A Better Way Forward, by Victor Clements

Campaigner Victor Clements considers a new approach to Scottish electoral - and referendum - politics.

It says a lot about the current state of Scottish politics that our Westminster parliament can see the value in debating an Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) for Scotland but we can’t seem to see the value in doing that for ourselves — even with the imminent arrival of substantial new powers and the greater need for accountability and transparency there will then be because of that. It is not part of our political discourse here at all.

As some-one who pounded the streets during both the referendum and the 2015 General Election campaign, wearing, at different times, Liberal Democrat, Better Together and Forward Together hats, a variation on this has occurred to me. When you are walking and thinking, speaking to both the hostile and the friendly as well as the ambivalent, you work through all sorts of ideas in your head. You get the chance to test them out. After endless repetition, you boil these thoughts down to one or two that might actually fly. There will have been thousands of people doing a lot of thinking over the past two years or so, and whichever side of the debate we were on, we have all now experienced both success and disappointment within a short period of time. We all know what both feel like, but at the moment, it is those on the pro- Union side who are finding it hardest to see the positives. What happened in May 2015 could easily happen again, and more, in May 2016.

The message I have taken from these two events is that many people in Scotland have stopped listening. For a nation that pride themselves on canniness and critical assessment, there is remarkably little in the way of due diligence when it comes to the big issues of how we are governed and who might be paying for it. While many people found the Independence referendum to be an uplifting and engaging process, my attitude to it was one of frustration and disappointment. If the debate was to have been about understanding what Independence might actually mean for us, the question on the ballot paper never really got answered in that debate, and we all had to make our minds up with the limited and contradictory evidence available to us. We never did get to know what currency we would have used, what the situation with the EU might have been, what would have changed or not with pensions, the BBC or the Royal Mail. Would anything have changed at all and if it had, would it have been for the better or for the worse? If the latter, would we have considered it a price worth paying?

I kept coming back to the same two thoughts. Firstly, while people continually asked for “facts”, they regarded with suspicion the information that did come forwards. Curiously, many people gave the benefit of the doubt to those figures scrawled on the back of an envelope, rather than those that were more thoroughly produced and analysed. 

Secondly, the biggest constitutional referendum in my voting lifetime was the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland in 1998. I continually compared the process to that.  The history and the context were different there, but the order of magnitude seemed about the same. The difference was that we knew then what we were voting for. It had been negotiated. People did not go to the voting booths, each with their own view on what it was all about or what it might mean. There were a couple of ambiguities which later were to cause problems, but most of the important information had been pinned down, and while we might not have liked some of it, the balance seemed right, and an overwhelming majority voted for it. In September 2014 here in Scotland, we knew next to nothing. Those in favour ended up arguing on the point of principle, and those against argued on the figures or the lack of them, and annoyed a good part of the population in to voting Yes as they stuck by their rugged determination to get answers. They were never forthcoming. Not even now. To many, this didn’t seem to matter. This is something that Unionists find hard to understand.

Looking ahead

It won’t be long before we have to do all this again. There will be a lot at stake, not least because the Scottish Government that is elected in 2016 will be the first to exercise the power of taxing, as well as the privilege of spending. We have yet to experience that from a Scottish administration, but the likelihood is that a huge proportion of the electorate will simply give the SNP the benefit of the doubt anyway. Whyever that is, they have done so twice already in the past year, and will probably do so again unless some-one can change the narrative a bit and get us properly focused on what a Scottish Government might do afterwards and why. If we don’t ask the questions until afterwards, then it will be too late 

And of course, there will be another referendum, under some pretext or another. Anything will do. Their 100,000 members will demand it. Their constitution says they must campaign for it. Next time around, they might well win. They will win unless we can change the narrative.

I think there are two ways of doing that.

Planning for the next Parliament

David Cameron entertained the idea of a Scottish OBR because he thinks the SNP “manipulate the figures”. But others are not innocent in all this either. At the election just past, his own party gave a commitment to reduce welfare spending by £12 billion, but didn’t say how. The Labour Party kept coming up with new policy and spending commitments, even during the campaign, all supposedly paid for by a mansion tax that was already committed to paying for something else. The Greens came badly unstuck on how they might pay for their universal citizen’s income. It is not just the SNP who can duck and weave when it comes to election time. They all do it. We should expect better, but we don’t get it. They keep doing it, and we keep voting for them. Why should they change?

Perhaps we should be more specific about what we ask for.

Proposal 1:  Ask all parties to budget their manifestoes

The idea of a Scottish OBR is a good one. The name is not important. We already have Audit Scotland. They might fulfil the function required, as long as the structure is right and they are properly impartial. It is the function required that is important, an organisation who we can trust to put the information we need in front of us at election time.

