The paradoxes of Scottish politics, the SNP and two different political unions

The paradoxes of Scottish politics, the SNP and two different political unions

Scottish politics is nothing if not pugnacious. It boils with a fervency not often recognised in the rest of the UK.  That turmoil is largely the result of a nest of paradoxes driving contemporary debate.

The 2014 independence referendum in Scotland was quickly replaced by a “neverendum” focusing on the central figure of Nicola Sturgeon as a new champion for independence. It was felt that she performed well during the General Election when the SNP wiped out its Westminster opponents, offering further potential to the prospect of autonomy. However for many, today, she is also increasingly a Marmite figure; her approval ratings are slipping and she walks a difficult line between the responsibilities of a minority government and the eager aspirations of secessionists.

SNP dominance at Westminster ensured that the independence issue remains a permanent focus. Personality politics demands a continuous monitoring of her stance on the prospect.  Then the Brexit vote brought a new pathway; “a material change in circumstances” that now appears to have triggered what is known locally as “indeyref2”. Ms Sturgeon’s announcement of a Referendum Bill at the SNP conference keeps the issue on the boil. The flag-waving of what are known as “The 45” – the 45% who voted “Yes” in 2014, has to be kept alive.

So Scotland lives with the paradox of a prior vote to remain in the Union and the claim that the recent EU vote being opposite to that of England and Wales is a reason to go independent and stay within the EU.

This of course raises a second paradox as to whether such a route is possible, or would Scotland vote itself into limbo out of both the UK and the EU. It would then be faced with the paradox of applying to re-join another Union.  Even more confusing is that groundwork has been done on the issue of a Scottish currency following independence, to counter what is now seen as a killer blow in 2014 when the UK said an independent Scotland could not use the pound.  Again, paradoxically, it has been pointed out that if Scotland stayed in the EU it would be likely that it would be forced to adopt the euro.

A nation administered by a secessionist party has to live in this nest of strangeness. Despite Ms Sturgeon’s claim that she wants to serve all of Scotland, everything has to be seen through the lens of independence and the levers that can be found to achieve that. Her new Referendum Bill is a direct challenge to Westminster; through it, the SNP are seeking more levers, but they know they need to avoid jumping to another referendum too soon.

Why? Because they have to live with another paradox; that the SNP voters from the council estates of the West of Scotland include 300,000 who voted Leave in June, while the Remainers can be found largely in the doucer parts of Edinburgh and Glasgow where the corporatists, academics and public sector staff reside. Those people tend not to vote for her; many preferring to be Unionists.  It is doubtful, and the SNP know this, that an indyref2 levering on a desire to remain in the EU can be won.

While the politics are complicated, a much larger paradox for an economic liberal is that the public policy choices being seen as in the best interests of Scotland are precisely the wrong choices to achieve the aims of the SNP for a vibrant, self-confident nation with growth prospects.

In a speech to the Resolution Foundation during the EU referendum, Ms Sturgeon made her view clear on her wish to benefit from membership of the EU family of nations (code for access to strategic and regional funding from the EU to peripheral regions and Keynesian derived state corporatism) and not allowing a falling away of the social chapter provisions (code for continuing the hugely cosy relationship in Scotland between big labour, big bureaucracies and aspirational but empty policies aimed at an ill-defined agenda seeking “fairness and equality”).

Sadly, there is zero recognition of the huge opportunity of Brexit to allow trade freedom to generate new growth from competing globally as opposed to the appalling record of the protectionist EU in increasing its global share of world trade or even finding any significant new trade agreements. For Scotland as a nation with historic and contemporary trading advantages – Alex Salmond once said that there are thirty six million people worldwide who claim Scottish heritage – the obvious course is to join in as a global tribe with one of the strongest global brands and go for a massive trade boost by being good at what we do.

Think whisky and high quality food exports, but also think world-beating companies in quality engineering, investment management and life sciences, all of which are based on core overheads lower than many in Europe and the US and the intangible but invaluable asset in Scotland of having the mental space to be innovative and creative.  Many would also point to Scotland being a beneficiary of UK-wide supply chains that support Scottish innovation and enterprise – an argument that can be broadened by those Brexiteers championing the benefits of global free-trade as echoing precisely the international competitive environment needed to generate new knowledge and wealth for all.

Such arguments of course are rejected by the corporate managerialists of the Scottish Government and its advisers from academe. They live in a Keynesian world where the state is the economy, and where good people doing good things with taxpayers’ money produce good results; with the proviso that they are the good people – earning fine sums from the public purse and developing statist strategies in cahoots with the civil servants who administer those.  The EU is a comfortable cabal for these elites who say they can design a better world using the elite skills of the state. The tendency for the SNP to be centralising and controlling within this regime is an often mentioned feature of Scottish political and economic life.

Scottish political fervour is all about control, not policies; there are few, and governance is done by aspiration, but of an electorate purchased from the public purse. Seeking Independence and denying Brexit are horribly entangled in the public choices generated by this atmosphere. One outcome; the Scottish economy already appears to be suffering lower growth and reduced investment. You have to wonder if these latest secessionist manoeuvres may be overtaken by economic reality – the economy matters and fervour can make you stupid.

One final paradox comes to mind in this. For many years Scotland has lamented the “branch office” syndrome in Scottish industry; the larger corporates, often American, which are enticed to Scotland by skills grants or other inward investment bungs, stay for some years and then suddenly up sticks and disappear, usually as part of a global restructuring, leaving a trail of broken careers and unemployed factory workers.

As, first, Hong Kong and later most of Asia has shown us, the way to avoid these tragedies is to adopt a stance that allows indigenous small companies to become big.  That means rejecting state corporatism and adopting liberality through minimal regulation, eschewing central planning and maximising knowledge and innovation through competition. In getting big, those companies generate vast numbers of new jobs; commonly with enhanced wage rates in the new technical industries that digitisation is creating, and especially when locally trained graduates – of which Scotland today exports a surplus – are employed.

How contrary that Scotland, with its gut instinct to be stubbornly independent, wealthy and free, should adopt policy choices that offer the precise opposite.