He who pays the piper calls the tune
The chatter around independence and what it might mean this week has reached a crescendo this weekend. The debate, as the Scotland on Sunday has styled it, appears to be between independence-lite and full fat independence. Others have rehearsed the arguments more effectively than I might, particularly the irascible Jim Sillars (of all people, advocating indie-lite) in Saturday’s Scotsman and Pat Kane with his excellent piece making the case for full independence on his blog, Thoughtland.
People have tried to rationalise Jim Sillars’ offering – he was paid to write it, he’s playing devil’s advocate, he’s acting as an outlier – but it seems for once he is completely on message. Stephen Noon, the SNP’s supremely talented policy strategist, blogged on 10 May, reminding people that in 2007, Alex Salmond described the redefinition of our constitutional relationship with England to being one of “equal partners, not surly lodgers”. It was a great phrase and sums up the aspiration of many SNP members and supporters, but it was a remark in an interview, not a policy platform the party had voted for.
From yesterday’s witterings, a reader might surmise that the burd is in tune with these new times. In truth, I wrote that piece before I had read either Sillars’ or Kane’s piece thoroughly, or more than glanced at Stephen Noon’s blogpost. So I was offering my thoughts blind. And I find myself returning to this subject much sooner than intended.
Essentially, in this debate, I’m with Pat. It’s full fat independence for me but with caveats. In a world where everyone is linked through their shopping, work and holiday habits; to events, tragedies and celebrations through a rolling 24 hour news agenda; and to family and friends scattered across the four nations on these islands but also across the globe - the truth is that Scotland is never actually going to be completely separate from its neighbours. People working for global companies in Dunfermline will still have links with their colleagues in the branches in Dartford and Darlington. They’ll still get Balamory, we’ll still get Eastenders. The supermarkets will continue to dominate our shopping habits whether we live in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland. And no, Zara and Santander wouldn’t be expected to close up shop and head back to Europe. We need to consider carefully how to ensure this message is articulated and how such activity is embedded in the constitutional framework foran independent but inter-dependent Scotland if we are to avoid unintended consequences and scare stories.
Moreover, with a bigger role to play in the European Union, Scotland will be contributing more fully and effectively to policy that will apply equally in Caithness as it does Cordoba, in Edinburgh as it does Prague. This is a good thing. It is also the reality of a world with few boundaries but it does not and should not prevent us having the normal trappings of member statehood. We are not talking isolationist independence, no matter how opponents might wish to frame it, but a re-alignment of established relationships. Yes, an equal partnership but one in which we truly determine our sense of self and our direction of travel. And as a nation, we need all the levers of government to do that.
There are some institutions and structures on these islands where it would make no sense to divide them, certainly not in the early days: the DVLA might indeed be one of these. With others, however, there is a necessity and urgency with which decoupling must occur, particularly to exert and assert the will and values of the Scottish people: Trident is one such.
But all of this is really for another day and frankly, another place. These are big, meaty issues for the SNP and indeed, Scotland, to resolve and that cannot be done through hints and tints in newspaper articles, interviews and blogs. The membership of the SNP, not its leadership, must decide these matters. On this, the raison d’etre for all members of the SNP, he who pays the piper calls – and must call – the tune.
This is not to doubt nor denigrate Alex Salmond’s leadership. There is no better politician in Scotland, has not been for a very long time and there is unlikely to be another who will come close. If ever a man was built for greatness, it is our First Minister. His vision in determining the gradualist direction of travel has been the right one. He knows where Scotland is headed and knows exactly what needs to happen to get the country there. And he knows his party will follow him whatever line he decides to take.
Which is why he must step back from this and allow his party to make this most vital of decisions. It is for the party and its membership – and indeed, others who support independence – to determine the shape, scope and feel of independence and the proposal that is presented to the Scottish people. Success depends on a party and a movement united on its cause and its call. Asking, nay expecting members, some with a lifetime of graft behind them for this moment, to take a case to the people that has been flipped on the back of some comments Alex Salmond made in a media interview in 2007, would be desultory.
The SNP members are not stupid, they know what needs to be done to take the Scottish people with them on the final steps of this journey. But Alex Salmond and the leadership would be doing them a huge disservice, if what emerges as the independence platform is not informed and most crucially of all, agreed by the party membership. The Scottish Independence Convention has a big role to play in making this happen and in impressing upon the SNP leadership the need to include, not exclude, members and supporters from decision-making. Because there will be no bigger decision for the independence movement.
Because this is our one big chance to achieve normalcy (a terrible phrase, I know) for our nation. Because the Scottish people have invested their trust in the SNP to lead the debate and to allow them to have their say. Because this is a once-in-a-generational opportunity to turn Scotland the nation and Scotland the brand into Scotland the state.
Because I have lived all my life listening to my parents dream of living in an independent Scotland and because time does not stand still, now the dream is to be buried in an independent Scotland.
Alex Salmond had the canny forethought, insight and decency to hold a National Conversation with the Scottish people; the least he can do is hold a similar one with his ain folk.