John Fullerton: 'Determination' shows the need for a real indy plan, but is anyone listening?

John Fullerton reviews the new book from Common Weal director Robin McAlpine, 'Determination', on how Scotland can achieve independence

I'LL admit it right away: I'm an avid supporter of Scottish independence so this little book is of pressing interest to me, and no doubt to both Yes and No partisans on an issue that is very much back on the front pages.

The first important point McAlpine makes is that the 2014 Yes vote was not all the work of the Scottish National Party (SNP). The referendum's narrow miss would have been a 20-point loss had it not been for the likes of the Scottish Greens, National Collective, Radical Independence Campaign, Scottish CND, Common Weal, Women for Independence and many others.

Back then it was a twin-track strategy, the first involving attempts to use accountancy to show Scotland would not be worse off, and that the retention of key 'British' institutions (Sterling, the monarchy, Nato etc) would ensure that things wouldn't 'feel' any different (personally, I'm strongly opposed to all three and would welcome 'feeling' different, thanks very much). 

Read more – Interview with Robin McAlpine: How can Scotland win independence?

The second track, according to McAlpine, was the democratic message of 'who is best to make the decisions for the people who live in Scotland'.

"What is difficult about offering continuity is that it is predicating the case on lack of doubt ... you are involved in an asymmetric battle in which you have to prove certainty but they only have to prove doubt," he writes. Too true, unfortunately. 

He continues: "The point is that the future is unknown, which has to be paired with the fact that humans are inherently risk-averse ... asking people to vote Yes was asking them to take a chance that the future would be better than the present."

McAlpine adds: "To make someone jump into a dark hole on the promise of something else at the other side, they have to want to jump. To make them want to jump, they must have some vision of what life will be like on the other side. And that vision will need to be substantially more attractive than their fear of what a bad outcome would look like. And that will need to be a vision which is as concrete as possible, as not-abstract as can be achieved."

Aye, there's the rub.

The Yes campaign made an important error of judgement (and it seems to me it's still making it today). Strategists claimed the campaign would be won or lost by the 'aspirational middle class'. This was based on the patronising - and wrong – assumption that the poor don't vote. Don't they hell!

"The poor voted in numbers unseen in a British election for generations," McAlpine writes. "The narrative which achieved this was heavily influenced by the progressive, creative campaign which emerged."

Even today, as the author points out, it has become a knee-jerk trope that what we need to do is just 'bank' all those working class voters by ignoring them and going after the 'middle class' voters. 

Even today, as the author points out, it has become a knee-jerk trope that what we need to do is just 'bank' all those working class voters by ignoring them and going after the 'middle class' voters. 

In Scotland, as the author says, the middle class is generally defined as those with an income over of £40,000 or so a year (in the upper tax bracket) - but this only applies to 15 per cent of the population.

As a strategy it makes no sense. It's electoral suicide, in effect. Someone please tell the SNP.

The biggest threat to independence, McAlpine believes, is something we carry around in our heads, namely, the belief that we "win referendums during referendums". He's right there, too.

"You do not win referendums during referendums ... You want to go into a referendum having already won," he argues.

In the same way, I suggest, battles aren't won on the battlefield, they're won beforehand with training, with resources, with careful planning, giving soldiers confidence that everything possible has been done to assure them victory.

So we have to prepare, we have to plan. Those plans must be solid, practical, detailed, not the wishful thinking and empty promises (lies) of a party election manifesto.

Read more – John McHarg: 'Determination' fills a gap in today's Scottish independence movement - it's a must read

Most people seem to believe that in the 2014 referendum, the Yes campaign failed to win over the elderly, i.e. those over 60 who are eligible for a state pension or soon will be. Those pensions are among the very lowest in Europe.

Doing nothing to correct this was - and is - a huge mistake, as McAlpine acknowledges. And doing nothing is precisely what's happening now in Scotland. What would the state pension be post-independence? Would it be 62 per cent of the EU average wage? That would certainly be a big improvement on the present level and bring it into line with European pensions. 

How would it be financed? Out of taxes? From a special pension fund to which all workers and the Scottish state contribute, along with attractive tax breaks? It needs to be sorted out. Now.

It's certainly odd for a movement of self-determination to wait for others to hand us the keys to freedom - the nasty Tories, the Brexiteers, the Europeans, the absurd Trident replacement project, the end of renewables subsidies. Waiting around in the pub for an external 'trigger' is essentially giving up responsibility for our own futures and expecting others to do it for us. 

UK Prime Minister Theresa May would love us to do just that. After all, that's the way we're used to being treated/patronised by Westminster for hundreds of years. "There is no bigger sign of weakness when you predicate your whole purpose in life on the actions of an external, hostile entity based on an event which may or may not happen ... What if it doesn't?" McAlpine asks.

He suggests that the Scottish elections in 2021 should be converted into a referendum on having a referendum. 

It's certainly odd for a movement of self-determination to wait for others to hand us the keys to freedom - the nasty Tories, the Brexiteers, the Europeans, the absurd Trident replacement project, the end of renewables subsidies.

"There are a number of ways it can be done - the SNP could be supported in standing on a single ticket pro-referendum platform and other parties could step aside on a promise that if for any reason a referendum is not secured, a new election to be called. All the pro-independence parties could form a 'referendum alliance' to the same effect," he writes.

