This weekend I've also been reading Tony Blair's book, 'A Journey', and was struck by one particular passage on trust (something he knows about, given the loss of trust he suffered over Iraq, as he is painfully aware):
"the public are quite discerning, and discriminate between politicians they don't trust at a superficial level, i.e. pretty much all of them, and those they don't trust at a more profound level. This level of trust is about whether the public believe that the political leader is trying to do his or her best for them . . . This is the level of trust that really matters."
His words made me think about the contrasting approaches to the constitutional question on display in recent days. Today the latest Lib Dem 'broadside' on independence is the news that Scottish Secretary Michael Moore has asked his ministerial colleagues in every UK department to work out the costs of independence. What is the purpose of this request? Is it a genuine attempt to ensure the process of independence is as smooth as possible, if the people choose this path, or is it just designed to produce an eye-wateringly large figure which can be used to bash the independence case?
Most Scots won't pay any attention to the attack today or to the figures when they are eventually produced. They will just see them as part of the superficial, 'he said, she said', level of politics that they don't trust. As Lesley Riddoch correctly pointed out yesterday this is shadow boxing - most people will wait for the real thing. But some people will pay attention, those who have a particular interest in politics and who follow the day to day battles. They will focus on the detail of the arguments, and this is where the Lib Dem's approach has real risks on two fronts.
First, if there is the slightest weakness or inconsistency in their figures they will only serve to undermine the Unionist critique rather than the independence case. I reflect back to the widely used UK figures on the supposed cost of devolving corporation tax to Scotland, where the Treasury used different and less favourable methodology in their calculations for Scotland than they did for their calculations for Northern Ireland, in one case by a totally ridiculous factor of fifteen. When talking about the impact of lower corporation tax for the UK they included an assessment of the wider economic benefit, but for Scotland this aspect was ignored. And while the headline writers or the opposition benches may not care or may not notice, thoughtful others, in the real world, do.
Second, those same people who are following this debate will wonder why the Scottish Secretary is going all out to provide figures for the supposed costs of independence, when he can't provide figures for the potential reduction in Scotland's budget resulting from the income tax proposals in his own Scotland Bill, a measure which is going through Parliament at this very moment. They will quite rightly wonder why he is spending so much time and effort focusing on independence while ignoring the "beam in his own eye", the troublesome and potentially dangerous Scotland Bill income tax plans. There is a massive inconsistency in asking questions of the SNP when he can't answer the same questions on his own current plans. And linked to this, will people not also be wondering why he is asking UK departments to work on issues around independence but he hasn't asked them to work on sorting out the dreadful impact of welfare reform on some Scots families? Or demanded they bring the UK employment network more closely into alignment with the Scottish government's skills and training efforts so we can get more Scots into work or training right now, today, when it is so crucially important? One of my basic political philosophies is that people will judge you by what you do, not what you say (or what others say about you). And on this analysis, the Lib Dems are wildly out of touch with the mood of the people of Scotland today. It has to be all about action on jobs and recovery, nothing more and nothing less.
And this brings me to the second half of Tony Blair's trust equation: is the politician trying their utmost to do the best for the people? The SNP went into the Scottish election saying clearly that the first priority for a re-elected government was jobs and the economy, and the constitutional aspect of this was getting real job-creating powers into the Scotland Bill. The referendum and the detailed debate on independence would come in the second half of the parliament. And that is what the SNP is doing. While the opposition are trying to lay land mines for independence, the SNP government is getting on with the job as set out. And when the debate on independence does come, as it will, people will rightly assess what politicians have been doing over these years. I have no doubt they will be more inclined to trust politicians who have been working hard to create and protect employment rather than those who have been manufacturing dodgy statistics when they too should be focused first and foremost on economic growth, social progress and giving Scotland more economic powers through the Scotland Bill, although being in partnership with the Tories makes these last three an almost impossible task for Lib Dem ministers. In the slash and burn of current UK government policy, I can perhaps see why trying to divert attention away from their government's actions seems like the right solution.
Jim Mather has produced a series of slides which demonstrate just why real economic powers for Scotland are so important. The first shows Scotland's relative economic position 25 years ago (the three flags are Scotland, UK and Norway):
The second shows our relative position 5 years ago:
And the third, where Scotland will be if we don't break out of the restrictions placed on our economy within the current constitutional arrangements:
This is why the debate on economic teeth for the Scotland Bill and full financial responsibility (independence in terms of economic powers) is so important. We are growing, yes, but more slowly than we could be: we are not realising our full economic potential, with the impact felt by families across Scotland.
Mr Moore, and the other proponents of Westminster control (and, thus, Tory rule), may be happy devising new wheezes to try and frighten Scots, but that is not good enough in the face of these realities. Yes, Scottish government action has resulted in higher levels of business confidence and falling levels of economic inactivity (in contrast to the UK). It has meant rising employment and falling unemployment (again against the UK trend). Achieving this with the limited tools at hand is testament to what could be achieved with the normal powers of other nations.
The time to talk independence will come and it is a debate I am looking forward to. But today the focus must be on the immediate priorities of jobs and recovery. How politicians perform on this test is where that more profound trust will be forged. And it is a test that today the UK government is failing.