We need to move away from a sterile tactics-driven referendum debate to one which is driven by the economic and social change

Scotland is little more than twelve weeks away from a critical Scottish election and in the midst of a global pandemic. May’s election will go a long way to defining how Scotland will emerge from the health and economic crisis we face and how it might break the constitutional log jam that touches every part of public life.

There is an increasing polarisation, not just between political parties but within political parties on how to deal with the question of a second independence referendum. The latest announcement from Mike Russell that a referendum could take place this year, met with a cynical and angry response by a minority within the SNP, Labour’s umpteenth attempt to find a solution to its problems in Scotland and the Tory’s latest plan to ‘save the union’ all point towards a debate which has become increasingly tactical. All of this is at the expense of a real debate on the purpose of constitutional change.

One thing is clear, the pandemic has laid bare the truth of how far away we are from being the type of country we need to be. We have crushing levels of poverty and economic inequality in Scotland which pre-dated the pandemic. There is no industrial strategy to meet the approaching jobs crisis and far too many of the jobs we do have are low paid and precarious. Our system of social care is not fit for purpose and Scotland is the drugs death capital of Europe. As a response to the current crisis, last week’s Scottish Budget fell short on pay, redistribution and funding for desperately needed local public services.

Twenty consecutive opinion polls have confirmed that support for independence has grown. There is an even larger majority in the country who believe a second referendum should take place. Though what is much less clear is whether there is public support for a referendum in 2021 or even 2022. Many in the SNP seem oblivious to this and it is hard to escape the conclusion that, important though they are, many of the other issues causing the party’s internal civil war, are becoming proxies for that tactical debate.

Labour has its own referendum problems. Its position on the right to self-determination and a second independence referendum is confused at best. Those within Labour who have set themselves against a second referendum for a generation are clearly out of step with a large majority of Scottish voters. To put it starkly, telling Scotland’s younger voters (3/4 of whom support independence) who were in primary school when the last referendum campaign kicked off that they must wait until they are 40 or 50 to have a say on the issue that most dominates Scottish politics, is hardly a strategy for growth.

Once in a generation clearly means different things to different people. For Scottish Secretary Alasdair Jack it is as long as half a century whereas the Good Friday Agreement stipulates that there should be seven years between border polls on Irish reunification.

Irrespective of how many years there are in a generation, it is incoherent to ignore the fact that political conditions have changed significantly since 2014. We have had Brexit, the pandemic and a UK Prime Minister clearly set on reducing the powers of the Scottish Parliament as recently seen with the Single Market Act.

A recent Labour Party report commissioned by Jeremy Corbyn has proposed radical reforms to devolve power in the UK, including a federal parliament, a written constitution and significant new authority for England’s regions. If Labour were to adopt it this would be a step forward in creating a platform for a meaningful intervention on Scottish devolution.

But if the politics that surrounded the ‘once in a generation’ pledge have moved on such as to justify a second vote, so too have the politics that conditioned the debate over further devolution. Rather than scoff at the proponents of devo max and/or federalism because the Vow didn’t deliver what it promised, pro-independence supporters should be open to engaging in meaningful debate even if ultimately opinions will differ.

As thing stand,  we seem headed towards a binary choice between the devolution status quo (with a Westminster Government seeking to undermine the Scottish Parliament’s powers wherever it can) and the SNP’s Growth Commission prospectus for independence which would severely limit the potential for progressive economic and fiscal policy and arguably consign Scotland to a decade of austerity. 

What we really need is a debate which can, at the same time, open enough space to explore alternative plans for independence and alternative proposals for devolution.

This would be a different kind of debate, starting from the economic and social change we need to bring about and assessing new the various constitutional options in this light. For the STUC, the starting point is the People’s Recovery. Our manifesto combines short-term measures to rebuild our economy with medium and longer-term measures to create a democratic and green economy and a society in which workers and their families have fair work, decent housing and a proper safety net. It calls for a fundamental rethink on the purposes of growth and the introduction of urgent measures such as a National Care Service, a green stimulus package, sectoral collective bargaining and democratic public ownership.

Many of these policy proposals can be implemented in the here and now using existing powers. Some would require additional powers for the Scottish Parliament with others requiring independence or a change of Government in the UK.

Aligned to our People’s Recovery, which makes no bones about our priority of tackling the pandemic and implementing a radical programme to reshape society, our Congress recently adopted the position that continuing majority support for independence added to the seemingly likely election of a majority of pro-independence MSPs in May, would make the case for a second referendum unanswerable. But we also agreed that any such referendum need not be a binary choice between independence and the status quo. We need to recognise that the demand for a second referendum is not going to go away but to also accept the possibility that if and when that referendum comes, a third option could be presented

In this context ‘Scotland United’ a series of essays from the Red Paper Collective on the potential for a third referendum option offering a devo-max/federalist choice is a welcome addition to the debate. It both accepts that a second referendum should take place and provides a critique of the Growth Commission’s independence blueprint. It also takes account of a growing opposition across the rest of the UK to the Tories centralising agenda.

Importantly, the publication does not fall into the trap of framing a third referendum option as a ‘way to save the union’. This rhetoric, adopted by the UK Labour Party and others, may resonate in parts of England and with a minority in Scotland, but for the majority here (not least the more than 50% who currently support independence) it is tantamount to plastering the policy with the ‘look no further’ sticker. 

In its submission to the Smith Commission back in 2015, the STUC laid out an ambitious plan for further devolution. It included greater fiscal and borrowing powers, the devolution of employment and equality law including the ability to set a higher minimum wage; the devolution of all relevant income and land related taxes including inheritance tax and capital gains tax reliefs to enable the Scottish Parliament to tackle the inequities of asset and land ownership; additional powers to tailor support for low carbon generation and increased powers over migration.

It is hard to argue that a Scotland Parliament with these powers would not be better equipped to address the current crisis or indeed to take a different future economic and social path.

None of this is to say that devo max is the settled position of the trade union movement in Scotland. Many remain attracted to independence in either its ‘Growth Commission’ or a more radical form. Brexit tells us that ‘independence’ can take many forms and teaches us that the devil is in the detail. Central to any decision will be the currency options presented and the implications for Scottish sovereignty.

But moving away from a sterile tactics-driven debate to one which is driven by the economic and social change we need to see is an imperative that must be grasped.

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