The SNP’s quiet revolution in its approach to devolution

Devolution, devolution and more devolution. It is the order of the day.


Yet it is not a new phenomenon in our country’s politics. Administrative devolution began in 1885 and was followed, eventually, by legislative devolution in 1999. The arguments surrounding if Scotland should have a parliament or assembly, what powers should this institution hold and how should this endeavour be financed have been some of the central arguments in Scottish politics throughout much of the 20th century.


To many people’s surprise the new parliament has largely been humming an ‘old sang’ as we, again, set out to answer the two defining questions of devolution; what powers should the Scottish Parliament have and how should the parliament be funded.


For the first time in legislative devolution’s short history it is a Nationalist leader at the negotiating table.


It is difficult for many people who can largely be clumped together as the ‘Indyref Generation’ to fully comprehend at one point, in the not too distant past, not all SNP politicians and activists supported devolution. Some argued that it would lock Scotland into the Union and divert the nationalist movement away from its goal – independence. These were the Fundamentalists and they lost Scottish nationalism’s ideological debate. They are now just footnotes in the history of the independence movement.


When you consider that devolution is essentially a way of attempting to improve the United Kingdom, you can appreciate why those who wish to leave the Union would look at the concept sceptically.


Historically we are seeing a change from the nationalist trend of accepting any new powers to Scotland as fundamentally good for the country and the party. Now we see the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and her colleagues seek a fiscal package which suits their policy agenda first and foremost.


When the Kilbrandon report on a Scottish Assembly landed in late 1973 the first reaction from the SNP was a resolution by the National Executive Committee calling on the Scottish Trade Union Council (STUC) to demand ‘an extension of economic and financial powers of the assembly proposed by the report’. By the spring of 1974 that had dwarfed into demands not for an assembly but a ‘parliament’ and one which had all ‘economic and fiscal powers, and control over UK government departments in so far as their activities affected Scotland. From that point on the Nationalist position was clear; the more powers in Scotland’s hands means less power at the hands of Westminster, this can only be good.


From the signing of the Smith Commission on 27 November 2014 to a few months ago this was largely still the position of the SNP. John Swinney, whose signature is on the document, in a statement to the Scottish Parliament, said, “On behalf of the Scottish Government I welcome the contents of the report but regret that a wider range of powers has not been delivered”. Meanwhile the 2015 manifesto for the Westminster election stated:


“We believe that these proposals do not go far enough to honour the promises made during the referendum….In the meantime, we will prioritise devolution of powers over employment policy, including the minimum wage, welfare, business taxes, national insurance and equality policy – the powers we need to create jobs, grow revenues and lift people out of poverty”.



In these negotiations between the Scottish Government and the Treasury over the fiscal framework we are gently seeing a move away from this ‘any further devolution is preferable to no further devolution’.


Sturgeon is fashioning a more nuanced nationalism. One that almost aims to create a form of independence within the United Kingdom.  It is one that does not simply seek a wider and wider array of powers but, instead, one which aims to provide the SNP with a toolbox to achieve its non-constitutional policy aims.

It is a quiet but important revolution in nationalist thinking.

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The conspiracy theorists are wrong: Sturgeon doesn’t secretly want Brexit

The Prime Minister has launched the referendum and in just four months Britain’s membership of the European Union will be on the line. Europe could break and so could another union, the union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

A second independence referendum is a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ in Scottish politics. If Britain – let’s be frank – if England votes to leave the European Union, then the wheels would be set in motion for this second referendum. The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on The Andrew Marr Show that in this circumstance a second referendum would ‘almost certainly be the demand of the people of Scotland’.

She is correct. But this is not her preferred route to a second referendum.

A sudden Brexit presents an issue in terms of an independent Scotland’s prospective European Union membership. If you cast your mind back to 2014, the argument followed that in the period between 19 September 2014 and 24 March 2016 (independence day) Scotland would negotiate its membership of the EU while still being a member via the United Kingdom.

If Brexit occurred before the second independence referendum was held or the official independence day then that strategy for negotiating as favourable terms as possible (the United Kingdom’s membership terms which Scotland enjoys currently) while part of a member state is obviously ended.

Do you really think Sturgeon would want that sort of headache during the middle of a second referendum campaign? I don’t.

Brexit would deny Nicola Sturgeon the thing which she wants more than anything: time. She wants to fight the second referendum, which would be the last throw of the dice for the entire independence project, when the ground suits her. She does not want her hand to be forced.

