Andrew Wilson is the brains behind the Yes movement – here, in conversation with Neil Mackay, he lays out a vision of the future as polls point towards independence becoming an historic inevitability

IF the Yes movement has a brain, then it’s called Andrew Wilson – the man who’s crafted the SNP’s vision of independence.

Wilson is sitting in his rather chic man-cave – a study in the garden of his Balerno home, which he’s dubbed “Washington” as a cherry tree was chopped down to build it. He is talking intently, over Zoom, about Scottish independence. There is a vase of roses behind him – a fitting metaphor for how he views the future. With polls now consistently favouring independence, hopes have never been rosier for the Yes movement.

Latest polling shows 58 per cent of Scots would vote Yes, and 64% think the UK Government should agree to a referendum in the next five years if the SNP wins a Holyrood majority. There’s talk now that independence is an “historic inevitability” – a sense that the writing is on the wall for the UK.

HeraldScotland:

Wilson’s study provides some other clues to his politics. A John Bellany painting chimes with his intellectual approach to independence. Wilson is, after all, the man who has done the hard thinking for the Yes movement. The 49-year-old economist and former SNP MSP was the brain behind the Sustainable Growth Commission, which built the economic case for independence. His recommendations shaped SNP policy on currency in a post-independence Scotland: retaining the pound until the nation’s finances allow for the creation of a new Scottish currency.

There are scatter cushions on a couch, each decorated with a flag: Scotland, Ireland, America, Europe, and – it may surprise some – a Union Jack. That flag is significant – Wilson is about as far from a blood-and-soil nationalist as you’ll get. If there’s one man who wants to woo unionists, it’s him.

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Civil wars

The Yes movement and the SNP have been riven by civil wars lately: Salmond v Sturgeon; battles over political correctness; splits on Plan B. “It’s vital to have unity of purpose and mutual respect,” Wilson warns. The Yes movement can’t “spend its whole time chipping at each other – which is what Scotland has been doing for centuries, fighting among itself”.

“In the history of Scotland for many long centuries we’ve been world class at fighting with ourselves and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory – this has been a national trait. It’s now long overdue for us to do the opposite.”

“Squabbling the whole time” will deter potential voters. The Yes movement needs to remain “outward focusing” not “inward focusing”. The political maxim that “divided parties always lose” is uppermost in Wilson’s mind. There’s a vacuum in the Yes movement, Wilson believes, caused by the amount of time that’s passed since 2014, and the Scottish Government’s focus on the pandemic. That has “left space” for supporters to fall into factionalism. “As we move towards a referendum, and pandemic recedes, the movement will unify again.”

Voters need to trust the Yes movement –they want to see “discipline and patience”. The electorate “will detect” any uncertainty. “Scots are canny and cautious,” he says.

In terms of the Salmond-Sturgeon schism, Wilson says: “The whole thing has been

heart-breaking. It’s hard to understand and very difficult to watch.”

Sturgeon, he believes, is a “hugely valuable asset” when it comes to a post-independence Scotland. The respect she commands internationally would be significant over re-entry to Europe. Some senior Yes figures worry that the Salmond saga could exhaust Sturgeon so much she just quits. That would be a bad blow, Wilson believes.

He sees some divisions – like the perceived split between Angus Robertson and Joanna Cherry – as simply part of politics. “All organisations will have personality clashes and ambition clashes. In Scotland, that can be vastly overstated. Angus is one of my closest friends; Joanna Cherry is my MP. I respect them both. Two politicians fight over a seat and one loses – that story’s as old as politics.”

Style and tone

When it comes to winning independence, “the biggest lesson is to learn how not to do it from Brexit – don’t go low, don’t go populist, as even if you were to win on such a prospectus the aftermath would be really bad”. Wilson is concerned about any hint of populism in the Yes movement. “It would worry me as A, I don’t think it would win, and B, if it did win it would be more like what we’re experiencing with Brexit.”

That’s why he is bitterly opposed to false promises, ideas like Modern Monetary Theory with its plans to print money, and claims that independence is a panacea. “We used to say because of oil that everything would be easier from day one – now some say we can just print money and everything will be easier. Neither of those were ever true.”

