We’ve known the rough contents of the Growth Commission for some time, because the intentions behind it were barely disguised. The ‘Yes’ campaign won the housing schemes in 2014, an SNP insider is said to have quipped, but after Brexit, it was time to win the boardrooms. Apocryphal or not, this remark has been the guiding spirit of the Commission from the start. Having lost the economic argument in 2014, but gained a populist following, it was meant to restore credibility among the people who make the real economic decisions in Scotland.
Its membership was, thus, drawn from the boardrooms, the corporate lobby groups and their intellectual spokespeople. Its contents were designed to appeal to business and upper middle-class sceptical opinion. And, despite its high claims for having consulted civil society, none of Scotland’s biggest voluntary organisations – the unions – got a phone call.
What’s disturbing isn’t just the transparent effort to sweet-talk the rich with promises of discipline for the poor. To an extent, that’s just another predictable feature of contemporary politics. It’s more insidious, though, that we’re still getting drawn into associating neoliberal policies – a monetary straightjacket, public sector cuts, a competitive race to the bottom – with economic success. We know this equation does not work. The crash of 2008 and its aftermath made this very clear. But the SNP thinks it will work for voters.
Perhaps, they’re wrong and we’ll be left adrift in a failing British state. Just as worryingly, maybe they’re right, and people really are ready to embrace a decade of economic punishment as the price of starting a new state, on the promise of prosperity in twenty years’ time. If this message works for Nicola Sturgeon, then clearly our country is further to the right on economics than we realised, because, make no mistake, this document is the boldest mainstream statement of Scottish neo-liberal thinking for more than a decade.
So will it work? I have my doubts. It’s clear that the bulk of new ‘Yes’ voters in 2014 wanted a better, more equal society, not another bash at starting a Celtic Tiger. For now, out of sheer loyalty, many are keeping quiet, and even trying to scrape together a bit of enthusiasm. Privately, though, most do not seem keen on knocking doors for a monetary policy run by the Bank of England in the interest of the rest of Britain. And while the ambition of becoming a Tartan Denmark, albeit in twenty years, may appeal to some, the parallel aim of replicating New Zealand, with its steroid-pumped Blairism, is more of a threat than a promise.
The Commission has led to dejection in the radical wing of the ‘Yes’ movement, but no obvious change in the polls, which have remained largely static since 2014. In truth, we are starved of alternatives, and for many independence still looks like the only option. The SNP leaders are betting on this to keep everyone quiet. Nonetheless, out there, in the real world, people will be alienated by the promise of another decade of austerity. The public-sector workers I talk to, for instance, who cannot remember getting a pay rise. They outnumber the business elite, their votes matter, and, when it comes to crunch time, I can see many turning against these rhetorical appeals to ‘realism’ and ‘discipline’.
The Commission was designed, the First Minister said, to start a conversation. But this is not as innocent as it seems. As any first-year sociologist knows, the question of who starts the conversation is central to all power relationships. By design, the Commission allows corporate lobbyists to set the agenda, to make facts on the ground, to imagine the future for us.
Those of us who cling to a radical, or even a progressive, mission for independence must work to undo this damage. We’ve got to write our own reports and raise our own demands. If we do not, this document could set Scotland back another two decades, leaving us trapped between two unappealing tribalisms as Britain enters its final crisis.
Cat Boyd was a founder of the Radical Independence Campaign and is a columnist for The National..