Time to see if SNP growth commission is worth the wait
IT was one of the most memorable, if hardly reassuring, remarks made by Nicola Sturgeon when she announced a second referendum just over a year ago at Bute House. Asked what currency an independent Scotland would use, the First Minister replied: “All in good time.” A good deal of time later, Scotland is still waiting.
The answer was meant to come from the SNP Growth Commission, or ‘Long-lost Growth Commission’ as it is increasingly referred to at Holyrood. This was announced in September 2016, six months before Ms Sturgeon’s Bute House speech.
At the time, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, the SNP was rolling out a “new independence initiative”.
There were two main threads. A survey aimed at 2million voters, and a Growth Commission chaired by former SNP MSP and corporate lobbyist Andrew Wilson. The FM said the commission had two purposes, one short-term, one long.
First, to “inform our thinking on how growth can be sustained in the here and now” amidst Brexit uncertainty. So much for that. After 18 months, most of the here and now before Brexit has been and gone.
Second, it would examine “the projections for Scotland’s finances in the context of independence”, consider policies to grow the economy and cut the deficit, and consider the best “monetary arrangements”. In other words, the big question marks that hung over the Yes campaign in 2014 - currency, economy and the public accounts.
Mr Wilson went further. For him, the commission was about replacing the White Paper of 2013 with a new prospectus for independence.
“It is my sincere hope that should Scotland be asked to choose again on independence, this project will ensure that we all have as sound, transparent and firm a prospectus as any country facing such a choice has ever had,” he said.
Six months later his radical intent became clear, as he trashed one of the mantras of the Yes campaign that an independent Scotland would not rely on North Sea oil revenue, as this was a “bonus” which could be saved into a vast rainy day fund.
Not so, he said, contradicting Ms Sturgeon, Alex Salmond et al. “We did have oil baked into the [White paper] numbers and it was indeed a basis [of the economic projections],” he told the BBC. So his commission would assume oil revenue would be zero after independence instead.
Mr Wilson has been curiously absent from the airwaves ever since.
Last May, Ms Sturgeon said she had seen the commission’s “interim considerations”, but guessing the fate of its final report is now a Holyrood parlour game. Some say it is imminent, although it’s been imminent for months. Others that it’s been delayed until autumn. Or burned and its ashes shot into space.
From what I can gather it is around 400 pages long, underwent more lengthy peer review than was first expected, required some late rewrites, but has now been finished.
Although SNP HQ has seen drafts for several months, the final version went to Ms Sturgeon around a week ago, and she is now pondering its publication date with her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell.
“There’s lots that Labour and Conservative supporters will disagree with,” someone familiar with it told me recently. “There will be lots that many SNP supporters disagree with. It’s completely different from the White Paper.”
But as to when the public get to see it, that’s still frustratingly vague. “I wouldn’t pin a date down just yet,” said my friend this week. “Timing, after all, is everything.”
I thought that last remark was particularly intriguing. It suggests the report is meant to fit into a bigger timetable, a bigger plan.
This week I found a new SNP Community Update in the mail. Some blurb from Ms Sturgeon said these would become “regular”.
There was nothing community about it, unless you count Scotland as one lump. It was a voter update. And in my experience, parties dropping voter updates through your letterbox are after something.
So perhaps the commission’s report will be used to tee up Ms Sturgeon calling a referendum in the autumn, when she is due to update MSPS on her plans. After all, an independence prospectus should land best if there is a campaign for independence to influence.
The SNP will certainly not get another chance to set out its stall before the 2021 election. It is tied to the commission, whether it likes it or not. The party will have a hard enough time as it is explaining the gaps between its findings and forecasts and those in the White Paper. Unionists will have a field day putting the two side-by-side. A third blueprint would be farcical.
Also bear in mind that the report is not some work of fan fiction. Its authors include Finance Secretary Derek Mackay and education minister Shirley Anne-somerville. The commission had to report “directly to the First Minister”. The leadership’s prints are all over it. It cannot be quietly disowned.
But while timing is critical, it is not everything. Transparency and candour count too. The 18 months of control freakery round the report so far looks like nerves. That doesn’t help sell it to the public, and risks the perception of bad news within.
If the SNP is confident of its plan, “all in good time” should mean now.
The SNP will not get another chance to set out its stall before the 2021 election. It is tied to the growth commission, whether it likes it or not