As Alex Salmond launched the white paper this week, he proclaimed that it was a “mission statement and a prospectus for the kind of country we should be and which this government believes we can be.”
Now, I am a self-confessed constitutional politics geek. One of the things that drew me into politics as a teenager in the early nineties was Charter 88 and the movement for a written constitution. I also became fascinated by development of the EU structures and the supra-national institutions that were developing. So I should be in seventh heaven as a Scot in the midst of the biggest constitutional debate in British politics since 1707. But my issue is though is that it is all too exciting and frankly it should be far more boring.
Granted, the document is full of interesting ways in which an incoming government of a newly independent Scotland could use and develop its new found power. The most headline grabbing proposal is about childcare, but there is also exploration of how tax and fiscal policies could be developed to provide more even economic growth.
These are the sorts of possibilities that should be explored, and whether independence or devolution is better suited to realising these visions is at the heart of the debate about the future of Scotland.
The problem is that this is not the exam question that was set. Scots weren’t asking what policies an SNP government would pursue, should they win the referendum and the subsequent Scottish elections. Instead, Scots wanted to know what pragmatic steps we could take to there in the first place, what the issues and options are.
Constitutions and constitutional politics should be boring. They should be about legal procedures, fail-safes and safeguards, protocols and forums. What the SNP have done is bundle a feasibility study with a constitutional road map in with the first draft of their 2016 manifesto. The result is exciting, but the problem is that people are left with more doubts than before. They don’t know which bits of the white paper are facts, which bits are assessments and which bits are aspirational.
It’s frankly worrying that so little of the white paper focuses on how a new constitution would be drawn up, the proposed approach to negotiations, and key issues such as “demerging” UK government institutions.
The SNP’s approach to currency is a case in point. A sterling zone is more than possible, but as outlined by many leading and independent monetary theorists including cogently in Andrew Goudie’s excellent (if boring, in the best possible way) book “Scotland’s Future”, such a system is highly implausible nor desirable without a system of fiscal and stability controls. But this is not explored in any way by the document. Instead we are told that a sterling zone and complete fiscal autonomy is what would be achieved, full stop. Similarly, despite the claims inside the white paper, automatic membership of the EU is not a given – just listen to the protestations of the EU commission. These omissions undermine the trust that Scots were looking to gain from this document.
It is right and proper that SNP should set out their vision for what they would do with independence. But conflating it with how they would get there was a mistake. Rather than one magic bullet to answer all questions, I can’t help but feel a staged approach answering the different aspects in different documents would have been better. This is a missed opportunity –not just for the constitutional politics geeks – but for everyone who wants to rationally debate the future of Scotland.
Daniel Johnson is chair of the Scottish Fabians