A guest post today from the newly-elected SNP MSP for Renfrewshire North & West, Derek Mackay.  Derek has been the SNP group leader in Renfrewshire Council since 2004 and became Council leader in 2007, a position he held until his election to the Scottish Parliament earlier this month.  Independence is the word on every political journalist’s radar at the moment, so Derek decided to blog on that for us.

Some UK commentators claim we are already preparing for the creation of our independent Scottish state – what will passports be like, will we keep the monarchy etc. etc.  Well there’s the small matter of a referendum to get through first!

I believed this would be a turning point in Scotland’s political history.  There are now more MSPs who believe in an independent Scotland in the Scottish Parliament than who do not.  The SNP won outright, and every Unionist party lost support.  I’m not delusional in thinking that the historic 2011 election result was a vote for independence outright (I wish!).  But it was a vote of confidence in a competent SNP Government, with a desire to put the question to the people.

Impressive as that 45% of the vote and majority of MSPs is, it doesn’t equate to a mandate on independence – only a plebiscite could deliver that now.  The election signals support for the referendum policy.  Positive has won over negative, opportunity has won over opportunism – and independence can triumph too.

A message I received from an ex-Labour voter sums it up nicely.  He backed the SNP for the first time in May 2011, and in his words thought we were “the best team on the field” and would now give us a few years to convince him of independence.

Many voters hadn’t decided how to cast their vote in the Scottish elections just weeks before the 2011 election, so nothing can be taken for granted on the independence referendum.  Unionists aren’t as confident of defeating independence as they claim to be, and no Unionist Westminster politician would dare trigger a referendum bill in Westminster.  They just aren’t 100% certain they can win.  The days of second-guessing the Scottish electorate (and First Minister Alex Salmond for that matter) are over.  What they do know is the Scottish electorate are sophisticated and unpredictable.  Labour surge one year, wipe-out the next!

But of course levels of party support aren’t an indication of views on independence.  Many voters of other parties are comfortable with the concept of Scottish independence.  Labour HQ must be well aware of the propensity of independence-friendly Labour voters out there.  Former Labour MSP Charlie Gordon gave us an insight into Labour’s current doubts on their constitutional position;

“Then there’s the independence referendum; can we please stop opposing Scotland’s democratic right to self-determination?  If we still advocate the Union, we had better find reasons for its retention that Scottish voters find credible.”

To fight UK ConDem cuts, to give Scotland the government she elects, to follow a social democratic path – Scottish Labour needs independence, and for that matter so do the Scottish Liberal Democrats.  But the Scottish heavyweights left in these two parties don’t sit in Edinburgh, but comfortably in the green benches in London, and for as long as Westminster dispatches the orders their Scottish sovereignty has no chance.  The London establishment has too much to lose from Scotland leaving the Union, so the forces against independence will be substantial and intense.

The SNP Government will choose the referendum timing.  Opponents say Salmond will choose the optimum timing to win – of course he will.  The Scottish Parliament will determine the question.  The people will determine the result.  Democracy at last!

So what if three of the four so-called mainstream Scottish parties are sticking to opposing independence – the AV referendum showed the electorate will pay no attention to party lines if they so choose.  The SNP will deliver the referendum, but it will be the man and woman on the street who deliver the result.

Civic society must be motivated by our argument, and 2011 showed the electorate want reasons to vote positively.  It will be about hearts and minds.  I believe hearts can be delivered by a positive message of hope and opportunity.  Minds – the constant “can we do it” question.  I can’t think of a country that opted for independence on financial grounds alone, but we cannot win without proving “yes, of course we can!”.

Financial and administrative positions will be the Unionists battleground of choice, with economists bamboozling us with statistics to engender doubt and fear.  Even though we’ve proven Scotland isn’t a subsidy junkie, showing we have contributed more to the UK than we take, the Scots fiscal confidence has been shaken with the international economic turbulence, but some ‘confidence builders’ are coming incrementally – increased competencies and accountability with the Scotland Bill.

Albeit limited, this is progress.  Not just because the parliament’s powers are enhanced, but because the mechanics of the state are gradually being transferred also.  The Scottish Parliament will have a new borrowing ability and greater tax raising powers, HM Revenue and civil service structures will have to change to execute these powers.

The UK Government say they are considering their response to the 2011 results.  Scotland Bill enhancements should be London’s response, and a new clause removing all doubt about the Scottish Parliament’s legitimacy to hold a referendum on independence would be an act of respect and good faith.

Whilst the pace of devolution is slow, at least the direction of travel is in Scotland’s favour.  We have passed the Rubicon, self-belief is rising, and the giant ‘leap’ to Independence is getting smaller by the day.

Derek Mackay MSP
Renfrewshire North & West