The highly-anticipated publication of 'Scotland: A New Case for Optimism' outlines the new economic case for independence but, asks Coree Brown-Swan, it remains to be seen whether this will prompt a constructive debate by Unionists and Nationalists alike about some of Scotland's economic woes.
A new report, Scotland - the new case for optimism issued by the Sustainable Growth Commission has outlined the economic case for independence. The Commission, chaired by former MSP Andrew Wilson, was convened by the SNP in the autumn of 2016, and given a remit to consider what the economy of an independent Scotland might look like. Unlike Scotland’s Future, the Scottish Government’s white paper on independence issued ahead of the 2014 referendum, it is designed as a starting point for debate rather than a roadmap. The party has pledged to hold public discussions throughout the country on these proposals over the coming months, similar in form to the National Conversaiton launched by the SNP minority government in its first term in office.
This format serves several purposes: signalling to ardent yes voters that a referendum is coming, demanding that opposition parties contribute to a debate on Scotland’s constitutional future, and engaging with the public more broadly. By starting conversations rather than jumping into a referendum debate, the party sidesteps criticisms of adding to further uncertainty.
The Commission focused on Scotland’s current and future economic performance. In doing so, it sought to address some of the deficiencies of the 2014 campaign, notably that voters found the economic arguments unconvincing. It sets out proposals for addressing Scotland’s lower levels of productivity, boosting exports, and ensuring economic sustainability. It also tackles the issue of currency, proposing a long-term transitional arrangement (or sterlingisation) followed by an independent Scottish currency. It does so in the context of Brexit, the form of which remains unclear, and the Commission rightly acknowledges the challenges of economic projections in a time of stability, much less in a time of great uncertainty.
The 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union presented both opportunities and challenges for those in favour of Scottish independence. At first glance, it bolstered the case for independence, underlining divergence between Scotland and the UK and undercutting the credibility of unionists who claimed that Scotland’s future within the EU was contingent on a no vote. Nicola Sturgeon’s strong statement on the 24 June 2016 suggested that she would capitalise on this opportunity and polls captured a brief increase in support for independence. However, this increase has not been maintained, perhaps reflecting public opinion as well as the uncertainties around Brexit.
Revisiting Scotland’s Future just five years after its publication, one is struck by just how much things have changed. Many of the 2014 proposals stressed continuity and continued ties with the rest of the United Kingdom. Alex Salmond spoke of the maintenance of the monarchical, currency, and social union, dissolving only the political union. However, this argument in favour of continuity was contingent on continued membership of the EU for both an independent Scotland and the United Kingdom. It also failed to adequately acknowledge the ways in which an independent Scotland would be restrained by such arrangements. A proposal for independence post-Brexit would likely look very different and one of the strengths of this report is its reasoned approach to these issues.
The report is optimistic in tone – stressing Scotland’s potential - potential that has not been realised under the UK’s economic model which restricts migration, hinders productivity, and thwarts efforts to redress economic inequalities. But it also acknowledges challenges facing Scotland and some of the missteps of the 2014 campaign including an overreliance on North Sea oil in economic projections.
Given the remit of the Commission’s work, other thorny issues which defined the 2014 debate – EU membership, movement within the United Kingdom, and the feasibility of coordination and shared services – are not addressed. However, these remain resonant and will have to be answered in the months and years to come.
The Commission Chair Andrew Wilson described the report as ‘a considered and elevating contribution to the debate’ and it appears to have achieved the goals set out by the party and its participants. But is it enough? Ultimately, the proposals represent an important contribution to the debate but may elicit more questions than answers for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. Are the quite technical discussions present in this report sufficient to satisfy the demands of the party’s newest members and ardent yes voters, who are anxious for decisive action? Will the tens of thousands of yes supporters who rallied in Glasgow in May find this resonant? For undecided or no voters, will this more realistic economic picture hearten them or worry them further? Can this jumpstart a debate about Scotland’s constitutional future, whether within or outwith the union or will we return to the competing knowledge claims of ‘yes, we can!’ and ‘no, we can’t’ that characterised the 2014 campaign.