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The future in our hands

IF imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Scottish Government would appear to have some influential admirers in the UK Labour Party.

The world is watching ... the launch of the White Paper in November
The world is watching ... the launch of the White Paper in November

Westminster rumours suggest Ed Miliband intends to adopt free pre-school childcare as his Big Idea for the next UK General Election. This policy formed the centrepiece of the SNP's White Paper on independence in November, the launch of which was the pivotal event of 2013 in Scotland.

The left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research has bought the argument that childcare is a policy that could pay for itself as legions of women are liberated from the chains of domesticity and enter the workforce as tax-paying contributors to GDP. Attracting 280,000 back into the labour market could, it argues, save almost £1.5 billion in extra tax revenue and reduce the cost of benefits and tax credits.

Lurking in this policy is a questionable assumption that women - or men - who look after children are somehow not contributing to society. They are, and it is bloody hard work as any full-time parent will agree. However, there is no doubt that lack of affordable childcare has been a major factor in preventing many women who want to take paid employment from doing so.

But most commentators were surprised that this idea should have emerged as the headline policy in the key document arguing for Scottish independence, since Holyrood already has responsibility for childcare. The Scottish Government insists that only with independence could the Scottish Parliament afford the £700 million that the policy would cost in Scotland. Otherwise, all those women workers would be sending their tax receipts to nasty George Osborne in London, who would just sit on them or use them to pay for Trident nuclear missiles. Only if Scotland had full control of the economy would this money benefit the Scottish exchequer, say the SNP.

That may be true. But it doesn't alter the fact that childcare is essentially a devolution policy - it is not really about the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament or the constitutional relationship with the UK. If the Scottish Parliament had full income tax powers, as proposed by many supporters of devolution max, then this noble objective could be achieved without Scotland leaving the UK.

Perhaps, indeed, there was an unspoken message buried in the independence White Paper: that the Scottish Government is not really talking about a clean break with the Union, but a renegotiation of the terms. Continuing union has been a prominent theme in Alex Salmond's speeches in 2013

In July he identified no fewer than five unions that would continue after a Yes vote: the union of the crowns, the defence union of Nato, the EU, the currency union and the social union of free movement across borders. "Those unions," Salmond said, "are ones which the SNP would propose to maintain because they make sense for both Scotland and the rest of the UK." He might also have added the energy union, since renewable subsidies would continue after independence; a pensions union, to underwrite cross-border funds; and perhaps a citizenship union, since people living in Scotland could still call themselves British and would not, according to the White Paper, have to have a Scottish passport.

This was a remarkable speech and would have attracted more comment had it not been delivered in the depths of the July holiday season. Salmond has altered the content of the independence message to such an extent that sometimes he sounds more Unionist than the Unionists. Indeed, in the same week, Alistair Darling, the chairman of Better Together, railed against the idea of a currency union after independence on the grounds that it would lead to the Bank of England dictating interest rates and possibly fiscal policy in Scotland. Of course, the No campaign thinks that Salmond's Unionism is only skin-deep. It believes that if he did persuade Scots to vote Yes, he would rapidly abandon it, set up border posts and discriminate against English people. And it has to be said that Salmond's promise to keep the Queen, the pound, Nato and so on does not appear to have removed the anxieties of Scots. Notwithstanding the 600 answers presented in the White Paper, Scots still don't seem to understand the fundamental question: what is independence for?

They worry about the costs of separation, Scotland's share of UK debt, the reaction of European countries, the Clyde losing shipbuilding contracts and the possibility that England might play rough on the pound. But their search for guarantees is futile. There is a whole raft of independence questions that are simply unanswerable because they would be the subject of negotiations with Westminster and Westminster isn't going to negotiate in advance of the referendum.

Indeed, Salmond's very stress on continuity makes some Scots nervous. If the Scottish Government is saying that nothing much will change, why is it holding a referendum on independence? Maybe it isn't telling us the full story. In the course of possibly fraught independence negotiations with the rest of the UK, and the EU, who knows what could happen. The "unknown unknowns", as the former US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, called them, have been Better Together's best ally.

I'm not just recycling the conventional wisdom of the press or opinion polls here. Travelling the length and breadth of Scotland in the past year compiling and promoting my book Road To Referendum, and the television series that accompanied it, has put me in touch with voter attitudes as never before in my three decades as a political hack. It has been an eye-opener, and, in many ways, rather inspiring. Scots - at least those who think about politics - are now, I believe, genuinely proud of their Parliament. Most people who actually read the White Paper rather liked its communitarian philosophy. Scotland has become more than a brand; it has become a kind of moral example.

There is profound discontent at the grabbit-and-run culture of Westminster and the City of London. But this has not yet translated into widespread support for independence for Scotland.

This was apparent even at the Radical Independence conference, which attracted over 1000 to its gathering in Glasgow in November in the cause of progressive nationalism. But speakers like the former Labour MP, Denis Canavan, insisted that they just don't regard themselves as nationalists. Theirs is, if you like, an instrumental nationalism, borne of desperation at the decline of the left in England.

Hence the phrase that for me almost defined 2013 even among many those thinking of voting Yes. "I'm not a nationalist, but ..." There has been very little movement in opinion polls, and support for Yes only increased a point or two after the White Paper launch. This means that it has had less impact on voter intentions than, say, an annual party conference. Indeed, the remarkable thing about 2013, for all the millions of words written and spoken about independence, is how little has changed.

The year began with the continuing row about the legal advice on EU membership, following the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso's comment, that Scotland, after independence, would become a "new state" and would have to reapply for EU membership from without. It ended with the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, saying that breakaway states like Scotland would not be part of the EU. Now, both were probably more concerned with developments in Spain, where the Madrid government is refusing to recognise the bid by the Catalan region to stage a referendum on independence. The SNP point out that in the 18 months after a Yes vote, Scotland would still be part of the UK and the EU and could renegotiate terms during that window. Nevertheless, the Scottish press said that Van Rompuy had "torpedoed" SNP claims EU membership.

And the economic debate has hardly moved either. The early months of 2013 were dominated by a leaked Cabinet briefing paper from the Scottish Finance Secretary, John Swinney, which warned that an independent Scotland might face public spending constraints because of an ageing population. This is in common, of course, with England. The year ended with a succession of interventions from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, arguing that, even with oil revenues, public spending in an independent Scotland would have to be cut dramatically or taxes increased by 8%.

Now, the SNP say that this under-estimates the potential of independence to generate faster growth in Scotland. The White Paper argues that Scotland's ageing population could be mitigated by increased immigration and by boosting the Scottish workforce by encouraging more women into the workplace.

Westminster is trying to send immigrants home. But these arguments were too sophisticated to combat the "black hole" attacks on independence finance from people like UK Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander.

The SNP blame imbalance in the media, and point out that not a single major newspaper in Scotland supports independence as a matter of editorial policy. However, this hasn't prevented the SNP winning elections in the past - last time by a landslide. Billboards have gone up across Scotland depicting people reading the White Paper informing Scots "the future is in your hands". But they have not persuaded enough Scots to grasp it.

In the end, independence involves a leap of faith, of hope. People have to believe that change is possible. But the Scottish people are not naturally optimistic and they are not full of hope. In 2013, they have been highly receptive to the negative messages emanating from the UK Government machine.

It will require almost super-human effort on the part of Alex Salmond to convert this rather grumpy and suspicious electorate to the cause of self-government.

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