He sees independence as long, hard work. “If we’re striving to be as good as a society as somewhere like Denmark, it could take a generation – 20 or 25 years. To not say this would be to not tell the truth … The message needs to be ‘this will take time and hard work, but it’ll be worth it’.”

However, he also believes “independence will deliver results early – the very act of creating a new country will attract investment and attention … there will be a fillip, a real boost from the act itself.”

The strategy has to be “to tell the truth and win the argument … paint a truthful picture of how we can earn the right to a better society by hard work over time”. Independence, he acknowledges, “isn’t going to be delivered overnight”.

“The tone has to be right, we need to be seen by the rest of the world and the UK as the opposite of those prosecuting the case for Brexit … Most people are open to persuasion if they’re properly engaged and treated with respect,” he says. “I respect those who take on arguments. I lose interest if someone just puts a badge on their opponent and shouts at that badge. That shows they don’t have much going for them in terms of argument. If you’re attacking a person it’s a good sign you’ve lost the argument.”

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Unionist friends

“We must remember that even our most bitter opponents will be citizens of an independent Scotland the day after [a successful Yes vote],” Wilson says. “The minute we win, our opponents have to become our allies.”

After a Yes vote “we’d seek to bring the most experienced talents of Scotland to bear on what happens next” – namely negotiations with Westminster. “I’d love people like Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown, and others, to play a role in making good the decision of independence.”

Prominent No figures should sit on a “council of the country which pulls together our best and most experienced states-people”.

Wilson does not believe that running a referendum on a 60% threshold, or allowing Scots outside the country to vote, will help unity post-independence. “Scotland wouldn’t be governable under the status quo if 59% wanted independence but we didn’t get it because there’s a 60% rule or votes in England kept us in a union against the will of the people living here – democratic legitimacy and transparency are important.”

Obviously, the bigger the win, the less pain in coming together after a Yes vote. Wilson thinks Yes can “win big”. “If the vote comes in the aftermath of next year’s election – let’s say in a year or two – I think if properly articulated on an honest case then [the margin] could be into the late 50s or early 60s.”

Wilson believes “good governance” after a successful Yes vote will help unification. “Generosity to opponents” will be key.

After indy

“The approach to the negotiations really matters,” says Wilson. “The overall tone needs to be mature and respectful of the fact that there’s many people who won’t be happy but they’ll be citizens of an independent Scotland.”

Wilson wants to see an “annual solidarity payment going from Scotland to the UK to make good our inherited obligations”. England needs to know that “we’d contribute a share of the national debt interest ongoing”.

Scotland should continue to contribute to UK international aid “as we wouldn’t yet have programmes available for a couple of years”. After independence, Wilson looks forward to the debate about what sort of country will emerge. Left or right? “Whichever end of the spectrum it is will be a democratic matter for the people of Scotland.”

The polls

Ever the cautious éminence grise, Wilson says: “What we’re hearing from polls is that independence isn’t yet the settled will, but it’s settling.” Broadly voters of working age are on board, but it’s retired voters and voters born in the rest of the UK who need persuaded. What he does note in the polls is “some reticence about having the vote tomorrow”, though he believes “as Brexit hits home that’s showing some signs of shifting, there’s some sense that people are becoming ready for that vote to happen”.

Slow and steady is his mantra. “It’s important not to rush the fence because we’ll give the Prime Minister the ability to resonate with people by saying ‘now is not the time’.” He notes that the same line worked for Theresa May.

Of most significance to Wilson, though, is that “for the first time in my life people think independence will be better for the economy than the status quo”. So does that mean independence is now the status quo? “It would be a mistake to say that we’re there yet –people can change their mind again. But I detect a growing solidity.”

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The hard issues

The border question seems parked until Brexit is sorted. “Then there’ll be a choice to make. Clearly we’re against borders,” he says. Given the plan for Scotland to rejoin Europe post-independence, “what the border will look like depends on what the UK position is with Europe”. If the UK goes for “minimum friction” with Europe “then that would answer the question for us”.

On currency, Wilson says: “We’re not imagining ourselves into a position of where we’d like to be in 10 years, we’re dealing with a transition and what that could do to people’s jobs and the risk of people moving their money out of the country which is what happened in Quebec, even though they didn’t become independent.

