The SNP's annual conference, beginning this week in Perth, comes fast on the heels of Alex Salmond and David Cameron's meeting in Edinburgh to sign an historic agreement setting out the terms of the referendum on Scottish independence, to be held in the autumn of 2014. The agreement does not include a second question on more powers, as the SNP had desired, but it does allow for 16 year olds to be given a vote, which the SNP hope will bolster its support.
According to the most recent poll this is support the nationalists and the Yes campaign as a whole sorely needs, with two thirds of Scottish voters still not convinced when it comes to independence. These polling numbers have remained more or less the same since the SNP won its groundbreaking majority at the last Scottish elections in 2010. It suggests that a clear chasm exists in the minds of many SNP voters between running a devolved administration and full separation. Bridging this chasm, along with changing the minds of the rest of the two thirds of Scottish voters who currently support remaining in the union, will be a major challenge for the Yes campaign over the next two years. It is also one that will weigh heavily on the minds of SNP delegates in Perth this week.
When it comes to the progressive wing of the pro-independence movement, the challenge of offering an alternative vision distinct from the one being offered by the SNP is massive given the extent to which the issue has been dominated by the nationalists. This conflation between the SNP and independence is deeply entrenched within Scottish society, even though technically if the Yes campaign were to win a majority in 2014 it would be followed by fresh elections in 2016 to elect a government, which might not necessarily be formed by the SNP. However as things stand the shadow cast by the SNP and Salmond over Scottish independence is so great it is hard to conceive of another party or vision challenging its dominance in an independent Scotland post-referendum.
A cursory examination of the SNP's current policies could be interpreted as progressive. In contradistinction to the current Westminster government they have refused to introduce tuition fees for Scottish students entering higher education, cancelled all PFI and PPP contracts within the NHS in Scotland (introduced by Labour), maintained free personal care for the elderly, free bus passes for the elderly (both also introduced by Labour), introduced free prescriptions, committed to a five year council tax freeze across all 32 Scottish local councils, and remains committed to ending Trident when and if Scotland wins independence.
Closer examination reveals the opposite to be the case, however. The implementation of no tuition fees for students entering higher education are being funded by swingeing cuts to the funding of FE colleges, a traditional route onto university for students from low income backgrounds. The SNP intends cutting £74 million from Scotland's 41 further education colleges by 2015. Moreover, bursaries for worst-off students will be cut in 2013 from £95million to £84 million, thus robbing many students of the funds they need for essentials such as travel and books.
With regard to the cancellation of PFI and PPP contracts, the introduction of the Scottish Future Trust in 2008 to replace it amounts to the same thing - namely the leveraging of private finance to invest in infrastructure projects, NHS included. Scotland's biggest public service union, Unison, produced a briefing setting out its concerns over the role of the Scottish Future Trust in government finance when it was introduced in 2008.
As for the council tax freeze, this deprives local councils of revenue required to maintain public services and jobs that are used predominately by people on low incomes. In of itself it is not progressive and does nothing to address the regressive nature of the council tax and the need to replace it with one that is tailored to the ability to pay. Add to this the fact that child poverty in Scotland has gone up under the SNP (it is now 1 in 4), and one of the first things the nationalists did upon taking office was cut Labour's scheme of free central heating for the elderly, the word progressive becomes increasingly inappropriate where the SNP is concerned.
When it comes to international issues one of the main arguments in support of the Scottish Nationalist Party has been its opposition to the war in Iraq and its pledge to end Scotland's participation in 'illegal wars'. In truth this is a semantic sleight of hand, as it means that any future war which carries the imprimatur of the UN Security Council will be supported by a future SNP Scottish government. The SNP support the war in Afghanistan, supported the NATO intervention in Libya, and the leadership's U-turn over NATO membership means that it envisions Scotland providing men and material to future NATO missions around the world. More crucially, and worryingly, the ability of the SNP to scrap Trident will be made more difficult in light of this U-turn. Trident is part of NATO's military apparatus and its continuing strategic base on the Clyde would likely constitute a condition of Scotland being granted membership.
On the economy the SNP holds Norway up as the economic template of a future independent Scotland, which significantly is not a member of the EU and has created a hugely successful oil fund for future generations. The high price of oil has seen Norway's economy not only protected from being overly impacted by the global economic crisis but register increased growth. It is an economy in which the state enjoys a large footprint, and in which a strong welfare state and large public sector combines with a commitment to progressive taxation to provide its citizens with among the highest living standards of any advanced economy. This means that if the SNP intends to emulate Norway's social and economic model it will have to commit to nationalising the oil and other key sectors of the economy, while raising taxes for the rich, business, and high earners at the same time. This path is contradicted by the party's intention of reducing corporation tax to 15 percent, thus entering Scottish workers in a race to the bottom for jobs.
The question of what an independent Scotland's currency would be has yet to be convincingly addressed. With the eurozone in a state of crisis the viability of the euro as the new Scottish currency is questionable. And even if possible, how does an independent Scotland's entry into the EU square with the SNP's flagship economic policy of reducing corporation tax? Ireland got away with this reform at a time when the global economy was enjoying a boom. Now the situation is much different, with the EU unlikely to rubber stamp any new member state setting a rate of corporation tax as low as 15%.
The validity of such a policy must also be examined in light of what it would mean in terms of wealth redistribution. If the objective is a low tax paradise for big business and he likes of Donald Trump, it contradicts Alex Salmond's pledge to have Scotland set a 'progressive example' for other nations to follow. On the other hand if an independent Scotland were to retain sterling as its national currency it would be in the invidious position of having its interest rates set by the Bank of England. Where would this leave the question of sovereignty? Scotland in this scenario would be entering into a position of economic vulnerability to decisions made by the central bank of a foreign country, much the same as Panama vis-à-vis the United States.
These are all vital questions that have yet to be addressed by the SNP. More widely, the progressive wing of the Yes campaign has much work to do to make its argument for an alternative heard.