If the Nationalist’s vision of independence is to maintain the same level of public spending or indeed to raise it to ‘Scandinavian levels’, then 2016 is not a fertile year to leave the UK. Next month will bring us annual GERS figures which will illustrate Scotland having one of its highest deficits in living memory. Principally, of course, due to the oil price crash.

Sturgeon therefore needs time for either global demand in oil to outstrip supply or to refashion the Scottish economy so that it yields the same revenues as the 2013 white paper forecasted.

Of course oil is not a prerequisite for independence. Scotland could adopt a low tax, low public spending model like our neighbours in Ireland. Perhaps Sturgeon could look further afield to the non-oil producing small European nation of Estonia with its flat income taxes and a thoroughly modern economy.

If, however, the prospectus for an independent Scotland is the same one which was laid out at the first referendum then either tax rises or increased borrowing would now be needed to maintain the same levels of public spending outside the UK which currently occurs in Scotland. This is why Sturgeon wants time. There could be nothing that she fears more than to be pushed into launching a second referendum by events out with her control.

Her preference is very simple. Following her government’s reelection in May, Sturgeon will have five more years until the next Holyrood elections. The previous year in 2020 a Corbyn led Labour party is trashed at the UK general election. A third term in government for the Tories, “who Scotland didn’t vote for”. The 2008 financial crisis will be a historical event and Scotland’s, and the United Kingdom’s, economy will be growing – she hopes. When Scots then go to the polls to elect the next Scottish government in May 2021 the economic and political terrain will suit the Nationalist cause far better than this year. Then, more than likely, will Sturgeon play her hand and include a guarantee for a second referendum on independence.

2021 is far enough away for the economic issues to be straightened out and not that distant that the idea of independence will have disappeared out of the national consciousness.

Between 2007 – 2011 Salmond, the first ever Nationalist to hold power, sat tight and did not push for an independence referendum as he knew the time was not right. Sturgeon in many regards is a very different person to Salmond, but on this they are both alike.

There is no secret Nationalist conspiracy theory. Sturgeon wants the United Kingdom to remain a member of the European Union. Both for Scotland’s economic well being and to fight the second referendum when it suits her best.

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Despite some bad apples in the group the SNP’s MPs are the party’s brightest stars

It was the morning after the night before. The referendum was over. A politician, his generation’s finest, stands in front of a microphone on an Edinburgh podium. He looks out to a sea of ‘Yes’ signs and saltires.

No, not Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon. This is Tony Blair. The country’s voters had just delivered two majorities for his government’s plans for both a devolved parliament and for it to have tax raising powers. He clears his throat and declares, “This is a good day for Scotland and a good day for Britain and the United Kingdom too”.


New Labour, new Scotland and a new Britain.


While the architects of a new Britain relaxed, a group of talented politicians quietly plotted its downfall. They would use this new parliament as a stepping stone to separation; a gradual transition to independence.


The creation of a new Scottish parliament transformed the nation’s politics. Political compasses began to point not towards Westminster but to a new institution in Edinburgh. The Nationalists sensed this in the air. With their eyes fixated onto a new semi-proportional parliament, they sent their brightest talents to Holyrood whilst Labour sent their reserves.


The names leap out at you; Salmond, Sturgeon; Margo, MacAskill; Ewing and Swinney. Holyrood was the centre of the nationalist’s political universe.


As the years progressed these Nationalist giants turned the political thermostat up in Edinburgh. Scotland’s unionist parties started to become uncomfortable in this new climate. The heat became intolerable and their hegemony over those hallowed green benches wilted in the spring sunshine of 2015. As Mr. Blair once asked, ‘a new dawn has broken, has it not?’


The nationalist compass has reset again. With continued power and responsibility at Holyrood many are beginning to look to Westminster as a source to rejuvenate the party. If you want to find the next big things in Scottish nationalism, then look to Westminster. Holyrood is now filled with has-beens and those politicians who will never be much more than just vote button pressing MSPs devoid of any rhetorical brilliance.


In the immediate aftermath of the party’s independence referendum defeat, the SNP absorbed many pro-independence Scots who campaigned or donated money to Yes Scotland. They did not want that Thursday in September to be the end of their political activism. They found a home in the all-encompassing political machine which is the modern SNP.


This snowball in membership – from 25,000 to over 115,000 members – ensured constituency associations had a breadth of talent. When it came to selecting candidates for the Westminster election they possessed prospective politicians with lives, careers, specific policy interests and a yearning to change the world around them.


