The SNP's slow route to building independence with an image of the author Richard Parry, Honororay Fellow, University of Edinburgh, and an image of an arrow pointing to a question mark and then diverging.

The SNP’s slow route to building independence

By Richard Parry

Through its leadership traumas the SNP has to navigate difficult waters where the congruity of independence supporters and SNP supporters has weakened. It cannot progress a second independence referendum on its own and the party’s aim of renewing its mandate at the UK general election is in doubt. Labour sees chances of surpassing the SNP in seats and votes just as the SNP did to them at the 2007 Holyrood election. 

The Scottish Government under Humza Yousaf’s brief and unsuccessful leadership maintained some momentum on independence by issuing nine further instalments of their series ‘Building a New Scotland’ between June 2023 and March 2024. Two issues arise with these documents. The first is whether they should have been produced at all. Opposition parties seized on the fact that ‘Minister for Independence’ Jamie Hepburn was backed by a ‘Constitutional Futures’ unit and contend that advice on the reserved function of the Union is an impermissible use of officials who are part of the Home Civil Service. The first three papers predated the Supreme Court’s decision in November 2022, requested by the Scottish Government, that the calling of a referendum on independence was a reserved responsibility. On one reading that decision should have put a stop to independence scenario planning. A fair reflection of the unionist position can be found in the discussion after Labour’s Lord Foulkes asked a parliamentary question on devolved authorities on 5 February 2024

This theme has been picked up by a UK Government emboldened by its recent court victories on independence referendums and gender recognition. It told the House of Lords Constitution Committee on 24 January 2024 that ‘the Government recognises the strength of the argument that further guidance to tighten up best practice is required and is in the process of considering how such guidance would support civil servants working in the devolved administrations on areas that may relate to reserved matters, and helping ensure the Civil Service Code is always maintained’ (para 60). 

We can note a reluctance to land devolved colleagues in trouble with their ministers to whom the Code requires them to give exclusive loyalty. It is not clear that ‘support’ or ‘guidance’ is needed nor how it would be expressed. Using the managerial framework of Home Civil Service to impose any kind of duty on Scottish officials not to assist ministers on certain issues would surely be more problematic for the civil servants than anything happening at present. Even for unionists, there may be advantages in documents and action on reserved matters being produced under civil service advice. Devolved powers can only be fully appraised in terms of their adequacy compared with independence (which itself would embody constraints on freedom of action). 

The second issue is the content of the papers. They weigh in at a total of 778 pages, compared with the 649 of the 2013 prospectus Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland. They are also more evidence-based, with many tables and footnotes. The common theme is that of the potential of small nations in the European Union. The EU paper (no 7, November 2023) asserts that ‘Scotland is well-placed to move through the accession process quickly’ (p50) but this downplays the present logjam on EU expansion, with western Balkan states accepted as candidates but no clear path to admission. The ‘marine’ paper (no 8, November 2023) is also EU-dominated; it notes that the Common Fisheries Policy is ‘historically challenging’ for Scotland (p29) but rejects (p27) Norway’s status outside it in the European Economic Area. The papers make much of the Common Travel Area around Britain and Ireland, but in practice the present intensity of Scottish ties to the UK market would make alignment with the EU a complex negotiation.  

The ‘economic’ papers (no 1, June 2022 and no 3, October 2022) demonstrate that small nations can be successful, but for a Denmark or a Finland to attain their present prosperity has taken decades of nation-building. No 3 has useful detail (p35-42) on how a Scottish pound might be set up - an important change from 2013 when the permanent retention of sterling was envisaged - but again there is no engagement with joining the Euro. The vexed question of nuclear weapons in an independent Scotland is covered in familiar SNP terms in no 11 (March 2024), which also offers (fig 1) a map of possible Scottish embassies, unlike Ireland not including a presence in all EU countries.

Other papers cover the constitution and institution-building (no 2, July 2022 and no 4, June 2023) and the related areas of citizenship (no 5, July 2023) and migration (no 7, November 2023). They express the liberal, progressive ethos of most Scottish political opinion. The concept is of an interim constitution and then a Constitutional Convention to draft a permanent one to be approved by referendum. The experience of Chile, which rejected two drafts in 2022 and 2023, is not encouraging, and it is not clear whether a newly-independent Scotland could avoid distinct referendums on two questions normally settled in this way – the monarchy and EU membership.

A final group of papers relate to sectors already having significant devolved policy scope. Social security (no 9, December 2023) addresses the under-discussed area of how Scotland has already carved out distinctive policy and delivery on parts of disability and child benefits and could do much more with the 79% of spending now reserved (figure 1). Culture (no 10, February 2024) and education (no 12, March 2024) struggle to explain what more could be done under independence than has been attempted with the present extensive devolved powers. 

Taken together, the papers surely make the case for civil service involvement in policy planning by pro-independence ministers. Naturally they are partial to government views and aspirations, but they do relate to data and evidence and embody research effort. Setting out the agenda for discussion can be as important as presenting conclusions. The electorate will be able to cast its verdict on 17 and counting years of SNP government at the next Holyrood elections, but for the UK to use up political capital to challenge the use of Scottish civil servants’ time before that would be unwise and probably futile.