by Dale Street, Socialism First
Back in July of this year a senior aide to SNP First Minister Alex Salmond briefed the media that Salmond “would not object to the term ‘independence-lite’ as a description of what was on offer at next year’s referendum.”
Last week’s publication of the SNP government’s White Paper “Scotland’s Future – Your Guide to an Independent Scotland” demonstrated that, for once, Salmond was as good as his word.
The Queen will remain Head of State. Scotland will remain a member of the European Union. Scotland will remain a member of Nato. And the pound sterling will remain the currency.
Just for good measure, all the BBC’s output will still be screened in Scotland, passports will still be the same colour and format as British ones (except, obviously, for the word “Scottish” on the cover), and National Lottery tickets will still be on sale, with Scotland receiving its “fair share” of funding.
In other words, the 650-page White Paper was simply a very wordy version of Salmond’s recent discovery that an independent Scotland will maintain five of the six existing ‘unions’ with the UK.
Although the political union, created by the Treaty of Union of 1707, would be ended, the five other ‘unions’ would remain: European Union, currency union, Union of the Crowns of 1603, defence union (i.e. NATO), and a social union.
(An example of the “social union” as understood by Salmond, is: “People in England will still cheer Andy Murray, and people in Scotland will still support the Lions at rugby.”)
The reason for the SNP’s emphasis on how little would change in an independent Scotland is that most people in Scotland don’t want independence.
Opinion polls consistently show a 60% to 40% split against independence amongst those who have a definite opinion, with around 15% of the total electorate undecided.
In order to try to construct a majority for independence, the SNP’s chosen tactic is to argue that life under independence will not be much different from life now.
As numerous political writers have put it, it is an attempt to change the question from “Why independence?” to “Why not independence?” Clearly, over the next ten months the “Braveheart” metaphor is going to be noticeable for its absence
Of course, things will not be entirely the same in an independent Scotland. But insofar as there is any change, then, according to the White Paper, it will all be for the better.
The bedroom tax – mentioned 37 times in the White Paper – will be scrapped. Royal Mail will be renationalised. The National Minimum Wage will increase at least in line with inflation. The state pension age may (or may not?) be lower than in the remainder UK (RUK).
Trident will be scrapped by 2020. Children aged three and four will be guaranteed 1,140 hours of free childcare. Energy bills will be cut. Pensions and mortgages will be unaffected, and there will be no increase in general taxation.
Corporation tax will be cut by up to 3%. Air Passenger Duty will be cut by 50%, prior to its eventual abolition. A Scottish Broadcasting Service will be set up. And for those worried about ‘defence’, there will be a Scottish security and intelligence service plus a Scottish Defence Force with an annual budget of £2.5 billions.
In an independent Scotland Scots will be £600 a year better off on average, according to the White Paper.
The fact that the White Paper doubles up as an SNP election manifesto –implementation of any or all of these policies would be a matter for the government of an independent Scotland – is another example of how the SNP hopes to win a majority for independence without really talking about … independence.
The raft of policies contained in the White Paper diverts attention away from the core question of independence – i.e. the relationship between the people of Scotland and the rest of the people of the UK – and replaces it with a hotchpotch of electoral bribes.
The party of independence for Scotland is so fearful of trying to argue the case for independence that it wants to run the independence referendum as if it were just another Holyrood general election.
And many of the electoral bribes are not as attractive as they might seem as first sight.
Trident will go. But there will be a ‘don’t ask – don’t tell’ policy on visits to Scottish ports by NATO-country ships carrying nuclear weapons. And the billions saved on weapons of mass destruction is to be spent instead on weapons and military forces of modest destruction.
There will be no nukes on Scottish soil – but plenty in Scottish waters.
The cut in corporation tax means a race to the bottom as an independent Scotland tries to attract foreign investors. It’s good that the National Minimum Wage will rise in line with inflation – a much higher proportion of the workforce is likely to be dependent on it.
The promise to cut energy bills turns out to be a promise to transfer responsibility for spending on increasing domestic energy efficiency from the power companies to the Scottish government.
Out of the well-known goodness of their hearts, the power companies will then supposedly pass these savings on to consumers by cutting their bills. (And surely the power companies already make enough money without being in need of what amounts to a public subsidy?)
An SNP government will scrap the bedroom tax in 2016 – but in the meantime it is failing to provide local authorities with sufficient funds to meet the demand for Discretionary Housing Payments.
