If the SNP’s Growth Commission was supposed to do anything, it was to provoke debate. Debate is certainly needed about a new proposition for independence, because the one thing every 2014 Yes voter should be able to agree on is that what we don’t need is simply a re-run of an argument that failed to win a majority then, in circumstances which have already changed dramatically. That would be a recipe for a second and perhaps even final defeat.
Sadly, just as some on the far right of the political spectrum demand that everyone respects their freedom of speech but then go to pieces when everyone else uses the same freedom to call out their racism or misogyny, so there have been some independence supporters who’ve trumpeted the launch of this discussion paper but then reacted with outrage when anyone else disagrees with it. ‘Stay focused on INDY’ goes the wearily familiar retort, ‘we can keep these differences till after!’.
I hope and believe that this kind of reaction is confined to a small minority, but they certainly shout loudly. The rest of us must remember that our job is not simply to build a case for independence that we find ever more compelling. The task of developing a new case that’s relevant to the years ahead instead of those behind us, and that convinces those we didn’t reach four years ago, involves listening carefully and thinking deeply rather than simply asserting what we already think.
So I welcome the publication of the Commission’s report, but not as a banner to obediently fall in line behind; rather as an invitation to contest the ideas it contains, because that is what we urgently need to be doing. I am convinced that a lively and constructive debate of this kind is capable of attracting more people than it alienates.
Of course the first idea the report contains, and which as a Green I have an absolute duty to contest, is the growth fetish which dominates the economic policy of most political parties around the world, but which even many economists recognise to be unhelpful, unhealthy and ultimately destructive.
Sure, you can put the word “sustainable” in front of the word “growth”, but the resulting jargon has never been defined, and leaves the attention still fixated on plain old fashioned GDP growth. Or actually maybe not so old fashioned; the idea that economic activity as measured in this narrow way could or should be made to grow forever is actually quite new, and Greens have persistently criticised its failure to capture the impact of the economy on our health, our happiness, how well we share our wealth or how unfairly we impose the environmental consequences of its generation.
Indeed a convincing case can be made that the myopic obsession with economic growth has been one of the drivers of the ecological collapse we have been living through, and which we are still globally refusing to arrest. Overharvesting of natural resources, degrading of ecosystems, outpouring of pollution and waste into the land, sea and atmosphere, and continuing to treat fossil fuels as an economic asset instead of a liability; all these actions have made the world’s rich ever richer and created more GDP growth, yet all are ultimately suicidal for humanity as we destroy our own life support system.
A prospectus for our own country’s future must surely engage with these hard realities and offer a route not to economic success in today’s terms but to economic transformation to redefine those terms. I won’t pretend that the Greens have all the answers here; nobody does. But we have tried to ask the right questions. Our work on the transition away from Scotland’s reliance on fossil fuels showed the huge opportunities for investment in new industries which can generate prosperity for the future. The ideas underpinning Green policies like a shorter working week and a universal basic income offer a re-evaluation of what that prosperity means, and how a healthy economy can allow everyone to prosper in human terms instead of simply enabling a minority to consume more than their share.
I remain of the view that to set about this urgent transformation requires both power and political will – neither on its own is enough. The macroeconomic power which would be unavailable under the Growth Commission’s currency proposals would be grossly insufficient, and would risk actually binding us to the deck of a sinking ship instead of freeing us to chart our own course.
But just as clearly, the powers of full independence without the political will to transform ourselves, our economy and ultimately our world would feel like a journey to nowhere. We can and must do better than that if we’re to inspire people to believe that they are capable of something extraordinary.
This article first appeared in The National.