But we could and should go further. There needs to be a way of vetting the plans of any party standing for election before voting day. We have the opportunity in Scotland to set up a system of oversight and transparency that we can be proud of while all these new powers are still fresh. What we should do is to ask any party standing for government in Scotland to prepare a budget for the entire parliament ahead. The format of the budget should be the same for every party, devised by the Scottish OBR (or Audit Scotland). It should be set out in a way that other political parties, economists, media commentators and the interested man or woman in the street can understand. The format should be the same as that then followed in government, with all parties privy to the same level of information. The budgets would be submitted well in advance of any election and crucially, stamped as competent, or not, by our over seeing body. 

The important thing would be that we have a body charged with providing impartial analysis, and the expectation from everyone should then be that they have the final word. Failure to produce a competent budget would indicate that the sums do not add up. For those voters who don’t have time to dig in to the figures, the word of such an organisation should be enough. At present, political parties will see the headline proposals in their manifestos subject to some sort of third party analysis, but we never see the whole picture. The only way to do this is to look at an overall budget, and look at this in the round.

Such a simple change would be very specific, but be easily understood, and it would change the political culture of our country forever. Once adopted, we would never go back. This would change the current narrative, probably in a way that no political party would like. The idea might be a bit dry, but the public will understand and appreciate the concept without going in to the detail too much. We would be demanding a better standard of debate, and we would be asking that all politicians respect the impartial analysis provided by those charged to do so. Much of the necessary information already exists of course. The problem is that it is not respected.

Proposal 2: Changing the terms of the Independence debate

And then there is this referendum thing. The chances are it will happen again within the next parliament, despite the assurances previously given that it would be a generation until the next one. Do we really want to go through the same process again with the SNP trying to bluff things out, or is there another way?

Unlike the budgeting process above, which can be readily assessed as competent or not, the actual shape of any Independence settlement will inevitably depend on a process of negotiation. We cannot foretell the outcome, but maybe therein lies the solution, for both Yes and No voters alike. We could all have greater confidence going to the polls if we were voting on a negotiated settlement, not on the principle of being independent.

If those in favour of Independence get a majority in the Scottish parliament next year, and if they want another go at it, why don’t we just skip the debate and move straight to negotiations, and then give people a vote on that? The election process will provide the mandate, the negotiations will provide the detailed outcome we have been lacking to date. Those curious about independence will then know exactly what it will look like. It may turn out to be a good thing, or it may look more like many of us might fear. Either way, we will all then be looking at the same proposal. It would be time consuming, but no more so than the current squabbles. It would provide clarity, and it would change the narrative. We would still be having a referendum if people wanted that — it would just be that the terms of that referendum had changed. 

From a pro-Union perspective, the proposal would work on three different levels:

Firstly, the proposal is positive and constructive. We would have changed the narrative on to ground that few reasonable people could object to, and many Yes-inclined Scots are indeed reasonable people.  Many of the “moderate majority” in Scotland voted Yes in 2014, or for the SNP in May this year, rightly or wrongly. We need to come to terms with that and address the reasons why.

Secondly, we would gain a strategic advantage in that the debate would not be taking place on ground of the SNP’s choosing, and on which they are currently well dug in, but on ground of our choosing. The SNP would not like it, because it would be taking their momentum and using it against them. This is important. If a large juggernaut is coming towards you, you don’t stand in front of it and try to stop it. You need to take a step back and try another angle. It may be that the juggernaut will simply crash if you just stand back and let it. We would be challenging the SNP to go to the place they say they want to go, but to report back to us on what it was really like before we decided if we wanted to go there ourselves or not. If they are wrong, or if they know they have been misleading people, then they will come to grief, and rightly so, and we wont be with them when they crash.

Finally, the approach plays to what should be the pro-Unionist advantage, making sure than any debate is centred on the reality of the world we live on today, and using the information which we have at our disposal, but which is currently being ignored. We could try to resist another referendum for a generation, but that could mean that we are standing in front of the juggernaut and in a dangerous place. We don’t want to do that when we can choose better ground on which to tackle the issue.

The only way to really know what Independence would look like is to negotiate a settlement. Give the SNP what they want, the opportunity to negotiate that settlement, but give the people the final say. Who with Scotland’s best interests at heart could reasonably object to that? There is a Chinese proverb where the wind and the sun are trying to get a man to take his coat off. The wind tries to blow it off his back, but the harder it blows, the tighter he holds on to it, and the wind eventually fails. Then the sun comes out, the man gets too warm, and he takes his coat off himself.

Maybe we should try another way too.

Victor Clements works as a woodland advisor in Perthshire. He is a member of the Liberal Democrats and has campaigned on behalf of Better Together and Forward Together in Perth & Kinross.

Register Your Support Contact Us Subscribe to our newsletter