The announcement reeked of desperation. Nicola Sturgeon is‘delighted’ that the SNP National Executive Committee has approved her nomination of retired MSP and party grandee Mike Russell as ‘political director of the HQ independence unit’.
The statement, put out on Twitter last week, aimed to give a sense of momentum and industrious activity: Russell at the head of an elite squad of Nationalist campaigners who will deliver on promises of another referendum.
The appointment of Russell is not so much a sign of progress for the Nationalists as confirmation that their project to break up the UK has stalled. It follows the resignation, after just a few months in post, of Marco Biagi as campaign strategist for the SNP’s ‘independence taskforce’, which was set up in January.
Ex SNP MSP Biagi, a former Scottish government minister for local government, housing and planning, is still in his thirties, has a clutch of degrees (including one from Yale), and is known for his strategic nous and thoughtful approach. After quitting, he is reported to have described the role in a social media postas the ‘worst job ever’.
Russell is in his late sixties and last served under Sturgeon as cabinet secretary for the constitution, Europe and external affairs. He left Holyrood in May and currently serves as president of the SNP. Although regarded in SNP circles as something of an elder statesman, he does not have Biagi’s considerate manner, and indeed has been accusedof resorting to some of the darker political tactics associated with nationalism.
His appointment shows how Sturgeon relies on a small inner circle of loyal colleagues to hold the party and the independence movement together. It also signals her strategy for the next few years: placate impatient supporters with the appearance of action but kick the independence can down the road for as long as possible.
Is Sturgeon serious about another indyref? SNP supporters must have their doubts. And those doubts can only be reinforced by Russell’s record when it comes to grappling with the SNP’s toughest challenge: how to make a credible economic case for separation.
Russell’s instinct when it comes to the economics of secession is to do anything but deal with the economics of secession. He trots out the ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’ straw man argument, for instance. For the uninitiated, this involves turning legitimate and pragmatic concerns about removing Scotland from its established economic base into an emotional argument about national pride, thereby avoiding any scrutiny of the economic arguments at all.
State you have concerns about Scotland being the first advanced economy to cut itself off from its central bank and other key pillars of state support and be met with the claim that what you are really saying is Scotland is ‘too wee, too poor and too stupid’ to go it alone.
It gets worse. Russell has also questioned the veracity of independent academic research when it happens not to support the SNP’s political objectives. When researchers at the LSE released a reportin February concluding the costs of independence to the Scottish economy are likely to be two to three times greater than the costs of Brexit, Russell saidhe had ‘reservations’ about it as it ‘assumes, that if Scotland were to become independent, we would not change a single policy, we would not use a single lever on the economy’.
He also tweeted a link to a blog attacking the research, along with its headline: ‘The LSE report on the increased costs in trade for an independent Scotland is based on unsubstantiated data and absurd assumptions’.
The fact that the research came from the same university that produced similar work in 2016 on the economic impacts of Brexit – work which was cited heavily by the Scottish Government as it made the case against exiting the EU – was neither here nor here. They were right then but wrong now, apparently.
Worse still is Russell’s attempt to misinform on Scotland’s tax and spend position when he said that ‘Scotland pays out more than it gets back’. Independent fact checking service the Ferret thoroughly debunked that claim, but it was never rescinded.
We can conclude from Russell’s appointment that Nicola Sturgeon is certainly not serious about producing a credible economic case for secession, and probably not serious about another referendum this side of the next general election. If the ‘HQ independence unit’ is her A-team then she’s just put Murdoch in charge instead of Hannibal.
The UK will be safe for a while yet.
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