Nicola Sturgeon’s lecture for the Constitution Unit on Thursday evening, 13 February, was a rare opportunity for her to speak to a London audience, and for a London audience to see her. What they heard was a very slick presentation of the SNP’s case for ‘soft independence’, carefully tailored for the audience, and predicated on advancing Scottish self-government rather than breaking up the UK. Her key arguments were that Scotland could be independent, and was well-prepared for that because of the development of devolution; that Scotland could and should become independent, because Westminster’s politics and policies were at odds with those of Scotland; and that independence would be a firm basis for good relations with all the nations of the British isles. She emphasised that Scottish independence was ‘emphatically not separatist or insular … [n]or … driven by antipathy towards or resentment of our neighbours in the rest of the UK.’ Indeed, she said she was sure independence could be achieved without any lingering sense of resentment in the rest of the UK. She added that the debate was not about ‘identity’ and that the SNP were not asking people to choose their identity as part of the process which may come as a surprise to some observers). Rather, it was about the best form of self-government for Scotland.
Much of this was familiar to those who have heard the SNP in recent years, and much could be strongly contested. The line that Scotland’s politics were different to those of England was undermined by arguing that Scottish independence would not doom the rest of the UK to unending Conservative governments, for example. Sturgeon made a good deal of how important it was for Scotland to have control of such issues as economic management, defence and foreign affairs from Westminster – even though an independent Scotland’s room for manoeuvre under its white paper blueprint would be limited, and even though there is little sign from polling that these issues are key in voters’ minds.
This wider formulation of the objectives of independence enabled Sturgeon to avoid the trickiest issue; the previous day’s announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer (supported by his Labour shadow and Lib Dem Chief Secretary) that there would be no currency union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK. This shift is highly significant in itself, because it embodies the elements of continuity and certainty for Scottish voters in voting for independence, and Scottish businesses after it. Indeed, in his 2012 Hugo Young lecture (and on some subsequent occasions) Alex Salmond ended up going so far as to say that Scottish independence was not about monetary policy but securing fiscal autonomy. A sterling currency union is also a key element of the wider scheme for what has been called ‘independence lite’, by which independence would change undesirable aspects of the status quo (rule from Westminster), but preserve desirable ones such as currency, the Crown and the EU. (For a discussion of that, see my earlier post here.)
Sturgeon’s position on the issue was what she stated earlier on the Daily Politics, and Alex Salmond was saying in Edinburgh; the UK was seeking to bully Scottish voters, but it was all bluff and the position would change after a Yes vote. In other words: UK ministers don’t mean what they say in clear and plain terms, and even when they explain it in terms of the plain self-interest often invoked by SNP speakers as justification why rUK should do what they want it to. Their true meaning is different, veiled, concealed behind their words. Sturgeon may have invoked two of UCL’s Scottish founders at the beginning of her speech, Thomas Campbell and Henry Brougham, but the shade inspiring her here was more that of the Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss.
The most interesting point of her speech – the one where she departed from well-known positions – was when she was asked (by me) about options for enhanced devolution – not on the referendum ballot paper, but being discussed among all three unionist parties in Scotland. Such an option clearly has wide public support, and the IPPR Devo More project is designed to formulate what such an option might be. Sturgeon had already noted the lack of support for the status quo. Responding, she said that such an option was necessary for the No side; failure to offer it meant that No-inclined voters might otherwise switch and vote Yes. While she said no offer could convince her, she set out three tests that such an offer would have to satisfy to be credible. First, the substance would have to be meaningful, and include substantial tax, welfare and employment policy devolution. Second, it would have to be agreed between the three unionist parties. Third, there need to be a clear timetable, and assurances that it would in fact be delivered.
The present positions of the unionist parties are a long way from what Sturgeon stipulated here, with a cross-party platform rejected by Ruth Davidson for the Scottish Conservatives and serious-infighting within Scottish Labour over tax devolution. It would also be absurd to expect unionist parties to subscribe to a form of further devolution just because it would be acceptable to the SNP. But the Devo More model includes all those elements of which Sturgeon spoke, in a way that is designed to reinforce not weaken the Union in the longer term. Sturgeon might be rather surprised by the Devo More proposals for welfare devolution when those are published in March, for example. Signing up to that model would narrow the ground for the SNP very greatly, in a way they clearly recognise as a threat.