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Common Weal director: ‘Yes movement is a mess and needs taken out of SNP’s hands’

As the influential pro-independence think tank Common Weal launches a new book outlining its vision for Scotland in the first 10 years after leaving the union, its director Amanda Burgauer sits down with our Writer at Large Neil Mackay for a full and frank discussion about the state of the Yes movement and the SNP government


OFTEN the messenger is as important as the message. Amanda Burgauer is the head of Common Weal, the pro-independence Scottish think tank that’s one of the pillars of the Yes movement. So, for independence supporters and the Scottish Government her words matter. Today, she’s come with a message of hope for the Yes movement, but also a scathing critique of the SNP government, its leadership of the independence campaign, and record in office.

Yesterday, Common Weal published a new book, Sorted: A Handbook for a Better Scotland. It’s a guide to the kind of country Common Weal believes Scotland could become post-independence. The intention of the book is to buoy a Yes movement left bruised by division and the recent Supreme Court ruling. However, when Burgauer sat down to discuss the book with the Herald on Sunday she was unsparing in her views of Nicola Sturgeon’s government. The Yes movement is “a mess” and leadership of the independence campaign shouldn’t be in the hands of the SNP, Burgauer says.

Sorted, which was written by the entire Common Weal team after consultation with a raft of specialists and advisers, sets out a vision of Scotland in the first ten years after independence. It imagines a country radically altered through a Green New Deal, a focus on a wellbeing economy which puts health and happiness on the same footing as economic growth, fairer work, land reform to allow rural Scotland to flourish, a more redistributive approach to wealth, and decentralisation of power from Edinburgh so that local communities have greater control over their lives.

It’s an unashamedly left-wing manifesto for what Scotland could become if ‘unshackled’ from the union. Burgauer hopes unionists will also engage with the book – even just to debate its ideas – though clearly that may be overly optimistic in polarised Scotland.

Inertia

However, the book’s hopeful message – at least from the perspective of independence supporters – comes with a harsh rebuke for the SNP government. “Eighty percent of the ideas in the book could be done now,” Burgauer says. It’s an implicit criticism of SNP inertia. “We’ve spent the last ten years hanging around waiting – we could actually be doing a lot of this stuff now.” The other 20% – the big ideas around currency, for instance – could only happen post-independence.

As a leading member of the Yes movement, Burgauer is, unsurprisingly, convinced an independent Scotland will flourish, however she’s seriously troubled by the SNP’s stewardship of the campaign. “I’m not sure what people expected the Supreme Court to say? Did anybody really expect a ‘yes’?”

Then comes her stinging critique: “But of course, the independence movement right now is a mess. I’m not sure whether it could be called a movement because it’s so fractured – there’s so much infighting. That’s not how you persuade anyone that this is going to be a better Scotland to live in – if we’re suggesting that people who can’t even be nice to one another in the same room are somehow going to be in charge of it.”

HeraldScotland: Common Weal director Amanda Burgauer said she wasn't sure the independence movement could be called a movement: 'It's so fractured – there's so much infighting'Common Weal director Amanda Burgauer said she wasn’t sure the independence movement could be called a movement: ‘It’s so fractured – there’s so much infighting’ (Image: Gordon Terris)

Splits

The Yes movement is split over many issues: the roadmap to independence, the aftermath of the Alex Salmond case, Nato membership and trans rights. Burgauer said that two Yes groups “almost came to blows” during one meeting last week. Common Weal hopes its new book will provide a positive manifesto that a fractured movement can unite around. “The purpose of the book is to give people the belief that a better future is possible … If people don’t have hope, they disengage from political strategy,” Burgauer says.

“Fundamentally, people have to drop their grievances and start becoming a cohesive movement. The important step is convincing people who aren’t convinced yet – not the people at each other’s throats.” Burgauer says she wouldn’t “seek to ostracise anybody” from the Yes movement. “You don’t exclude people because of their views on anything, other than independence.” Not everyone in the divided movement will agree with her, though.

She adds: “The leadership of the SNP has got some issues to address.” It’s important to note that Burgauer is an SNP member, once ran for parliament and sat on the SNP’s National Executive Committee. When it comes to any future decision about the path to independence, she says of the SNP leadership: “I hope they look to the membership and actually listen to what they’re saying.”

Sturgeon

The bottom line for Burgauer is: “Independence shouldn’t be led by political parties.” Many Yes voters say the SNP should concentrate on good government in order to build support for independence. Burgauer wants to take leadership of the movement out of SNP hands for that very reason. “There isn’t any political party with a great track record these days,” she says. Relying on good governance by the SNP risks people “only voting for independence if the SNP does things well”. In other words, tying independence to the track record of the Sturgeon administration isn’t a wise course of action.

