There were a lot of things that were interesting about the SNP’s annual party conference in Perth over the past few days.
The party’s A Team for this last set piece before the September 2014 Independence Referendum, is – in the programmed order of its members – indicative of how it sees its ministerial strengths and its most powerful cases.
The A team was the big three, with five others, in an interesting batting order over the four day conference:
- Fiona Hyslop [Culture] – Thursday 17th October.
- John Swinney [Finance] – morning, Friday 18th October
- Nicola Sturgeon [Deputy First Minister] – afternoon, Friday18th October
- Richard Lochhead [Rural Affairs and Fisheries] – morning, Saturday 19th October
- Alex Salmond [First Minister] – afternoon, Saturday 19th October
- Alex Neil [Health] – evening, Saturday 19th October
- Kenny MacAskill [Justice] – morning Sunday 20th October
- Michael Russell [Education] – lunchtime, Sunday 20th October
The last two, Kenny MacAskill and Michael Russell, were given the ‘red eye special’, put on today after the effective ending of the conference yesterday afternoon, with the First Ministers call to arms:
‘If not us – then who?
If not now – then when?’
The past year has been marked by constant ‘give aways’ – commitments to more and more spending, an accelerating process as we approach next September and as the polls refuse to move [which is not to say that we trust the polls – although their consistent picture must say something to both sides, neither of which is moving its position seriously forwards].
The big conference addresses tend to scatter sweets and favours but what was interesting here was who got to dish out the biggest goody bags – and perhaps who wanted most to do it.
- John Swinney, the man in control of the finances, the man known to be worried about the affordability of some key commitments and the man who has prejudiced his credibility in throwing caution to the winds of late, in making occasional claims of his own, reined back in his address – and made no new offers whatsoever.
- Richard Lochhead – who raised the most indefensible issue of all at the conference – on petty and repeated refusals to allow Scotland’s Fisheries Minister to lead on EC negotiations, although Scotland has 75% of the UK quotas and the new UK Fisheries minister is 7 days old – made no offers or was given none to make.
- Kenny MacAskill – who dropped a few names – like Hillary Clinton – and talked about the establishment of the unitary police authority, Police Scotland, made no offers.
- Alex Neil tossed £500K of underwriting at the Charity Air Ambulance fundraising effort. He then added an uncosted commitment to a pay rise for NHS Scotland staff, where their salaries are being frozen in England.
- Fiona Hyslop announced a £2M Loan Fund ‘for the long term development of production infrastructure for commercial film and television’. That should make a difference.
- Michael Russell made three announcements of uncosted funding increases: the total bursaries package for further education students rising to £105 million; an increase in the minimum income for higher education students from £7250 to £7500; and loan contributions to tuition fees made available to Scottish domiciled postgraduate students on eligible courses, with up to £4500 towards their living expenses.
- Alex Salmond announced a £60M series of projects to support employment; and a Commission to frame a guaranteed universal minimum wage to keep pace with inflation ‘at least’. Unfortunately this is likely to impact on inward investment, without which there will be no new jobs to pay a wage of any kind.
- Nicola Sturgeon got the headline offer [although some of the uncosted ones will top it by a long way] – the announcement of £200M of extra government spending in taking over the energy companies’ responsibility for paying for energy saving measures, and enabling them to reduce their prices to the customer.
This one deflected attention from the question of how, with the single refinery of Grangemouth supplying 80% of Scotland’s fuel needs and now financially and industrially troubled – an independent Scotland could survive a fuel crisis on its own?
Indeed, how has it protected itself against possible crisis from the situation at Grangenouth just now? It was noticeable that both the Westminster and Scottish governments were active in reassuring Scots that supplies had been assured before Ineos closed down the Grangemouth plant, pending whatever outcome is reached.
With the exception of the guaranteed minimum wage, the total of the other offers, at is, in reality, modest enough [how much difference will a £2M Loan Fund make to the ‘long term production infrastructure for commercial film and television’?].
But these are nevertheless all new costs and the issue is that no one gave any indication as to how any of this will be paid for.
These offers are additional to current commitments and to current promises, most of which also [like the inflation-tagged minimum wage guarantee] have neither been costed nor assigned to particular budgetary strategies to pay for them.
The most worrying one here is Mr Swinney’s earlier uncosted commitment to matching the UK on pensions protection and provision. There is neither a cost yet attached to this nor any indication of where the money to fund it will come from.
The big announcement: date for the White Paper on Independence
However, the First Minister did announce the date of publication for the vital White Paper on Independence – 26th November 2013, only five weeks away.
While this is promised by the Deputy First Minister, who is its nominal author, as bearing the answers to everything anyone needs to know on the independence prospectus under offer – and will unequivocally have to deliver on the detail of that promise if the campaign is to retain credibility – the First Minister’s description of what the Paper contains, left a lot of disturbing wriggle-room.
What Mr Salmond said of the White Paper to come was:
‘First, it will spell out the platform that we will establish for Scotland between the referendum next year and the first elections for an independent Scottish Parliament in the spring of 2016.
‘It will therefore be clear that independence is not at its heart about this party or this administration or this First Minister but about fundamental democratic choice for Scotland – the peoples’ right to choose a Government of our own.
‘And secondly the White Paper will set out the why of independence, our vision of Scotland – the Scotland that we seek.’
Reading the runes
From the various threads we are picking up – and the First Minister’s careful wording above does not rule this out – we suspect that the SNP’s modus operandi is now to keep making unachievable spending promises as bait for ‘Yes’ votes; and, after a presumed win on 18th September next year, to establish an all-party constitutional group to do the hard yards in making sense of the reality of going it alone before Independence Day 18 months later, in May 2016.
This scenario would leave the other parties in the most appalling dilemma.
The SNP would have won independence in the most irresponsible fashion and then offered them involvement – the opposition who had campaigned for the preservation of the Union – in trying to cobble a survival strategy together.
Every natural instinct would resist the trickery and injustice of such a move – but in the No Way Back scenario that an independence vote brings [whether or not it has been honestly obtained], what choice would the other parties have?
This would mean that, in effect, if the White Paper does take advantage of the wriggle room and does not nail down the facts that must, in honour, be given and be accurate, people would be taking a straightforward punt – blindfold – in voting for independence.
The question would be whether, in a narrow win on an irresponsible prospectus, the other parties would feel it incumbent upon them to lend their involvement to making sense of the mess?
We note that SNP supporter and ‘trusty’, the Herald journalist Iain MacWhirter, has been trailing the possibility of a cross-party constitutional conference in early 2014 – to start just such a process of shared responsibility for the future of Scotland, whatever it is to be.
It may well be that Scotland sees both of these potential tactics deployed to enable the SNP to shuffle off responsibility for the consequences of a possible ‘Yes’ vote on the back of an irresponsible independence prospectus.