“We’ve big integration with the rest of the UK – mortgages, pension, wages. So if you were to say right from day one that we’ve our own currency, then you don’t know what’s going to happen to your pay, your pension. It’s risky towards the economy and also politically risky because people would be uncertain and we’d spend the whole referendum campaign talking about what would happen to mortgages and pensions – and therefore having a referendum on what would happen in the first few weeks, rather than over the next 25 years.”

In terms of polling, moving to a Scottish pound seems a “minority pursuit”. Rushing into a new currency “would be short-term risky, politically difficult, and it would make the cost of government borrowing more expensive. Why rush your fence? Accept that we don’t have monetary sovereignty for the first period after independence. After all, we don’t have it now. We’d have all other powers. The monetary policy situation that we have now would continue until such a time that it’s no longer in our interests”.

He sees the steps towards a new currency as: establish a central bank, sort out borrowing, taxation, growth and exports; “diversify our trade which isn’t diversified at the moment”; and then “set up our own currency to reflect that success”. He thinks it could be done in “five to 10 years”. Wilson sees the Scottish deficit “as a symbol of how the UK is run –the economy is underperforming, and it’s a reason to change, not to stay. If the deficit gets worse because of Brexit it is argued that’s a reason for the union, when of course it’s proof of the opposite”. In terms of public spending, with interests rates low “we shouldn’t be prioritising short-term deficit reduction and belt-tightening”. Amid the pandemic, the priority should be “investing out of the crisis”.

Indyref2

With a seemingly intransigent Boris Johnson, Wilson hints of a possible legal fight over a second referendum. “The party is very lucky to have big legal brains,” he says.

But any referendum has to be by the book – with no Catalonian-style wildcat votes. Such a move would drain support. “Legitimacy matters,” he says, especially if Scotland wishes to return to the EU. “Some EU countries, chiefly Spain, would be more likely to veto if we go through the process in a non-constitutional manner.”

“Pressure on London will increase as support for independence increases,” he says. He warns that Team Johnson will cook up “wizard wheezes” to derail independence – even offering to start negotiations before any referendum in order to make independence seem politically impossible.

The risk for London is “as they continue to oppose [a referendum], support will continue to increase. As people see the UK as less legitimate, Scotland needs to hold its nerve, behave properly and remember the world’s watching, and more people will align with us. What [Johnson] would no doubt like is for us to lose our temper and behave disorderly as that would likely drive support down. You can be sure if we did that and support dropped then they’d give us a referendum. We have to play the long game.”

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Timescale

Wilson believes Scotland could be fully independent by 2026. “We’re looking at the bulk of the process completed in the term of the next Scottish Parliament, by which I mean getting a vote, winning a vote, and securing the negotiations.”

He’s confident Scotland will re-enter Europe, but there will inevitably be conditions. “The idea that you need a deficit of less than 3% to join – not true. But you do need a clear flightpath on how you’re going to make public finances sustainable.”

Will that mean austerity? “The risk is that if we stay part of the UK, the Tories will have a self-defeating austerity programme.” Post-pandemic, he believes, Europe will want economies stimulated, rather than austerity. Nevertheless, Scotland has to get “public finances sustainable whether we’re in the EU or not”.Will we have to join the euro? “All members need to commit to the principle of the euro,” he says, but Wilson doesn’t see us adopting the euro “any time soon just as Sweden and Croatia haven’t. The reason to join the euro would be when the people want to and when it’s in the interests of our economy”.

SNP’S FUTURE?

WILSON notes wryly that the SNP once ran an advert saying “vote for us and we’ll resign”. But will the SNP whither in a post-independence Scotland? “No doubt some people will be more comfortable in other parties, but I see an enduring case for a centre left – or centre ground – organisation, but to continue it would need a vision.” If the SNP successfully delivers independence – and crucially prosperity – “there will be many reasons for it to keep going”.

Too influential?

WILSON’S role as the co-founder of the influential Edinburgh PR firm, Charlotte Street Partners, has fuelled concerns that lobbyists are too close to the SNP Government. Wilson, however, swears everything is above board. “We don’t lobby Government,” he insists. “We’ve been around for seven years and I’m on the lobbying register only once for meeting David Mundell [the former Conservative Scottish Secretary] … I can think of no occasion on which I’ve had a client-related conversation with a Government minister.”