Personally, I think this idea wholly impractical. For a start, there is already a majority in the Holyrood Parliament in favour of independence if we take account of both the SNP and Scottish Greens. 

Scottish Labour is busily destroying itself and the Tories seem to belong to an alien galaxy. Scotland has a democratic mandate for a second referendum already. We don't need another.

And why inflict yet another 'referendum on a referendum'. How many activists are going to wear out shoe leather, pounding the streets in Scotland's wonderful weather again and again? How many working class voters, living in areas were the turnout is traditionally low, can be persuaded to come not once more, but twice? An election for an election? I don't buy it.

However, I totally agree with McAlpine's assertion that the currency issue was a failure in 2014 because people realised that the work hadn't really been done and that "we were, to all intents and purposes, bluffing ... We must make it easy for those who want to believe to actually believe".

McAlpine's own sympathetic No-voting friends and neighbours are saying to him: "'Look, I'm proud of Scotland and want to believe it can be an independent nation but you need to answer my questions'."

Waiting around in the pub for an external 'trigger' is essentially giving up responsibility for our own futures and expecting others to do it for us. 

What they are NOT saying is please come back again with the same old stuff and badger me about it some more.

McAlpine calls for a well-thought, detailed and inclusive plan for independence. "It must be something which is broadly shared. It will be no good if there are unilateral decisions about controversial issues imposed on the whole movement without the movement having the opportunity to debate and negotiate those properly." Trouble is, there's not much time.

The final, founding document would involve a solution of the currency issue, a pension and social security system, a new civil service, regulatory infrastructure, an inland revenue service, a central bank. It's a huge task, but essential if the independence campaign is to gain universal confidence.

McAlpine claims - correctly, I think - that the mainstream media are busy repackaging Scotland as a small administrative outpost which should focus on micromanaging a limited range of bureaucratic policies in health and education. There's a cultural war raging over Scotland's identity, in other words.

"Feel free to call me paranoid but I am of the belief that unionists are engaged in an ongoing attempt to undermine Scotland's confidence economically, culturally and politically," McAlpine says. "It's what I would do if I was them."

McAlpine claims - correctly, I think - that the mainstream media are busy repackaging Scotland as a small administrative outpost which should focus on micromanaging a limited range of bureaucratic policies in health and education.

An early stage of preparations for independence should include setting out basic values and expectations; the idea of Scotland within a cradle-to-grave welfare state being universally shared - and almost completely shared among independence supporters. 

"It easily guides us to create a constitution based on international practice on transparency and human rights, an impartial civil service ... The final report, the final plan, should be as close to a 'how to' guide as possible ... It should be a solid, actionable plan," McAlpine writes.

Perhaps the first and most pressing issue to be faced is the national fiscal balance, The General Expenditure and Revenue Scotland report (GERS) is no accurate predictor of the state of public finances in an independent Scotland. 

How does one assign what is Scottish and what is not? How is UK spending to be apportioned? What assumptions should, and should not, be made about what is taxed and where? For example, Scotland would not continue to contribute almost 10 per cent of the costs of London Underground or events such as the London Olympics. 

What of Westminster's tax breaks for arms manufacturers? Tax revenue for Scotch whisky seems to be allocated in London. In an independent Scotland that would not be the case: every bottle sold to London would be an export.

There's a cultural war raging over Scotland's identity, in other words.

McAlpine calls for a new additive system rather than the subtractive, London-biased GERS. Instead of starting with the UK as the 'default normality' and then subtracting, it would identify the expenditure requirements of an independent Scotland, adding them up and then working out what the tax would be and subtracting it and other revenues from the total. "This would create a model of the fiscal balance of an independent Scotland," he says.

He goes on: "There may well be other big and potentially controversial issues we need to look at to resolve fiscal balance issues. During the last referendum the Scottish Government absolutely ruled out the possibility of considering moves such as taking the energy system into collective ownership ... It would create revenue for the Scottish public purse of about £1bn per year."

Perhaps with the Scottish Greens now holding the balance of power at Holyrood, that SNP stance can be swung back again from the centre to the left, especially if the backing of six Green MSPs is critical in providing the mandate for the second referendum. I certainly hope so.

McAlpine argues cogently for an independent currency. I would go further, and suggest a Sovereign Money System, as outlined by Positive Money, in which a transparent central bank, accountable to the Scottish parliament, creates new money, not the commercial banks as is the case now. 

The thrust of this book is that we need to prepare a detailed plan for an independent Scotland now, well before a second referendum.

This would help lower house prices, combat inequality, boost employment and increase the investment in small and medium-sized businesses. It would bring an end to cyclical financial crises and deflate ballooning national and personal debt. 

Perhaps Positive Money could be asked to establish a panel of economists to produce a detailed action plan for an independent Scotland.

McAlpine rightly opposes a 'Sterling zone', saying this would mean Scotland handing over a substantial proportion of its new, hard-won sovereignty to the very institutions it had just gained its sovereignty from.

"If Scotland was committed to setting up its own institutions, we would need very little from Westminster, making Scotland's negotiating hand very strong and Westminster's much weaker," he writes.

There is much to admire in McAlpine's 'Determination', from its call for first-class universal childcare to replacing the unfair and broken Council Tax (hopefully with an equitable Land Value Tax). But the thrust of this book is that we need to prepare a detailed plan for an independent Scotland now, well before a second referendum.

Is anyone in listening?

You can order your copy of 'Determination' here.

Picture courtesy of Common Weal

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