Common Weal’s new book is an effort to articulate what Burgauer feels hasn’t been pushed enough: “The discussion about what a better Scotland looks like. That’s been missing from the independence campaign. How can you vote for independence if you don’t know what it means? If it’s just more of the same, that’s not going to change your mind.”

Burgauer is forthright about the fact that Common Weal “has been very critical of this SNP government, not because we’re anti-SNP, but a government needs critical friends”. She cites the SNP’s plan for a National Care Service. “It’s absolutely wrong. We have to say something. It would be wrong to just go, ‘oh it’s the SNP, we mustn’t criticise them because we want independence’.”

Common Weal has done a lot of work on a National Care Service and backs its creation, though sees the SNP’s vision as flawed. Care should be provided locally, Burgauer says, but government proposals would centralise the service. “The Scottish Government view is ‘we can’t trust communities, we can’t trust local authorities’.” Commonweal now wants a pause on proposals. The government “also made a very poor start on the Scottish National Investment Bank”.

Essentially, Burgauer wants to see an “umbrella organisation” – like the old Yes Scotland – take over running the independence movement. She suggested that the existing Scottish Independence Convention – which includes political representatives, trade unionists and various Yes groups – might be “the inclusive body” needed.

Big ideas

A central theme of the book is “decentralising” power, and more localism so citizens have greater control over their lives. The book also advocates a “non-aligned” position internationally for Scotland post-independence – in other words, no membership of Nato. Trident would also go. Common Weal feels it would “take ten years” for Scotland to reenter the European Union.

Burgauer notes that Article 42.7 of the EU treaty is a ‘mutual defence clause’ in the event of any member state being a ‘victim of armed aggression’. That makes full EU membership a tough fit for a ‘non-aligned’ Scotland, however. On domestic policy, Common Weal views law and order through a “public health” lens – so tackling poverty becomes central to tackling crime. All drugs should be decriminalised and taxed. There’s also a nifty idea around the creation of a National Gambling Company which would effectively nationalise betting so the state benefited in revenues.

“A newly independent country introduces new policies, rather than this constant cycle of failure which we’re going through right now,” Burgauer says. “Part of that failure cycle is fiscal conservatism … We refuse to fix problems that cost us so much to mitigate … If you want better things you have to be prepared to pay the price”.

Lobbying

So why hasn’t more been done – if, as she says, 80% of Common Weal’s big ideas could happen now? “Orthodoxy,” Burgauer replies. There’s too much “resistance to change”. For example? “We’ve most of the powers we need for land reform right now. Not one person says land reform is a bad idea. So what’s holding it up? We’re not brave enough.” There’s also too much lobbying for vested interests at Holyrood.

On taxation, the SNP government “could allow councils to operate a land value tax. But that’s about power. If councils are bringing in all this tax, where’s power sitting? … We’ve seen over the last eight years increased centralisation. Power is difficult to let go.” The centralisation of Police Scotland into one force is the antithesis of Common Weal’s “more European model” of power devolved downwards. Burgauer says where she lives in South Lanarkshire “we don’t have a police station for miles around”, and the local authority feels remote to many citizens.

This ‘power to the people’ idea also comes with a call for the Scottish Government to publish its accounts in full so voters can scrutinise every penny spent. Such openness would help citizens better understand issues around government borrowing. “We’ll need to borrow,” Burgauer says of an independent Scotland. Common Weal, although left-wing, wants to see greater support for entrepreneurs, deemed the “core” of Scotland’s economy. However, Burgauer does mock the appointment of a ‘chief entrepreneur’ by the Scottish Government. The idea of a ‘state’ entrepreneur seems rather counter-intuitive, she feels.

Currency

Common Weal supports an independent Scotland having its own currency “from the start”, initially pegged to sterling but only for “a short period … It takes three years to set up a new currency, so we’d better get a move on. That needs to be worked on now if we want to give people the confidence that an independent Scotland would work and therefore they should vote Yes. Let’s show them this groundwork is already done,” Burgauer says.

Common Weal doesn’t advocate a “de-growth agenda”. It does, though, want vastly improved working conditions, and backs ideas like a basic income for all. Bringing more jobs to rural Scotland is central to Common Weal’s reimagining of the economy – but that’s hamstrung without land reform, and huge estates encouraged to break up so that ordinary people can get a stake in the countryside.

“Let’s remember who government is for,” Burgauer says. “It shouldn’t be to prop themselves up in power, or for neoliberal lobbying interests. They’re there to serve the people.” Both Holyrood and Westminster governments have “become short-sighted … forever chasing after the mistakes they made yesterday. They don’t lift their heads and ask why they keep making these mistakes.”

