Ian Swanson: Pressure’s on to make No case more positive

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MOST of what Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon had to say as they unveiled the long-awaited White Paper had been said before – hardly surprising since they have been putting the case for independence for many years.

But the opposition parties are being less than fair when they say there’s “nothing new” in the 670-page document.

Even if there are no big surprises, it does add some detail to policies which seemed a bit vague before and confirms other proposals as part of the SNP’s plan.

The launch was deliberately low-key, we are told, as part of the SNP’s attempt to reassure voters and patiently persuade them of the case for independence rather than ramming it down their throats.

Glasgow is said to have been chosen as the venue for the occasion because the pro-independence campaign realises it is unlikely to secure majority support in Edinburgh but hopes it may be able to win in the west.

The White Paper has been variously described as a blueprint, a manifesto and a mission statement. It tries to deal both with the transition to independence and the question of what an independent Scotland might look like.

Anti-independence politicians are fond of complaining that constitutional issues are not what voters are interested in and demanding that the focus should instead be on the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people struggling to cope in a time of austerity.

The SNP has now responded by setting out how it believes independence would help Scotland to meet the economic challenges and the policies it proposes to do so – abolishing the bedroom tax, scrapping many aspects of welfare reform, expanding childcare, increasing the minimum wage and so on.

It has also put flesh on the bones of what it would do about hot issues such as Trident and airport passenger duty (APD). The White Paper sets a 2020 target for getting rid of nuclear submarines and it proposes a 50 per cent cut in APD within the first term of an independent parliament with a view to later abolition, when public finances allow. The levy currently costs a family of four flying to the United States an extra £348 on top of their flight and is forecast to lose Edinburgh Airport a million passengers by 2016. There has long been pressure for responsibility for APD to be transferred from Westminster to Holyrood, but up until now the SNP has not spelled out what it would do with such power. Northern Ireland already has control of APD and has abolished it for long-haul flights.

Former chancellor Alistair Darling, who is spearheading the Better Together campaign, objects that the White Paper is full of assumptions about an independent Scotland being able to get exactly what it wants in negotiations with the remainder of the UK on matters such as a shared currency. And he says the policy proposals come without any explanation of how they would be paid for – indeed, with only one page on future finances.

But however justified the criticism, there is a danger that the anti-
independence camp is looking increasingly negative, always sniping at what the Scottish Government or the Yes campaign put forward.

Mr Salmond used yesterday’s debate in parliament on the White Paper to say the ball was now “firmly in the Unionists’ court”.

Another hefty tome putting the argument against independence might look too much like War without Peace. But there is pressure now on Better Together to make the No case more positive.