John F. Kennedy is supposed to have been able to read 2000 words per minute. Alistair Darling must be nearly as quick: the Scottish government published its 670-page White Paper on independence at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. By midday the former chancellor had reached his verdict: ‘a work of fiction, thick with false promises and meaningless assertions’. Alistair Carmichael was lagging behind; it was the early afternoon before the Scottish secretary declared of the White Paper: ‘Rarely have so many words been used to answer so little.’
The press was, if anything, even quicker in rushing to judgment on Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland. During Tuesday morning’s launch at Glasgow Science Centre, Alex Salmond and his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, were asked barbed questions about everything from border control to European Union membership and what currency an independent Scotland would use. Sturgeon demonstrated an impressive command of her brief, reeling off page numbers and points, and Salmond put on a show of bonhomie – ‘In Glasgow parlance, you’ve had a fair kick o’ the ba’,’ the first minister said as he brought the hour-long conference to a close – but it didn’t win them many favourable headlines.
Nationalists have been accused of failing to deliver what Scots are constantly told they crave most: certainty. Salmond didn’t help his cause by saying earlier that the White Paper could ‘resonate down the ages’. (The normally more circumspect Sturgeon had promised voters it would ‘answer all your questions’.) The hefty document reads more like an SNP manifesto for the next Holyrood elections (which in part it is, independence or no) than ‘the most comprehensive blueprint for an independent country ever published’ (though that’s possibly true, very few nations having been forged so peaceably, a point too often forgotten amid ludicrous comparisons to the Balkans).
The White Paper is not as vacuous as its critics claim. An independent Scotland could make good on its proposals: it could have a separate broadcaster; it could remove Trident; it could provide extensive free childcare; it could (though it shouldn’t) lower corporation tax to 17 per cent. Whether it will or not depends first on the result next September, and then on the skills of its political classes.
The paper’s failure is less one of content than of form. Implicit in the production of a weighty, data-heavy text – full of swish graphics and word clouds – is the assumption that the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ has a straightforward answer. ‘We need more facts!’ is a rallying cry of the Central Belt’s chattering classes, few of whom, I would guess, have waded through the dozen and more reports published on various aspects of independence in the last six months. More reports will follow, but none will provide certainty precisely because there can be no certainty about the future, whether in an independent Scotland or in the union.
The SNP and the Yes Scotland campaign (the two are still broadly interchangeable) have allowed themselves to be bounced into trying to deliver the impossible – answers that can only be provided if Scotland votes yes. (For all London’s bluster, post-independence compromise is not only possible but likely. It was the Edinburgh Agreement between David Cameron and Alex Salmond that has allowed the referendum to take place at all.) So far, the Yes side hasn’t turned the critical questioning back on the unionists: would the UK be an EU member in 2016? Would Scottish jobs be secure in the union? What does Westminster propose to do about the chronic deprivation a short walk from the Science Centre, in the tower blocks of Glasgow’s south side?
Getting the residents of the tower blocks out to vote at all could be a deciding factor next September: independence is more popular among the poor; the middle classes have shown little enthusiasm for going it alone. A few days before the White Paper launch at the Science Centre, the Radical Independence Convention met at the Marriott Hotel on the opposite side of the Clyde. ‘We don’t have proscriptive policies,’ Pete Ramand, one of the organisers, told me. ‘We want to win over people who voted Labour or perhaps whose parents voted Labour. They’re the key.’ Around a thousand people attended the day-long conference. Scottish Labour, one of them said, ‘would struggle to get a fifth of that’.