An SNP government will also extend free childcare to three and four-year-olds in 2016 – but the SNP has the power to do that right now. Questioned about why it was not doing so, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon explained:
If we did that now, then the revenues would flow straight to the UK Treasury rather than staying here in Scotland to help us fund that policy, to help us support that properly. That is why we need the full powers of independence.
In simpler terms: People going out to work as a result of the expansion of childcare would pay taxes. Right now, those taxes, unsurprisingly, go to the UK Treasury. But, for the SNP, it’s better to have less childcare (and less employment) than to have more money going to the Treasury.
By that ‘logic’: Until the arrival of independence mass unemployment would be a great deal for Scotland – the unemployed would pay nothing in taxes to the UK Treasury, but the UK Treasury would pay out billions in welfare benefits.
(The issue of expanding childcare looms particularly large in the White Paper and its presentation. This is because women are one of the groups most resistant to supporting independence. Hence the inclusion of a specific election bribe targeted at women in a White Paper about independence.)
In responding to publication of the White Paper/SNP election manifesto the thrust of criticism in the media and from the cross-party Better Together campaign was that the White Paper was a contradictory wish-list in which the sums did not add up.
They had a point.
It would not be up to Scotland alone, for example, to decide whether there would be a currency union with the RUK or ongoing membership of the EU.
But the White Paper simply assumes that, despite statements to the contrary from both the UK government and the EU Commission, the rest of the world (plus the BBC and the National Lottery) will carry out the SNP’s policies.
And some weighty academic research has also repeatedly concluded that the SNP’s assumptions about the income of an independent Scotland are unrealistic. “The Times”, for example, singled out:
The questionable assumption that between 2011-12 and 2016-17 onshore tax revenues would grow by 23%, a stellar performance compared with the preceding five years, when they grew by only 3%.
Less than consistently, the SNP argues that a currency union would be “common sense” because economic cycles in Scotland are much the same as in the UK as a whole.
So much for the longstanding SNP argument that independence is needed because Scottish economic cycles diverge from those in the rest of the UK, but Westminster governments consistently adopt policy in response to UK, not Scottish, economic cycles.
Promises such as scrapping Air Passenger Duty and the reliance on oil production to fund spending also sit uneasily against promises of a more environmentally friendly independent Scotland.
But much of the media and Better Together criticism of the White Paper is only a mirror image of the SNP’s politics. While the latter promise everything in an independent Scotland, the former predict only doom and gloom.
Neither side in the debate links the issue of Scotland’s constitutional status to basic questions about a root-and-branch attack on the social and economic inequalities and the environmental destruction inherent in all capitalist states.
The best that the SNP can offer is a vision of a slightly ‘fairer’ society, albeit one funded through attracting multinationals by tax cuts and increased income from non-renewable sources of energy.
The mainstream campaign for a ‘No’ vote does not even go that far.
They do not present the constitutional status quo (or increased devolution, which is what most Scots support) as a ‘better’ way to achieve social change. They run an essentially conservative campaign based on little more than scaremongering.
In theory, the Better Together campaign could argue for the status quo (or increased devolution) on the basis that a Westminster government could use the resources of the larger unit of the British state to redistribute wealth and power in order to create a fairer society.
In fact, because the campaign is an alliance between a latter-day Scottish brand of New Labour, Lib-Dems and the Tories, it is inherently incapable of promoting a pro-union case which challenges inequalities and injustice.
Over the next ten months socialists need to intervene in the ‘constitutional debate’ (which the SNP wants to reduce to an extended general election campaign) from a class perspective.
For socialists, the ‘social union’ that counts is not one that revolves around tennis players and rugby teams but the existence of an integrated labour movement (notwithstanding the independent status of the STUC) based on a free and voluntary association of organised labour in the constituent elements of the UK.
The ‘social union’ which counts is one based on the class interests, values and political attitudes which are shared by workers in Scotland and the rest of the UK: 63% of people in England agree with the statement “there is one law for the rich and one for the poor”, as do 61% of people in Scotland.
But for both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns the labour movement is just so much voting fodder. Its only role in politics is to be either electorally bribed into a vote for independence-lite or scaremongered into a vote for the status quo.
What is needed, and long overdue, is a campaign which challenges the politics of the mainstream ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns and counterposes united labour movement mobilisation to the sterility of the current referendum ‘debate’.