Scottish Labour’s announcement that it wants to increase tax for everyone earning over £20k (and therefore anyone on less than that who fancies earning a little bit more in the coming year or two, or might do a wee bit of extra overtime), reflects its acceptance both that the far-left is in charge now and that this year’s Holyrood race is virtually over already. SNP party folk will ‘take nothing for granted’, of course, and some aficionados might find it fun to see which folk get constituency-free seats because their parties have lost the votes which count, but I’m really much more interested in what will come after that.
Before 2011, I used to think that the true primary objective of the SNP was to win and hold a Scottish administration with ever-increasing powers. David Cairns, one of the best men ever, used to argue with me that on the contrary the instinct for clear-cut independence was in the blood of the SNP and true independence was what then-leader Alex Salmond woke up every day thinking about. David died days after the 2011 elections, but of course he was right. I think I was too influenced by the fact that the SNP dream had, for my whole life, seemed so impossibilistic that the real agenda of believers nevertheless pragmatic enough to engage in everyday politics had to lie somewhere else. Well, it certainly doesn’t lie somewhere else now.
The next independence referendum seems likely to come after 2021, following an election win by the incumbent UK prime minister, George Osborne, and a fourth successive win in Scotland by an SNP which has included the referendum commitment in its manifesto. I think the 45% will still be solid then; the 55% less so. In that battle for the ‘undecided’, I think begging will be the No camp’s primary hazard.
If you watch unionist politicians in Wales, where independence is thoroughly off the agenda, its all about proving they can screw more out of the UK Treasury than Plaid Cymru. They don’t sound like they give half a toss about the rest of the UK – all they want is more for the Welsh and less for the rest – regardless of where true need lies. It’s so manifestly ignoble and its no basis for an argument for the union, but then they don’t need to have one.
Jim Murphy is one of the best all-round politicians I’ve met, and he was in a very tight spot trying to make a virtue of necessity at the time, but when he in effect hypothecated a tax for Londoners to pay for nurses in Scotland a lot of very-much-not-millionaires in London and Scotland thought he’d come dangerously close to begging with menaces (‘gimme your f****** money or the union gets it’). Scotland’s far from the poorest nation/region of the UK after all, and most Scots appreciate that. Jim was doing his best in a hopeless situation, but his begging helped firm up opinion against Labour in Scotland as much as in England.
In Scotland, the SNP holds the whole centre ground where most people are, both left and right. Sturgeon and Swinney, Glasgow leftie and Perthshire sensible, if you like. Labour’s more than welcome to the nutty-left. And it’s frustrating for the SNP’s opponents, but for now the SNP doesn’t truly have to tax-and-spend and thereby flag a consistent place on either side of that centre ground. From the perspective of a second referendum, therefore, the SNP is evolving beyond a simplistic (and as the oil price has exposed, weak) argument about tax receipts and into a place which simply and honestly says to people who might not actually vote SNP that an affluent, independent Scotland is perfectly viable and Scots don’t need to beg anyone for charity. They say sometimes things might be tougher, but they’re prepared to be tough in reply – as they are now. It’s up to proud Scots to do it for themselves. All of this of course seems perfectly credible and true to most people – that is one reason why Labour’s silly new tax plans in reply to Swinney’s budget make it look, harshly, about as marginal as the SSP looked when it still had a seat or two.
It’s also why, if unionists in Scotland can’t come up with something better than they have in Wales – begging for more like McOliver and asking Scots to give up their foolish pride – then the outcome of the second referendum is, justifiably, already inevitable.