As Holyrood was in 1999, Westminster is now the parliament best placed to push the SNP forward. From those famous green benches, a constitutional assault will take place. It is here that the nationalists will attempt to drive a wedge between Scotland’s representatives and the Tory government. With Labour in disarray and the Liberal Democrats almost defunct, it is the Nationalist benches where you will find some of the finest political talent in these isles.


Despite some public embarrassments, the SNP grouping at Westminster is impressive. It contains a former speechwriter to a US senator, a breast surgeon, a QC, a teacher and the youngest MP for 350 years. The Baby of the House, Mhairi Black, has not been posted missing at Westminster. Instead she has made her mark not just inside the Commons but in British politics more widely. Her maiden speech has been viewed by millions online – which is not a boast many nationalist MSPs can make. How many of theses list MSPs’ names are even known to their regional constituents?


It is not just notoriety but quality which has shown through in the SNP benches. Glasgow Central’s Alison Thewliss MP has punctured hole after hole in the government’s changes to tax credit entitlement for women who have had a child conceived from a rape attack. When the speaker calls her name ministers and even the prime minister gulp knowing they are about to be on the end of a well crafted volley across the floor.

While another Glasgow MP, Stewart McDonald, has a growing number of fans amongst Scotland’s journalists. While some Nationalists, wrongly, see the media as an enemy McDonald is doing the opposite. As time goes on he will become the rational voice for independence.

Yet look at SNP MSPs of a similar party standing. The party’s backbench MSPs have barely said anything of interest in the last five years let alone five months. Where is the Thewliss and Black amongst the dozen of nationalist MSPs?


Spring is the season of new beginnings and 2015 brought the SNP a host of new talent. Yes, there will be some rotten apples amongst it but, on balance, the Nationalist’s Westminster group is impressive on anyone’s test.


If you want to see the brightest stars in the Nationalist sky, then look to the south. Some of these stars will only grow brighter in years to come.

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Scottish Labour’s tax plans will hurt most Scots and their own campaign

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale set out her party’s plans today to stop the need for government spending cuts with income tax rises.

Under her plans the Scottish Rate of Income Tax would rise by 1% across the board. This means Scotland’s income tax bands would be; 21%, 41%, and 46%. To stop ‘low earners’ being dealt a blow Ms Dugdale also announced a £100 rebate for those earning under £20,000.

As illustrated by blogger Kevin Hague this would mean the following:


The mechanism and journey behind the Scottish Rate of Income Tax is explained here by fellow blogger Graeme Cowie. It was part of the pre-Smith Commission further devolution settlement which now seems like a lifetime ago.

The problem for Scottish Labour is that more people will be directly worse off under their plans compared to the number of those that will benefit.

No political party has been successful in Scotland by asking the vast bulk of the country to pay more taxes. We may as a nation self-identify  as a part of Scandinavia that somehow floated away and became attached to a neo-liberal land mass called Britain but the evidence is missing.

Indeed the Scottish Government stressed to readers in its white paper on independence that independence did not equal higher taxes (Scotland’s Future, pg.386-387). It felt the need to stress that as it knew that fighting the referendum on the basis that ‘Yes’ equals higher taxes is not an attractive pitch.

Most Scots don’t want to pay more tax. It’s just a fact of life. Those who have campaigned on doorsteps will tell you that. The fetish of enjoying paying more tax is a minority pursuit.

Indeed the SNP had to learn this lesson the hard way. In 1999 during the campaign for the inaugural Scottish Parliament the SNP launched a similar 1p income tax rise proposal. The policy was ridiculed and then quietly dropped by the time of the 2003 election. It taught the SNP though a valuable lesson. They spent the next 15 years from the ‘penny for Scotland’ campaign building an all-encompassing Scottish nationalism which is not based on class or higher taxation.

That’s why they have been in power since 2007 and why they will still be in power for many years to come.

The Scottish Labour ship was already taking in water before this policy announcement today. Their sworn enemies the SNP have destroyed the party’s electoral base with their aforementioned all-encompassing political machine. Today, its captain has turned the ship to the left and now the party is heading straight for a Tory tax torpedo. Labourites should brace for impact.


Today’s tax plans from Scottish Labour has just validated the Scottish Tories’ entire election campaign message. Now Ruth Davidson can say as a matter of fact that she is the only Unionist party leader not proposing that Scots pay a higher rate of tax than their counterparts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Let’s be frank about Scottish Labour’s position in our politics today. They are pitching to the section of the electorate that is not interested in them while actively turning many middle class unionists – their new core voter base – off them. This is an electoral kamikaze campaign with the sole purpose of just trying to dent the SNP’s progressive facade.

