Independence: the curse of the White Paper

The referendum is going to be close, and relatively minor issues – like arguments about supermarket prices – may still tip the balance.  But the support for independence is lower than I thought it might be at this stage, and in part that is attributable to the White Paper, Scotland’s Future.  When the Scottish Government introduced it, they thought they were addressing one of the key problems that independence debates have faced elsewhere – the argument from uncertainty.  Pin down the position, the argument goes, and there won’t be scope to generate fear and uncertainty.  I think that was a strategic mistake, which has hampered the argument for independence, and it may still be decisive.

The central problem was that the White Paper was set in concrete.  There is a limited recognition of the need to negotiate, but many of the statements in it wall the government in.  Why would an independent country want a currency union? Why keep distinct defence forces rather than develop an integrated service?  Why commit to preserve pension entitlements as they are for most of the next century?   There are other potential issues lurking in the wings:  a restrictive timetable that must mean that Scotland loses its representation in London long before many issues are settled.

That leads to the second problem. the problem of presentation.  The Scottish Government has been determined to treat the White Paper as a manifesto, so that a vote for ‘Yes’ is treated as a mandate to enact everything in it.  The SNP’s determination to reiterate that the policy is what the White Paper says it is has hampered the supporters of independence –  none more so than Alex Salmond, whose woes in the first televised debate were almost entirely the result of trying to defend the inflexible position of the White Paper.

The third problem is a strategic one.  Much of the campaign for independence has been based on participative public engagement.  The White Paper has been the opposite: a top-down policy document now being offered for a ‘mandate’.  There was time to consult, to see which policies would fly, which needed to be modified, which needed to be dropped.  That hasn’t happened – and the albatrosses that the Yes Campaign is carrying are birds that supporters thought they’d shot a year ago.

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