ScotWind

There is praise, though, for the SNP too. The Child Payment, a benefit that exists only in Scotland, is “absolutely fantastic”, Burgauer says. It was good to see the First Minister at Egypt’s recent Cop27, she says, adding: “I think we’re giving [the climate] a certain amount of importance, but is it just photo ops or are we actually really doing stuff?” Although there are some areas where “our hands are tied”, as Scotland lacks the powers, “there’s a lot more we could do”.

This takes Burgauer to the ScotWind deal which saw the seabed sold for wind farm development. She’s scathing of what unfolded. “How can you auction something with a cap? You don’t even do that in your village hall raffling off prizes. When you’re fundraising you’re meant to get as much money as possible. Basically, the companies told the government how much they’d pay and the government went ‘alright then’.” The Sturgeon administration was “easily led”.

Burgauer turns to the SNP’s promised National Energy Company, pledged in 2017 but still undelivered. “The biggest failure in recent Scottish history by far is the failure to capitalise on our energy resources and turn them into jobs. The Scottish Government’s energy company proposal was sadly a vanity project from the start. It was only about retailing energy, where the margins are low and there aren’t many jobs. That was always going to fail. It refused to look at energy generation which is where all the profits and jobs are.”

It drives her “mad”, Burgauer says, that Wales started a national energy company and “the Scottish Government didn’t get beyond a PR stunt. We could own almost all our own energy resources without independence, and without spending a lot of money on it, if we had a National Energy Company.”

NHS

Management consultancies have far too much influence in government, particularly around the NHS. Running the health service should be left to medics and civil servants. “Management consultants are on this merry-go-around of ‘I’ll take a job in government for three months, then I’ll go back to the consultancy where I’ll advise on policy, then I’ll go and work for that department while we get the policy through’. It’s a revolving door. It’s just extracting money from government budgets. A lot of people are getting well off on it … It’s appalling.”

The Scottish Government, although limited when it comes to Westminster controlling the purse strings, “has to take responsibility” for the state of the NHS. However, Burgauer thinks it “suits” Westminster to see Scotland’s NHS in just as bad a state as England’s.

Despite her concerns over the direction of the Yes movement under the SNP’s leadership, Burgauer is sure Scotland will become independent. “It’ll definitely happen through demographics. That might mean an awfully long wait. But what we do in the next two years will determine how long it takes.” She fears a long wait though, as she believes “the UK government will put forward bills that remove the powers we’ve already got”.

The campaign for independence needs to come offline, she says. “Most of the people whose votes we need aren’t on social media. Most of the people we need to persuade are too busy worrying about putting food on the table to spend hours on social media.”

Hope

“Hope,” Burgauer says, is what’s needed to reunite the Yes movement. “The movement has lost sight of that and turned inwards. The book is to remind people to look upwards and outwards. If you’re busy building a better future, you’re less likely to be hitting your colleagues over the head with a hammer.”

Regarding one of the main schisms in the Yes movement, the Gender Reform Act, she says: “We recognise some groups in society are disadvantaged. That’s very real. But it’s our philosophy to lift everyone up at the same time. We tend towards universalist solutions rather than individualistic ones. That’s not to say there’s no place for identity politics. But if you get it right, universalist policies help the most disadvantaged most.”

England

What of the future with our neighbour England, if Scotland became independent? Joining the EU would mean “it’s impossible to have frictionless borders in both directions” – with England and Europe. “So you’ve got to choose where you want to minimise friction. Our trade with the EU isn’t as big as our trade with the UK so until we’re members of the EU it doesn’t make sense to create friction in both directions.

“So we propose maintaining the smoothest possible border with the UK for at least a transition period and creating an Export Agency to support business in minimising the bureaucracy of exporting to Europe.”

And Ireland? Burgauer says “the idiocy of Scotland’s relationship with Ireland” is symbolised by the A77, the road to Cairnryan for exports across the Irish Sea. “There’s no way to get there from the central belt without going down long, windy, single-carriage roads. If you asked geographers, they’d conclude we don’t want a relationship with Ireland.

“If Scotland was independent our natural partners would be Ireland, Wales, Nordic countries, the Netherlands, Belgium, Iceland. The UK is determined to be a major world power no matter the cost. Scotland would be a collaborative nation which works with similar-sized countries. It’s a different outlook. Ireland is like an estranged neighbour, and we’ve so much shared potential it’s infuriating we never seem to explore it.”

Yet it might be Northern Ireland, some say, which leaves the union first. Northern Ireland, Burgauer believes, “looks to be moving steadily but inexorably towards leaving the UK … It’s like the door is swinging open slowly for Ireland while Scotland has the key and can’t decide whether to use it or not.”

As she closes the conversation, Burgauer adds: “This is probably the most forthright I’ve ever been about these issues. But that’s where we are right now, where the tension of needing hope clashes with the reality of the current situation.”


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