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Before we choose a country, SNP must choose a continent

It is time the SNP accepted it has to resolve the glaring contradictions in its emerging vision for Scotland. That means Nicola Sturgeon has to take control of economic policy.

Entropy is a force in the universe that seeks to resolve contradictions. Cold moves towards hot, positive towards negative and so on. What is strange, beautiful really, is that everything we have, everything we can see or hear or feel, all of it is a result of entropy. It is not the contradiction that causes this. It is not the resolved state that produces order. It is the process of resolution itself which powers our world.

We tend therefore to see stability in what is really rapid change. When we look at a double-A battery we see a contained and stable source of energy; when the universe looks at it it sees a barely-controlled struggle of positives and negatives desperately trying to reach each other. When we see a pond, we see tranquility and calm, the universe sees a ferment of gravitational potential energy trying to expend itself.

This is equally true of politics. Most of what looks like stability to us is in fact barely-contained chaos, contradictions pulling furiously at each other. This is important to bear in mind whenever someone tells you that the SNP has ‘cleverly’ resolved he contradictions between a social democratic party and a neoliberal economic strategy.

If you hadn’t noticed the tension last week you surely must this week. So you’ve got one half of the SNP gaining some serious ground by leading the fight-back against welfare cuts in Scotland, talking about a kinder, fairer nation of empathy and justice. Then the other half notes calmly that this is just aspiration and that in fact austerity is what we’re really getting. The former is Nicola Sturgeon, the wider independence movement and about three quarters of what Alex Salmond has been saying lately. The other half is John Swinney, the Fiscal Commission and the other quarter of Salmond’s patter.

A super-quick refresher for those who don’t know how we got here. Round about millennium time, some in the SNP were in a panic about the second best election result the SNP had ever achieved. That group feared that the 1999 manifesto of ‘a penny for Scotland’ (a tax rise to fund public services) had lost them the election and it needed ‘fixed’. This quickly became a well-worn PowerPoint presentation telling the party faithful that if they wanted to win elections they needed the support of right wing commentators and so had to ‘ape’ a neoliberal agenda (of course, aping a neoliberal agenda is much the same as having a neoliberal agenda). The penny for Scotland was dropped in favour of its ‘lots and lots of pennies for big corporations’ strategy of cutting corporation tax for the sole purpose of being able to say they were going to cut corporation tax.

So stunningly well did this strategy work that in 2003 the SNP lost much worse than in lost in 1999 with a significant chunk of its vote deserting for the SSP and the Greens.

However, one of the rules of neoliberalism is that it never admits it didn’t work, hanging around until something happens it can claim proves it does. And so the SNP stuck doggedly to its stance all the way through until 2007 when it won for other reasons completely (the failure of Labour to inspire, a general sense that it was time for a change) and said ‘see, told you so’.

Now, it would be unfair to dismiss the conservative approach taken to money and the economy completely. John Swinney’s cautious, careful and solid approach to public finances between 2007 and 2011 did much to reassure the chattering classes, and that in turn filters down to the public. It still isn’t the primary reason for the SNP’s victory in 2011, but it contributed. However, that is its fiscal policy, not its economic policy.

So how did it manage its contradiction? It picked a past-its-sell-by-date cliché from the early 1990s and ‘shocked life’ back into it by, er, not having to resolve it at all. Thus the SNP has been running the ‘third way’ strategy since. Yup, the ‘there’s no contradiction between social democracy and neoliberalism, you just keep them in different boxes’ nonsense that briefly papered over the cracks in New Labour has been the glue that has almost held the SNP together. The SNP got away with it more than Labour because unlike Labour, it could be fiscally conservative fairly easy given it has a fixed budget and got to talk about cutting corporation tax without being able to do it.

By 2011, the response of Scotland was to back the SNP on the social policies Scotland supported and bluntly ignoring the corporation tax cutting the public didn’t support but knew wasn’t going to happen anyway. And then came the referendum.

Everything is now changing, contradictions screaming out for resolution they are not being permitted. The imaginary firewall between the SNP’s contradictions no longer holds once you start talking about the future in an independent Scotland. That ‘third way’ stuff that was old hat and discredited even before the SNP adopted it was safe enough when it was stuffed in the SNP’s loft doing little harm. But the SNP is having to clear out its lofts.

