Ian Swanson: Does Tommy Sheppard have the answer to Yes question?

MP tipped to be next SNP deputy leader is seeking to make left-of-centre synonymous with Nationalist, says Ian Swanson.

Wednesday, 1st June 2016, 9:19 am
Updated Wednesday, 1st June 2016, 10:22 am
Can Tommy Sheppard answer the Yes question? File picture: Neil Hanna

LAST month’s Holyrood election result – handing the SNP a historic third term, while seeing the Tories surge past Labour – is widely interpreted as showing that Scotland is stuck in “referendum politics”, where independence is the defining issue.

Labour’s efforts to move the debate on to how the new powers coming to Holyrood should be used were apparently spurned by non-SNP voters in favour of the Tories’ promise to resist another vote on independence, while the Nationalists on their side received a record million-plus votes.

Polls over the past 18 months suggest the division of opinion has not shifted that much since the 55-45 victory for No in September 2014.

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Support for independence has not declined despite falling oil prices, but neither has it increased significantly.

But now Edinburgh East MP Tommy Sheppard – who is being tipped to become SNP deputy leader following Stewart Hosie’s decision to stand down – has set out why he thinks the Yes side can win a second referendum.

He argues the traditional left-right divide is now effectively the same as the polarisation between Nationalist and Unionist.

“Scotland is now politically aligned with a left-of-centre majority espousing the road to independence and a right-of-centre opposition eulogising the Union,” he writes on his blog.

“Support for public services, the fight for equality and a fair redistributive tax system are now synonymous with self-government, whereas low taxes, public spending cuts and inequality are identified with Unionism. That’s a split I like; because that’s a battle we can win.”

Labour and the Liberal Democrats will no doubt be unimpressed with such an analysis, given that both these parties are opposed to independence but define themselves as left of centre and are ready to put up income tax when the SNP is not. They may not be doing that well electorally but to write them out of the script is to discount a still sizeable chunk of Scottish opinion.

But if the political choice is cast in the terms Mr Sheppard suggests, could the Nationalists win? The prospect of getting rid of Conservative rule in Scotland proved an appealing one for many in the 2014 referendum, but was not enough to hand Yes a majority. If the independence campaigners can persuade left-of-centre voters that a break with the rest of the UK is the only way they can see their politics triumph, perhaps the result would be different another time.

Mr Sheppard believes the independence campaign can appeal to a group he identifies as the “i-curious”: “It wasn’t that they would never consider the idea but the time wasn’t right. They worried that we couldn’t afford it, or that others would sabotage the endeavour.”

But he also recognises the need to “revise the offer”. Major policies need to be revisited, he says. “Is it credible to argue for a sterling zone when the biggest player says no? And we need a new energy policy centred on making Scotland Europe’s renewables capital.”

This is the debate the SNP needs to have before it can go for another referendum – and it also needs a big shift in public opinion.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced a summer campaign to promote independence. Mr Sheppard says that campaign will be about “changing the terrain, moving support for independence from 45 to over 60 per cent”. That’s quite a task – but Ms Sturgeon will not be calling another vote until it is achieved.