ON Thursday, Britain’s most successful political party meets for its annual conference in Aberdeen. And I don’t mean the Tories. In May, David Cameron scraped into Downing Street with just 37 per cent of the vote. But at the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections, a triumphant SNP increased their share of the constituency vote to 45 per cent, plus 44 per cent of the list vote, despite having been in power since 2007.
The latest poll of Scottish Parliament voting intentions puts SNP support at 56 per cent. That’s a whole 35 points ahead of Scottish Labour, whose support has actually dipped to 21 per cent despite having Jeremy Corbyn as leader.
OK, that’s the good news. Here’s my real point: parties rise and fall on the tide of history, based on their ability to show the way forward. Back in 2003, the SNP had a lousy Holyrood election, dropping to only 24 per cent of the constituency vote, while the despised Tories actually rose to 17 per cent.
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At that time the party was bickering, and the Scottish Socialist Party and Greens seemed to offer a more radical alternative for left-leaning voters. However, the SNP regrouped under Alex Salmond and repositioned themselves to lead the anti-austerity fight against all three of the big London Unionist parties following the economic crisis of 2008.
The anti-austerity tide is still running high, which is why we nearly won the independence referendum last year and why the Scottish working class remains wary of Labour’s true political stance, even under Corbyn. But history has a way of throwing curveballs.
If the SNP spend their time in Aberdeen congratulating themselves, or if the party's elected members talk only to the hordes of corporate PR personnel descending on the conference, there is a danger that complacency will be the order of the day. And complacency is the last thing the party needs six months before an election.
Modern party conferences take place in the media glare so I don’t expect a rip-roaring policy debate in public. But I do caution the SNP leadership and elected members to spend as much time as possible talking to ordinary delegates.They will discover that folk are already having a policy discussion in private.
Start with the European Union. The SNP is rightly pro-Europe and the latest polls show that only 18 per cent of people in Scotland would vote to leave the EU. In England, popular sentiment is evenly split between staying and leaving. But that’s not the end of the matter. For the first time, a sizeable section of British finance capital – loosely, the big hedge funds – are backing a Brexit, politically and with campaign cash. Traditionally, City financiers favoured EU membership as it gave them access to European markets. No longer. The hedge funds fear Brussels red tape and the political uncertainties resulting from Germany’s determination to impose the euro and austerity on Europe’s smaller economies. Which means there is a 50:50 the UK could leave the EU at the coming referendum.
True, the SNP will (correctly) campaign to stay in. But stay in what, exactly? The crushing of Greek democracy by the European Central Bank is hardly something we can easily sell to Scottish voters. The SNP need to think a little deeper regarding the kind of EU we want to be part of. And I don’t just mean a reform of the Common Fishing Policy. What we need is a revival of the 1990s project for "Europe of the nations and regions", with more voting weight inside the EU afforded to the smaller members.
In addition, it is time the European left and trades unions put some thought into constructing pan-European institutions. We need a 21st-century blueprint for a Citizens’ Europe, or the SNP risks being outflanked by the Brexit lobby.
Next on the policy agenda comes the vexed question of what currency an independent Scotland should use. Personally, I don’t think our advocacy of keeping sterling lost us the referendum. If we had put forward a plan for a separate Scottish pound, the London media would have made that their excuse for opposing independence: “Do you want your pension paid in bawbees?” However, it is plain that City interests won’t accept a common currency with Scotland. I’m not offering an instant alternative but we do need to start thinking about one for whenever the Scottish people demand a fresh referendum – be that soon or far in the future.
The problems involved in setting up a new currency are various: establishing credibility, creating a payments mechanism, setting an exchange rate. And you could end up grappling with these technicalities while decoupling Scotland from the UK. However, there is a simple way of reducing the difficulties involved in setting up a new Scottish currency: create a parallel one before independence and iron out any bugs. That might sound a weird idea but there are lots of examples of parallel currencies around today – they are useful in their own right as an anti-austerity measure.
How can you create a parallel currency, I hear you ask? Surely you’ve heard of Bitcoin, the world’s first digital money, invented in 2008. Money is anything other people are prepared to accept in payment. There’s nothing to stop you creating a digital money provided enough folk accept it when supplying services and goods to each other. As you are not offering loans, you are not part of the regulated banking system. The very fact of creating new “cash” allows trade to take place that otherwise would not have occurred. The city of Bristol set up its own currency, the Bristol Pound, in 2012 and already has 800 local businesses using it. In Sardinia they have the Sardex, in Germany the Chiemgaur, and in Brazil the Palmas.
The New Economics Foundation (NEF), a radical economic think tank, has recently come up with a similar idea for a digital ScotPound. Everyone on the electoral register would receive a citizen’s dividend of S£250 on turning 16. This would add S£15 million to the money supply each year. Folk could “spend” this using their mobile phone.
New ScotPounds would not add to the debt burden of the Scottish Government. I’ll be speaking at a conference fringe meeting about this idea on Thursday at 6.30pm.
There are umpteen variations on such a parallel currency. The advent of the smartphone has made them a reality. In theory, Scotland could have its own currency and payments system in place prior to any second independence referendum. In fact, the more successful it proved in practice, the greater the evidence for running our own economic affairs. Even pre-independence, a parallel currency backed by the Scottish Government would be a powerful anti-austerity tool through boosting consumer demand when (as it will) UK growth falters.
The greatest political threat to the SNP’s political momentum is, paradoxically, a loss of list votes to Rise and the Greens.
The best way of countering that is for the party to lead the debate on seeking new, creative solutions to economic, environmental and social problems. The modern world was invented in Scotland during the Enlightenment. Surely we can help invent the 21st century as well.