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Playing for Time
On most of the big questions, nationalists say we have to wait for answers, apart from on one issue...
This issue of Notes on Nationalism is about time.
I remember talking to an official from the Ministry of Defence back in the early 2000s about the long term future of Afghanistan. He recounted the line uttered by the Taliban’s leader, “you may have the watches, but we have the time.” How prescient that now seems having watched the Taliban sweep back to power. The lesson is that, in strategy, time can be an advantage. If you are willing to wait out a superior opponent, you can win.
Last week, David Clegg shared a passage from the book he wrote with Kieran Andrews about the Alex Salmond affair:
Alex Salmond’s favourite fable involves a medieval court in which a peasant has been sentenced to death by a tyrannical king. In a desperate bid to save his skin, the peasant offers the king a deal. Spare my life for a year, he begs, and I will teach your favourite horse to talk. When the king agrees, the peasant reassures his confused friends that he hasn’t taken leave of his senses but was simply buying time. ‘I have a year now that I didn’t have before and a lot of things can happen in a year’, he tells them. ‘The king could die. The horse could die. I could die. And, who knows? Maybe the horse will talk.’
The anecdote is a reminder of how central playing for time has been to the SNP’s strategy.
When you are invested with a marrow-deep faith in the inevitable triumph of your cause, as the SNP are, time is your friend. When you lose by 11 points in a referendum, you have to hold onto that belief, so you cling to an explanation of defeat that reinforces the idea of inevitability. For the SNP and their online followers, they grasped onto the idea that it was gullible older voters, worried about their retirement income, who temporarily delayed the unavoidable exit from the UK.
Of course, this analysis ignores the inconvenient fact that while Scots aged over 50 certainly voted against leaving the UK, so did under 25s. SNP Ministers are constantly telling us that demographics mean they only have to wait out those who want to remain in the UK. Those of us who want to remain in the UK should take comfort that blind faith obscures the deeper lessons of defeat from the SNP. Those who believe their glory is assured are often beaten by those who understand there is no fate in politics.
It was reported this week that £700,000 is being spent on a team of civil servants preparing the case for leaving the UK (remember all those promises that this wouldn’t be a priority until we had recovered from the pandemic?). As in 2014, any Independence prospectus won’t be about resolving the questions people have, it is a tactic to avoid answering them. Every difficult question to the SNP leadership about how we’ll pay for public services after giving up our share of UK taxes, or how our economy will function without a central bank, or how a new border with England will cost jobs is met with a reassurance that it will be answered in an eventual White Paper.
Of course, when the document is published and doesn’t credibly solve these problems, that won’t matter, it will have played its role: to ensure that the time up until publication is filled by conversations about national self-belief rather than doubt in the economic project of breaking up Britain. They are buying time to turn people into true believing nationalists for whom cuts to public services, economic chaos and barriers to trade are a price worth paying for the national cause. They are hoping the horse will talk.
Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds
Most policy issues are cans to be kicked down the road, but the defeat in 2014 left a deep scar for the SNP. The pensions issue that they imagine cost them their dream itches at them. They can’t help but pick at the scab.
For years now various parts of the nationalist movement have propagated the idea that Scotland’s enormous deficit will be manageable because a newly independent state won’t have to pay for the cost of pensions. It is a common claim on social media that is repeated occasionally by SNP MSPs, MPs and even the odd junior minister. However, Sam Taylor of These Islands noticed that it is now the position of the SNP leader in the House of Commons and the SNP’s Finance Secretary that we won’t have to pay for pensions:
This isn’t a slip of the tongue from Blackford:
“That commitment to continue to pay pensions rests with the UK Government. That’s no different to a UK citizen that chooses, for example, to live in Canada or Spain, or France or anywhere else. That commitment to receive your pension remains in place. That’s an obligation of the UK Government and what will happen going forward is that it will be the obligation of the Scottish Government to look after pension entitlement from the period for those that are working and making pension contributions for the period post-independence.”
When this position was put to Kate Forbes, she confirmed this was her policy too.
Now, to anyone with a passing acquaintance with reality, it should be obvious that suggesting that Scotland would be the only country in the world getting state pensions for free is idiotic. However, this nonsense is no longer a claim made by an anonymous online fringe, it is now the position of the SNP leadership. As I have written many times, we need to take the SNP literally when they say these things, so let’s be clear why this is a dangerous lie.
Firstly, Scotland leaving the UK is not the equivalent of every pensioner in Scotland moving to the Costa del Sol. Scotland and her pensioners will have left the UK in the sense of breaking up the Union, not in the sense of collectively jumping on a Ryanair flight to a retirement village in Marbella.
