Melvyn Ingleson, a member of the CSPP board and Chief Executive of MJI Business Solutions, offers his personal view on the Scottish policy debate after the SNP conference in Aberdeen, which he attended as an observer.
And so reads the motto of the Wallace Clan, or was that the adopted motto of the SNP Aberdeen 2015 Conference? Certainly if you overheard the excited commentary from the ardent followers of the SNP at Aberdeen, you might be forgiven for thinking that we were about to embark on a second Battle of Stirling Bridge, a few years on from 1297.
“We come here with no peaceful intent, but ready for battle, determined to avenge our wrongs and set our country free.Let your masters come and attack us: we are ready to meet them beard to beard.”
Certainly a good word to describe the SNP Conference mood would be “feisty.”
However as is often the case there was a more complex mood under the surface. Almost in fact two conferences that had blended together. On the one hand there was an Independence for Scotland Conference. For many attending Conference for the first time as SNP membership has quadrupled to 114,000+ in the last twelve months that was the war cry that they wanted to hear from their Leader. On the other hand there was a Conference that was about developing a manifesto for an Election; give opportunity for delegates to make suggestions as to how Scotland could improve its health services, its education results, sort out its beleaguered single Police force. All positive contributions that could reinforce the SNP’s success at the polls next May, strengthen their grip on the Scottish Parliament.
The party leadership knew some months ago that it could not deliver on the promise of the Independence theme. It had lost the once in a lifetime opportunity to convince a majority of those living in Scotland to vote for Independence. It could offer a second referendum but knew it would be folly to offer a second referendum and lose. Indeed towards the end of conference it was made clear that 60% plus of eligible voters in substantive polls over a minimum of twelve consecutive months had to be in favour of independence before Parliament was asked to approve a second referendum.
So could the party leadership deliver greater clarity for its members on laying the groundwork for the second theme, preparing for a Scottish election? In truth it was unable to do that either. The failure to win the Independence vote has inevitably resulted in a complex and confusing Devolution landscape. Scotland s referendum opened the doors to Devolution across the UK, unleashing unintentionally, from a Scotland perspective, major competitive forces in the form of the great City Regions of England. Inevitably we are now in a horse trading period of tense negotiations on the Devolution settlement for Scotland. However the political strategy of the SNP in the General Election , aimed at destroying the Labour Party in Scotland was such a spectacular success that it helped to return a Conservative majority.
We now have an emboldened Chancellor in particular who has an equal focus on Northern Powerhouses and Midlands Growth Engines, a Mayoral election in the real engine of UK economic growth, Greater London. Scotland is an issue for Westminster politicians for sure, but it’s one of many. I spend my time between the two parliaments and I applaud the discipline shown by the SNP group in Westminster, and their undoubted contribution. However in truth the Scottish settlement within the Fiscal Framework and the final grudging agreement by both sides on the implementation of the Smith Commission findings will be as much about what is given to Manchester, Birmingham and West Yorkshire as it is about what Scotland might ask for.
In truth none of this may matter in the Scottish elections next May. The strength of the SNP party machine and a growing following may result in a greater single party majority, especially if other political parties cannot articulate credible alternatives. Equally the majority of voters who voted NO in the referendum may simply not bother to vote and may prefer to spend their time evaluating exit strategies from Scotland over the medium term. I believe we are already seeing this in the large number of professional young people who voted NO and are now moving their medical, legal and teaching careers out of Scotland, grateful for the Scottish taxpayers support of their studies.
I would argue that what really matters over the next few months is communication of a vision for a better Scotland, communicated by the SNP as the incumbent Government, and open to challenge and amendment by the other parties within Parliament and on the doorstep. A vision for a future Scotland that embraces the hopes and aspirations of those who voted both Yes and No. A vision that is not tainted by the “if only” school of easy politics. For example “if only we had even more powers.” In truth Independence is off the agenda probably for five or more years referendum-wise, until after the next UK General Elections. So let’s all work together to use the current powers and those that are about to be transferred. Let’s have proper debate about what Scotland can afford to provide to its citizens, how we can help business grow the economy and tax take, how we can improve our public services. There was very little real debate about those issues at the SNP Conference and it was an opportunity missed despite the dozens of fringe events. So let the CSPP and others find ways of raising the quality of debate and intelligent contribution from all involved, rather than raising the temperature of the debate.
For indeed, to quote another well-known Scottish figure, we risk a debate “full of sound and fury,
Image: Delegates at the SNP Conference in Aberdeen (Courtesy of Keith Laverack, Common Weal)