This started when the EU row at the tail-end of last year when it became clear that he SNP hadn’t actually thought through stuff it should have thought through. It’s opponents accused it of bluffing. And it turns out it was bluffing. Other than joining NATO, it’s constitutional thinking hadn’t even got as far as the back of a cigarette packet. That couldn’t last, and it didn’t. Nicola Sturgeon was given the job of fixing this and she has set off at a fairly impressive pace. Whether or not you support independence, there is real content and many interesting ideas in the material we have had on a constitution, how to produce it and how we would get to it.

Vacuums keep contradictions apart; when they are filled, the contradictions become stronger and more obvious. As the constitutional policy vacuum is filled so the unreconcilable gap between neoliberalism and social democracy become more apparent. How can Alex Salmond make a right to a house a constitutional guarantee when he seems also to be endorsing a fiscal strategy that demands a good, long dose of austerity?

Political entropy resolves contradictions eventually. If the SNP fights the independence referendum on a split ticket that can’t be resolved and loses, the internal backlash from the large majority in the Party that never liked the right-wing bit will be existential. If it fights and wins on a social democratic tickets across the board, there will be no way back for the SNP right. The same will basically be true if it chooses social democracy and looses. I don’t believe it is possible to win on a split ticket, but if it did, the left will not stay with the right afterwards. Actually cutting corporation tax will turn too many stomachs.

The problem is that if it fails to make a choice, many will suffer. The biggest loser is Scotland as a whole. If the SNP sticks to its safely-safely economic policy because it still thinks this wins referendums, Scotland is (for example) going to franchise out all its renewable energy resources to multinationals and any chance of a new-generation ‘energy fund’ (like the Norwegian oil fund achieved through a nationalised oil industry) will be lost forever. A model of community- and civic-owned developments providing cheap local electricity and selling the remainder on is a really hopeful vision for Scotland. The SNP’s third way cul de sac makes this something the Party won’t even allow a proper consideration of.

This is only one example – there are lots of ways in which conservative policy-making sold as a ‘reassurance strategy for the independence campaign’ sells Scotland short. The irony is that it does no favours to the Yes Campaign. Since the swing voters are mainly Labour, women and public sector workers, the pro-welfare campaign the Yes campaign is turning into is making ground. People like a public-service orientated vision. Then a former Chiefie from the not-very-good Scottish Enterprise (from the older days when it was possibly even less good than today) gets let out to tell us that no, it’s Bank of England and austerity for us all.

The way to win both hearts and minds is to have one good story, not two different stories you keep pulling out for different purposes, hoping we didn’t remember the previous story. If anyone is reading this imaging that perhaps there is a way to resolve the policies as they stand (you know, ‘but Alex says cutting corporation tax will actually create more tax revenue to support public services’) we will be producing lots of material in the near future to show this is just not true. In fact, one of the world’s leading experts on why this is not true is one of the advisors to the Fiscal Commission Joseph Stiglitz. It is a fantasy that died in 2007. For a brief explanation of the madness, have a look at Dave Watson’s take. He’s right. And just in case anyone in the indy movement doesn’t get this yet, it’s people like Dave you have to convert, not people like Crawford. And if anyone thinks the downside of this report can be overlooked because it gives ‘credibility’ to the idea of keeping the pound, that same case could have been made easily and in a million ways. It is most certainly not ‘the only way is trickle-down’.

You will have read this kind of argument before. You may have read the STUC’s careful dissections of this discredited policy approach. But one way or another people have been turning a bit of a blind eye to half of the SNP’s policy universe. Many people have given the benefit of the doubt to the SNP because of its firm support of public services. That will be changing right about now.

I’m going to return to Dave Watson once more. In the Scottish Left Review he debunks the idea of ‘Scandimerica’ – Nordic welfare with US tax levels. Yet again, he is absolutely right. You can present a vision of a Nordic Scotland of welfare, enterprise and equality. You can present an American vision of Scotland as vast wealth inequality, long hours for poverty pay and corporate hegemony. If you could find an example where both occur in the same place you might put that forward too. Since there is no example, and since this is because it is impossible, choose your contradiction. Make a firm decision about your vision and stick to it.

Before the SNP can expect us who are left of centre (all of us, the majority of Scots) to choose a new country, the SNP is going to have to choose a continent. Its America or its Europe. Time to decide. The mechanism for resolving this is straightforward – one person must be responsible for a coherent vision of Scotland. And it has to be Nicola Sturgeon.

Not everyone is going to like what that means. It means that Nicola Sturgeon should be given final say on economic policy, making sure it fits with the strategy of a Nordic Scotland worth having. Groups like the Fiscal Commission can’t be left running counter-insurgencies in that bigger plan. Half of the SNP has managed to drag itself out of a time warp. That half must drag the other half behind it.

Robin McAlpine