DOESN’T time fly?

Devolution is nearly a quarter of a century old and, more worryingly, I’ve been in and around it for the vast majority of those 25 years. There have been changes of course, of leaders, of governments, of focus, but there has often been an overriding impression amongst the public that it doesn’t really matter who you vote for. They’re all the same, politicians, aren’t they?

No. Not now. The SNP leadership election has blown that theory apart. Indeed, it is fair to say, I think, that the choice being offered (albeit only to SNP members) in the SNP leadership contest is starker than the choice historically offered at elections to the Holyrood parliament.

When we went to the polls in 2021, for instance, would the basic assumptions behind how to run the economy have been much different whether we’d elected Nicola Sturgeon or Labour’s Anas Sarwar? Not really. Would our public services, health and education, be reformed had we voted for the Tories’ Douglas Ross rather than Ms Sturgeon? I shouldn't think so.

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However, when it comes to the contest between Kate Forbes and Humza Yousaf – and without disrespect to Ash Regan, it does appear a two-horse race – the answer to both of these questions would be “yes, without question”.

All political parties are said to be broad churches of opinion, but the SNP has always been the broadest of all churches, held together in spite of the weight of their contradictions by the power of their belief in independence.

But the church roof is in danger of collapsing, now. Mr Yousaf would not dissent if called a socialist. Although he has accepted a role for economic growth, he is heavily supportive of the coalition with the Greens, a party which does not, and is pushing a so-called "well-being economy". He is focused on money, rather than reform, when it comes to public services, and is proposing little or no change to the agenda set by previous administrations under the governance of Ms Sturgeon. And he has put independence at the top of his priority list.

Ms Forbes, not so much. Her top priority is economic growth and the cost of living. Her intentions for the health service and for education focus on reform, not on simply ploughing more money into them. One gets the impression it’d be quicker to count the government policies that she’d keep, rather than the ones she’d dispense with. Her policy on independence is that there is no prospect of it until she shows people who voted No in 2014 that she can govern completely and give them confidence that an independent Scotland can work.

This is not an SNP leadership election. This is a de facto General Election being run by the SNP.

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The two platforms, furthermore, take us right back to the heart of why Scotland voted No in 2014. Bluntly, it was because the 20-or-so per cent of Scots who could potentially swing either way backed the devil they knew. They did not have faith in the economic case advanced by the Yes campaign, and they feared they would be worse off in an independent Scotland than in the UK, despite its flaws.

Little has changed. And independence will remain a pipe dream unless and until it does. I have watched, analysed and commented on this leadership election for the last fortnight, and I find it difficult to escape the conclusion that the SNP, on its own, cannot deliver independence.

There is an ocean between the SNP of Mr Yousaf, focusing on taxing and spending, joined at the hip with the Greens and placing itself well to the left of centre, and the SNP of Ms Forbes, focusing on economic growth and public service reform, and speaking the language of the soft centrists who voted No in 2014 out of practicality rather than emotion.

The high protectors of the SNP will tell you that independence can never be delivered unless the party is unified. I’d ask: why not? If the 2014 referendum proved anything, it was that there is no church broad enough to open the front door to Labour-supporting socialists, as the Yes campaign did, without simultaneously leaking economic centrists out of the back door.

Conversely, it is surely logical to expect that if the SNP moves toward opening that front door to those economic centrists, those soft unionists, then the Labour-supporting socialists will make a sharp exit.

Some circles cannot be squared.

In 2014, the No campaign won despite there being a range of parties advocating an anti-independence position. Labour and the Liberal Democrats spoke to socialists and social democrats, and the Tories spoke to free market liberals. Labour and the Liberal Democrats spoke to people about public services; the Tories spoke to people about the economy. It was messy. But it worked.

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Imagine, for a moment, a scenario in which the nationalist movement mirrored that winning formula. A party of social democracy in the mould of Humza Yousaf, focusing on wealth redistribution and taking forward the legacy of Ms Sturgeon. A party of liberal economic centrism in the mould of Ms Forbes, telling voters that they understand the need to create wealth and reform public services in an independent Scotland to create the foundation for its success. And, of course, the Greens and assorted other pro-independence outfits on the far left.

Scotland is no different to any other country in Europe. Its people possess a range of political and economic views. Left, right and centre. It stands to reason that achieving independence for Scotland has a direct relationship to thinking, talking and acting like the people of Scotland.

The SNP and the wider Yes movement currently thinks, talks and acts like only a cohort of the people of Scotland.

I’m an atheist, so I’m not commonly seen quoting the Bible. However, I can’t help but wonder if the SNP should reflect on Ecclesiastes 4:9 and 4:10. Two are better than one; if either of them falls down, one can help the other up.

Andy Maciver is Founding Director of Message Matters and Zero Matters