If there was one thing that Scottish Labour – an army already suffering mass casualties – did not need was another front. Today they have opened up this new front voluntarily. God help them, as I’m not sure they can help themselves.


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Revealed Part 2 – The Scottish Government and NATO’s Communications

Earlier this month on the blog I published my FOI return surrounding the Scottish Government and NATO’s communications.

The returns detailed the following:

  • Only one contact took place between 2007 and 2014
  • The contact was Scottish Government officials visiting NATO HQ in Brussels with UK Government Officials on 8 June 2013
  • The meeting was arranged by the UK Government’s Foriegn and Commonwealth Office following a request via a phone call from the Scottish Government
  • The meeting’s discussion were to be treated as confidential as are all NATO-UK Government meetings
  • However, five months later the Scottish Government’s white paper on independence (Scotland’s Future) stated, “Yes. The Scottish Government has opened contact with NATO regarding an independent Scotland’s membership of the organisation” (Scotland’s Future: 2013. pg. 466)

I was interested in regards to the phone call between someone in the Scottish and British governments to organise this meeting. Following the earlier FOI I placed a subsequent one specifically on the phone call.

Here is what was disclosed to me:




FOI NATO (2/2)

As you see then the Scottish Government does not hold any information regarding this phone call. This phone call could have been where we began to chart the start of an independent Scotland’s defence policy, it is important historically.

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Revealed – The Scottish Government and NATO’s Communications

It was currency unions not military unions which fuelled debate in the final weeks of the independence referendum.

Every now and again, however, defence would be raised as a referendum issue.

On every occasion the same two arguments from the opposing campaigns would be pushed into spotlight; Better Together would claim that independence would end Royal Navy supported shipyard and Faslane based jobs while Yes Scotland rebutted by explaining that independence would stop Scotland being dragged into more ‘illegal wars’ like the 2003 Iraq war.

The backbone of an independent Scotland’s defence policy would be membership of NATO, claimed the Scottish Government. Membership would be on the condition that there would be no hinderance to Edinburgh’s plans to end Faslane as a host to the rUK’s nuclear weapons systems.

There could still be nuclear weapons in an independent Scotland’s territory though, as the white paper ‘Scotland’s Future’ explained:

“While they are both strong advocates for nuclear disarmament, both Norway and Denmark allow NATO vessels to visit their ports without confirming or denying whether they carry nuclear weapons. We intend that Scotland will adopt a similar approach as Denmark and Norway in this respect.” (Scotland’s Future: 2013, pg 465)

This government white paper also had another interesting snippet on NATO. It asserted that communications lines between the Scottish Government and the organisation had been opened:


“Q. Have there been discussions with NATO about Scotland’s membership?

A. Yes. The Scottish Government has opened contact with NATO regarding an independent Scotland’s membership of the organisation.” (Scotland’s Future: 2013. pg. 466)

I found this surprising when rereading through my copy of the paper. It seemed that no newspaper had inquired about these two sentences in the document. So I sent through a Freedom of Information Request to the Scottish Government to establish what contact was made between these two organisations.


NATO FOI (1/5)

NATO FOI (1/5)

NATO FOI (2-3/ 5)

NATO FOI (2-3/ 5)

NATO FOI (4/5)

NATO FOI (4/5)

NATO FOI (5/5)

NATO FOI (5/5)

The FOI covered the period of  the SNP’s 2007 election victory to the 18th September 2014. I asked for details of all the communications between the two organisations.

As you can see then the Scottish Government only had one brief contact: a 4 hour visit to Brussels with UK Government officials on 8 July 2013.

Furthermore, the exemption explanation under  section 32(1)(a)(ii) of FOISA 28 states that, “the meeting…was held on the understanding that the detail of discussions would be treated as being in confidence”.

This is important. Either one or two things occurred then from this July meeting to the two sentence answer published in November 2013; the Scottish Government broke the confidence agreement on the nature of the talks or they placed the assertion in the document knowing that it would be impossible to establish what was discussed at the meeting due to UK Government – NATO confidence agreements.

The matter needs probed further.

As an aside to the above blogpost I must stress that I fully believe that if Scotland became independent the balance of probabilities show that it would become a member of NATO, as Montenegro is about to do.