If that isn’t obvious then consider this: when you pay pension contributions you are developing an entitlement to *a* state pension, not to a pot of money saved for you by the government. You aren’t paying for your future pension when you pay NI or income tax, you are paying for the pensions of today’s retirees. Here’s Nicola Sturgeon on that very point:
To ask us to believe that we won’t have to pay for pensions is to invite us to accept that the taxpayers of what would then be a foreign state would pick up the tab for the single biggest item of public expenditure in our budget. It is a daft idea. That’s why, when Nicola Sturgeon published her plans for pensions in a separate Scottish state, she assumed that the full cost of paying pensions would be met by the Scottish taxpayer:
The SNP Government White Paper was similarly clear about who was responsible for paying for pensions:
“for those people living in Scotland in receipt of the UK State Pension at the time of independence, the responsibility for the payment of that pension will transfer to the Scottish Government.”
Why did Nicola Sturgeon choose to make such a clear commitment back then? Because it would be political suicide to go into a referendum saying you would not pay for pensions anymore. That it now appears to be the SNP’s position that they will not commit to a separate Scottish State guaranteeing old-age pensions, is extraordinary. It may be that they have decided the only way they can remove the threat to the NHS and other public services implied by the loss of our share of UK funding is to dip into pensions but that simply replaces a financial headache with a political migraine.
Maybe I’m the only one who thinks that politicians should be taken seriously and literally. Maybe we live in an age of shameless dishonesty from our leaders with no cost. I don’t think so. I think things are changing.
At the May elections, the SNP stood on the bold promise of doubling the state pension in an independent Scotland. Surely we can all ask how, if England, Wales and Northern Ireland are supposed to be paying for our pensions, could Scotland promise to double them? I suppose if you’re shameless enough to sell the lie that their taxpayers will pay for our pensions once, it costs nothing to promise that they’ll do it twice over.
While the SNP play for time on so many issues we should seize on moments like this where they do offer answers. It shouldn’t just be another moment where we shrug our shoulders and say ‘there they go again.’ The SNP are saying they won’t pay for pensions, rather than calling it a lie
Running Out Of Time
Dip into nationalist social media and you’ll see doubts starting to creep into the faithful. The trust in inevitable victory is being tested by a nagging worry that they may have missed their window of opportunity. To put it in language they will be familiar with: “you know our sense of timing, we always wait too long.”
In the six years since the Brexit vote gave their party the excuse they needed to re-run a referendum result they never accepted, the First Minister has delayed and delayed and delayed. She has done little to recruit new converts to independence, no new case has been made, the movement she leads has lost discipline and splintered. Boris Johnson has delivered more for the Scexit cause than she has.
Now with Labour enjoying double-digit leads and Johnson trailing Starmer, an alternative route to change opens up for social-democratic voters who flirted with but never married themselves to nationalism.
The SNP’s response to this has had a distinct whiff of panic. They reached back in time to last time Labour was competitive and the message that there was no difference between the Tories and Labour. That message worked for the SNP and allowed them to pick up disenchanted voters. However political strategy isn’t nostalgia. A message that worked for a tired Labour government facing a centrist David Cameron cannot simply be projected forward to an insurgent Labour opposition squaring up against Boris Johnson.
After the last few days, and after yesterday’s speeches, Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer are indistinguishable from each other leaves you wondering what channel she has been watching.
As Kenny Farquarson wrote in the Times, there is a bigger strategic risk for the SNP in this outdated messaging:
“The parliamentary arithmetic may make this argument moot. But if the backing of SNP MPs is required, Sturgeon will have a decision to make: do I want a Labour government or a Tory government? Take Sturgeon at face value, given her comments last week, and she couldn’t care less. Labour, Tory, they’re all the same.”
If the SNP are going to be neutral in the battle between a reinvigorated Labour party and Boris Johnson’s debased Tories, why would anyone vote for an SNP MP? Better to bet on someone who thinks this fight matters.
The SNP’s positioning, the fundamentals of their narrative, their well-honed soundbites, all are predicated on opposition to a conservative government. Sooner or later Johnson won’t be around to lend the SNP a helping hand.
Their strategy is beginning to look out of date. They may be left with none of the time and all of the watches.
A quick update adding this side-by-side graphic showing the difference between the old policy of an independent Scotland guaranteeing pensions and the new position which is not to offer that.
Since publishing this, Ian Blackford has doubled down on his comments, confirming that he believes the taxpayers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland will pay for Scottish pensions while Scottish taxpayers won’t pay for those same pensions.
Extraordinarily, Nicola Sturgeon has also repeated it at First Ministers Questions. This really is now SNP policy. They have found it so hard to make the numbers add up on paying for public services like the NHS because of Scotland’s huge deficit that they are using pensions to fill the hole. Downright dangerous and dishonest.
For supporters of remaining in the UK, she has handed us a huge stick with which to beat Scexit. If we leave the UK, Scotland would no longer guarantee pensions. The security of your retirement shouldn’t be a matter of negotiation.