Probing the dark side of the Scottish moon

Alex Bell says we have a few months before delivering a verdict on this week’s White Paper on Scotland’s future

The White Paper tries to answer the exam question from hell – what’s the future going to be like? The Scottish Government’s document attempts both to be smart while showing off all its revision. There’s plenty for those who crave detail, but perhaps not enough to convince sceptics that this is the right question to be asking at this time.

We have a long time to judge the paper, and the snap views of now are jumbled with prejudice and baggage. The best thing we can do as a nation is treat this like a book club – read it and gather again in a few weeks with our notes. In effect, that is what the referendum campaign has become – a 10-month critique of 650 pages.

The Government had to offer a prospectus but has dreaded the moment for two years, knowing fine well that to capture the state of a nation and its future is like trying to pin a live butterfly to a board. To succeed you must kill the beauty of the idea. The dynamism of a people and the variables of fate, the most crucial elements that make a state rise or fall, are absent.

What we do have is a map of the visible moon – the dark side owned by Whitehall remains out of sight. There can be no costs, or practical sense of what will be negotiated, while London refuses to reveal its hand and that will always mean the White Paper is incomplete.

The commitment to early years is on the money – it’s the only way we can tackle our chronic inequality in a sustainable way. What is strange is that the pledge for more child care isn’t accompanied by changes to tax and welfare which would present a ‘whole state’ solution to the problem. It’s as if the range of state levers has overwhelmed the authors.

This applies to other pledges on offer – they are stand-alone vote winners, but not integrated into an over-arching vision. The advantages of an intimate state aren’t exploited here – but that may yet come. We expect next Easter for the unionists parties to show their positions on devo-plus, and that may present an opportunity for the Scottish Government to develop these ideas.

Will it all work? Of course – it’s all a matter of confidence. As the UK repeatedly demonstrates, you can run a state with corrupt banks, unfit-for-purpose departments and rampant tax evasion and not lose much sleep. Indeed, you can argue that with quantative easing the UK is verging on a confidence trick, printing money to prop up historic debt. It’s not the coherence of detail or vision that matters, it’s conviction. That’s the one thing the White Paper wants to inspire.

Back in the 1970s Jim Fairlie described independence as a ‘revolution by coffee mornings’, meaning radicalism was disguised by bourgeois concerns. This offer suggests the bourgeois has trumped the revolutionary – independence is not a moment to begin again but a chance to modify the existing society over time. As the Yes campaign wins supporters one by one, at the modern equivalent of coffee mornings, it may yet be enough – more ‘mild disruption in a cappuccino’.

The launch day has also teased out London’s strategy to attack the currency union, seen as the SNP’s weak spot. For what it’s worth, I don’t buy this threat. The UK can’t afford a second of doubt on its national debt. After a Yes vote, deals will be done in the blink of an eye to keep the markets from ravaging through the future of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and an independent Scotland. This appears like a popular referendum, but global capitalism will have more sway than any politician.


Alex Bell is an honorary fellow at Edinburgh University and former head of policy to Alex Salmond. This article appears on the

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy