Time to see if SNP growth com­mis­sion is worth the wait

The Herald - - OPIN­ION - TOM GOR­DON

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

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