This should not however discourage close examination of this most important political and now historic document.

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The SNP must prepare Scots for the ascent to reach the summit 

As we settle into 2016, Scotland could have been readying itself for independence in around 11 weeks’ time.

It’s quite a thought. You can almost hear the bells ring out and the sight of pint glasses in the air. George Square again filled with saltires and hope. The dreamers who dared to dream would be in their reality, the promised land.


John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon arrive at Downing Street this Christmas for talks on devolution. One day it could be for an independence settlement

If just 191,969 more Scots had placed an ‘x’ beside ‘Yes’ the country would have taken a step in that direction.

They didn’t, I’m afraid to remind you. What if they did though? What would have happened in the months between that famous night in September 2014 and the present?

Let’s dare to imagine, again.

While you read this two sets of negotiating teams would be resuming their talks after the New Year celebrations.

You can bet while the talks ceased and the two parties headed home sighs of relief were given all round. I dare propose one or two would have enjoyed some more wine than they should have over the break. The pressure of what is in store when they return is beginning to be too much. ‘This wasn’t what I was promised when Salmond phoned,’ they mumble over the claret.

Despite it being in rUK’s economic best interests to have a formal currency union with Scotland, the rUK government has removed it from the negotiating table.
There has been a groundswell of public opinion in England against the Jocks after the ‘Yes’ vote. Cries of no more ‘subsidies’ or helping hands are numerous on TV, radio and newspaper columns. It seems politically impossible for any rUK Prime Minister to do such a deal, to make his taxpayers the lender of last resort to Scotland.

Similarly when the Greek government demanded debt cancellation, on sound economic reasons, it was politically impossible for the German Chancellor to accept such a deal for her own political popularity domestically. It is impossible for rhetoric to reconcile with reality.

We see economic rational replaced by the realpolitik of the situation.
Right wing commentator after commentator derides even the suggestion of such currency arrangement.

Secretly, however, the rUK position is that they will allow a formal currency union but they need something significant in return. Something that they can go back to their constituencies with and show their voters that it made the unpopular deal worthwhile. That special something that they can face them in the eye with at the next election campaign and say, ‘I did what’s best for you, me, and our generations yet unborn’.

The Scottish Government are shocked by the  rUK  government’s counter proposal. Downing Street is demanding  that an independent Scotland commit to a long-term lease of the Faslane naval base, and the continued operation of the trident submarine programme from it, in return for a currency union between the two states.

The Scottish negotiators are now stuck between a rock and a naval base. They promised a currency union but they also promised to send trident south.
Edinburgh is suddenly finding out, to its horror, that rUK team aren’t here for a velvet divorce. They are here to get the best deal for their citizens – the people who elect them or throw them out of office.

While locked in the talks – dubbed the proposed Anglo-Scots Agreement – the Scottish negotiating hand has unexpectedly diminished. The oil price has collapsed from north of $100 to under $40 – the base level the IMF set forth in April, 2015 which the North Sea needs to survive.

The £6.8bn – £7.9bn of off shore receipts as budgeted for in White Paper have evaporated.

While this is going on, the Daily Mail are running a campaign demanding a second referendum to approve or disapprove of the Anglo-Scots Agreement. Opinion polls are showing that if the referendum had been now a majority would vote to stay in the union. The Mail and others are saying that the people of Scotland were lied to by the Scottish Government.

The howls of disapproval grow louder and the beads of sweat on the foreheads of the Scottish negotiators trickle more often.

What was outlined above wasn’t dystopian fantasy but the very real possibility that Scotland could have found itself in.

The events between September 2014 and the present illustrate how quickly the lie of the land can alter. When the second referendum comes, which it will, and if the ‘Yes’ campaign triumphs, which I believe it could, it needs to be prepared for such events.

It must be nimble footed, able to alter its plans as events eclipse ideological positions. Importantly, it has to be able to concede – which Yes Scotland and the SNP did not – that hard days may come a new Scotland’s way.

That concession is important. Very important.

With that on the record any First Minister will be able to limit, subdue and marshall dissent against any failings in the negotiation agreement away from themselves to rUK. This is how nationalist politicians become winners, this is how they become a nation’s founding fathers and mothers.

The SNP leader at the time of the next referendum has to be able to be confident and honest enough to say that hard times will be ahead. She or he should have the courage and conviction to set forth that though the ascent to the summit may be difficult the view from the top will be worth it.

If they do not prepare the nation for the journey properly, the fledgling nation may falter and not fly.

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