the party of the working class, Labour is now only capable of clinging on to constituencies that contain a substantial liberal middle class committed to voting tactically to keep the SNP out. And the SNP, although still able to straddle the class divide in its appeal, is now without doubt the political representative of central Scotland’s working class communities.
The turbulence of the referendum has settled to create a new political schism in Scotland. Where once the battles between left and right and between nationalist and unionist had separate, if inter-related, narratives, now they have almost completely overlapped. Scotland is now politically aligned with a left of centre majority espousing the road to independence and a right-of-centre opposition eulogising the Union.
Support for public services, the fight for equality and a fair redistributive tax system are now synonymous with self-government, whereas low taxes, public spending cuts and inequality are identified with Unionism. That’s a split I like; because that’s a battle we can win.
The first consequence of this new political reality is that Labour have not yet hit bottom. In the Venn diagram of contemporary Scottish politics the overlap between Unionism and socialism is smaller than ever and if Labour cannot, or will not, break out of that space it has further still to fall. It isn’t enough to say the constitution is a distraction. In the contest between a left of centre Scottish Government pursuing social democratic objectives and a Conservative and Unionist Party trying to stop them, sides will have to be taken.
We now have a situation where the SNP has convincingly won every electoral contest in recent times commanding the support of up to half of the electorate and yet it’s central proposition of Scotland becoming an independent country was rejected just 21 months ago.
The Tory claims that the Scottish Government does not have a mandate to ask people about their own independence again are nonsense. The SNP were elected saying that in certain circumstances there could and should be a second referendum. But unless things change there’s little point asking the same question only to get the same answer.
Sometimes things change in spite of our best endeavours. And sometimes we have to make our own history. That’s what this summer’s launch of a new campaign for independence is all about. Changing the terrain, moving support for independence from 45 to over 60 percent.
It would be wrong to think of this as a single event. It has to be a multi-faceted process, reaching out and engaging with those who voted no last time. There will be some who we will never convince, whose minds will be closed to dialogue, but they are the minority. There are a great number of people who voted No but could be described as i-curious. It wasn’t that they would never consider the idea but the time wasn’t right. They worried that we couldn’t afford it, or that others would sabotage the endeavour. These are our audience.
Part of this exercise needs to be introspective. Whilst I’d hate to see us just talking to ourselves it’s right to take time to look at what we can learn from the experience of 2014. We need to revise the offer – partly because there might be better ways of putting it, but also because the world has changed.
Major policies need to be revisited. Is it credible to argue for a sterling zone when the biggest player says no? Maybe it is, maybe bluffs need to be called. But maybe we need a better plan B, the existence of which might well make the UK exchequer take a different view anyway.
And we need a new energy policy centred on making Scotland Europe’s renewables capital. It was the No campaign who claimed Scotland’s independence was predicated on the barrel price of oil. It never was and it’ll be even less so next time round.
Perhaps most of all we need to tackle the slur of separatism. This was used by our opponents to suggest that Scottish independence was a desire for isolation, building barriers between the peoples of these islands, crudely suggesting that xenophobia was at its heart. The Yes campaign countered these arguments but we failed to reach enough people and the dirt stuck.
Central to our next campaign should be the argument that independence far from separating Scotland from the rest of Britain, or the world, is our route to participation in it. This is the means by which we can practice real solidarity with people elsewhere on the planet. In fact it is the Union, and the constant requirement to communicate with the world through the prism of London, which keeps us separate and denies our potential contribution to the world.
We also need to examine the entire area of economic equality and public services. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, we need to distinguish between powers and the political choice to use them. It’s a tricky one. I, for example, don’t have a problem with having Scandinavian levels of tax to fund Scandinavian levels of public services. I’d like to see the public realm account for closer to 40% of GDP than the 35% it does at the moment. But, I wouldn’t make that a pre-condition to voting for independence. It’s the right to choose that’s important here – not what we might do with it.
In areas like this the actual administration of devolved powers can be used to illustrate their shortcomings and why, rather than piecemeal devolution, independence is a better way of government. For example we know that the ability to increase income tax rates for the super-rich is a con as they can simply pay themselves a different way. So unless we have control over the taxation of all income, including dividends, then we really have control over very little. Now, there may or may not be a majority for implementing a 50% tax rate, but I think the choice ought to be available to the Scottish Government if it so chooses. And so independence is the answer to one of the many inadequacies of the current Scotland Act.
The demographics are with us in this journey. One of the most important groups of people who rejected independence were the over 60s. They were the children of the 1945 Labour government. They saw the creation of the NHS. They were beneficiaries of the Wilson expansion of education. For many the Union had a positive balance sheet with their own experience trumping Thatcher’s cuts and Blair’s illegal wars. But time moves on. Memories fade, people die. The next time the question is asked the negatives of the Union will outweigh the positives for more people.
All of these topics need discussed with the vast array of organisations and experienced people who have a stake in them. In the process we may improve our plans and win support at the same time. It means the SNP understanding that it is leading something bigger than itself and being prepared to engage with those outside its ranks. Structures can be loose and timescales flexible, it is the process of reaching out that is the most important.
Paradoxically, a renewed debate on what independence means and how to get it could also energise the party itself. Around 100,000 people have joined the SNP since, and mostly because of, the referendum. They are a tremendous resource. Their expertise, knowledge and wisdom can be harnessed by the party to shape a prospectus practically rooted in experience and garnished with collective ambition.
Remember how you felt in the summer of 2014. When it looked like we could win. When because independence was possible, everything was possible.
Remember the creativity, the excitement, the energy, the ideas? Well, now’s the time to harness that again.
Now there’s somewhere for it to go that’s not just about winning elections, but drawing up a plan to change the world.
Tommy Sheppard is the SNP MP for Edinburgh East
This article first appeared on his personal blog
It is reproduced here with kind permission