Magazine article Public Finance

The Limits of Independent Thought

Magazine article Public Finance

The Limits of Independent Thought

Article excerpt

The extraordinary revival of the Scottish National Party continues. The SNP has been climbing up the opinion polls for the past six months and in the latest Mori/Scotsman poll is on 32% compared with Labour's 30%. More significantly, a majority of Scots (51%) told the pollsters that they supported independence.

It's back to the future - back to the arguments about whether an independent Scotland would get automatic European Union entry; about the future of Scotland's oil. There has even been a row over nuclear waste and independence, with First Minister Jack McConnell warning that if Scotland went its own way England might refuse to take waste from Scottish nuclear power stations to the proposed national repository at Sellafield. It's a kind of 'Waste Lothian Question'.

The Scottish press is going through a nationalistic phase. You can hardly open a paper without reading of some prominent figure talking up independence - from the leader of Scotland's Roman Catholics, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, to Sir Tom Farmer, the Kwik-Fit founder, who has gifted the SNP £100,000.

Prominent business people such as Sir lain Vallance, the former chair of BT, and Crawford Beveridge, the former chief executive of Scottish Enterprise, have been calling for the Scottish Parliament to be given greater financial autonomy. The argument is that Scots politicians might become more responsible legislators if they had to raise, through taxation, the money they spend. At present, the Scottish Executive gets an annual block grant from Westminster of £25bn.

The only people who don't seem to be getting carried away are SNP officials. The party response has been muted.

SNP leader Alex Salmond isn't measuring up for curtains in Bute House, nor is the party booking its United Nations seat. MSPs aren't predicting liberation from the English yoke. Most are reluctant to speak of an imminent breakthrough. This is a long way away from the over-the-top, 'cry freedom' character of previous SNP upswings.

So what's going on? Well, for one thing, the SNP has to recognise that, if the polls are right, it has not been promoting the independence message very effectively. If 51% of Scots want independence, why do only 32% say they will vote SNP?

SNP leaders know from bitter experience that people mean various things by 'independence' when they talk to pollsters. Some think Scotland is already effectively independent because the Scottish Parliament exists. Others say that they support independence because they are Scottish patriots. However, not all small-'n' nationalists want to put customs posts on the border or set up a separate Scottish central bank. …

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