The SDA: A future political force?


by James Wilkie

The Scottish Democratic Alliance (SDA) was founded in July 2009 by a group of Scots with considerable pooled experience of business management, diplomacy and international affairs.  Its purpose is to research and present proposals for the future governance of Scotland, and at a future date to put up candidates for the Scottish Parliament.  Its radical approach from first principles has caused heated discussions on Internet websites among unionists and nationalists alike.  Its proposals are also being studied with interest by governments in more than three dozen foreign countries.

A superficial observer might assert that Scotland is standing at a crossroads at the moment, faced as it is with a choice between remaining within the United Kingdom, under whatever system of advanced autonomy, or reverting to its former status of independence within the world community.

The SDA’s view is that Scotland has no choice whatever in the matter if its interests are to be adequately protected in the future, and that this cannot be achieved through any status short of full, internationally recognised independence, with a seat at the United Nations.  

Scotland is a self-contained geographical, geo-economic, social, cultural, and hence geo-political entity that can no longer be governed under the same set of rules as southern England.  The advantages of a federal system and other forms of limited autonomy can all be obtained under a confederal arrangement among autonomous equals within the British Isles.

The reasons for this assessment are a study in themselves, and need not be gone into in detail here, in an article concerned with the SDA itself.  The conclusion is based on practical experience of the workings of the political environment within which Scotland will have to exist in future.  That framework is no longer the UK, or even Europe, but the new political system of global interdependence that has developed with record speed over the past 20 years or so.

Accordingly, the SDA sees no point in discussing impracticable alternatives like federalism or greater fiscal autonomy, and is presently functioning as a think tank concentrating on how Scotland is to be run post-independence.  It is also registered with the Electoral Commission as a political party, with a view to entering the election lists at some future date after the independence issue has been settled, possibly even in 2015/16.

One must remember that there is no viable alternative to the SNP this side of the horizon, and at present all Scotland’s political eggs are in the one SNP basket.  That is not a healthy situation, and it is tenable only in the short term because of the necessity of keeping the SNP in government at all costs.  Its performance to date has been quite astonishing, but all political parties go over the top sooner or later, and in the longer term there will have to be a Scottish alternative to the SNP, especially in view of the ongoing extinction of the Scottish branches of the three London-based parties.

The SDA is planning for the future, but meantime it is doing everything possible to support the SNP up to the moment of independence.  This 100% practical support does not exclude criticism of individual SNP policies in the light of the SDA’s international diplomatic and business expertise as well as its up-to-the-minute access to international sources of intelligence.

This is an important point in view of the enormous influence that international affairs now exercise on domestic policies.  Scotland’s gradual re-emergence into a world that bears no resemblance to the one it left in 1707 means that there is an almost total lack of the considerable body of expert modern statecraft that will be necessary.  There are light-years of a difference between running a devolved administration and running an independent state, and it is here that the SDA can contribute first-hand international know-how and experience that is unavailable elsewhere.  

There has been confusion over the SDA’s political orientation.  None of the SDA founder members were born with silver spoons in their mouths.  They are nevertheless people who have achieved success in their careers around the globe, sometimes against all the odds from very modest beginnings.  Some SDA policy proposals can be ascribed to the centre-right of the spectrum, and just as many to the radical left.  We all want Rolls-Royce standards of education, health and social services, to the limit that can be afforded, but the SDA is not prepared to adopt spendthrift policies.  It is, however, prepared to adopt some very radical ideas on public finance.

In fact, the SDA regards the whole left-centre-right categorisation as an outdated ideology that should be dropped from Scottish politics.  The governance of the country is a holistic task that has to be approached as a balanced whole.

The ongoing drafting of the SDA’s policies is by no means complete, and there are still some substantial gaps in its programme.  A populist presentation is necessary for elections, bearing in mind that not every voter has a degree in political philosophy.  But the popular approach has to be based on an intellectually impeccable foundation of strategic policies suitable for direct implementation in a government programme. There is no point in candy-floss slogans, in Labour-style populism with no substance.

Therefore, the SDA is presently at the stage of laying a foundation of hard and fast proposals for the post-independence future of Scotland in the light of its international expertise.  The policy statements on the SDA’s website have been criticised for being too intellectual for some tastes, but uncompromising intellectual rigour is exactly what Scotland needs at the moment.  It is not too soon to draft a constitution, or policies on fisheries, energy, finance and external relations, etc. A complex modern state cannot be revamped overnight, and the moment of independence is far too late to start thinking about it.  That would be a recipe for chaos – we have to start now.

This expanding policy base is concentrating on the most fundamental issues for the meantime – independence strategy, Scotland’s borders, a draft constitution, national finance, energy, Scotland in Europe, Scotland in the World, the health service, etc.  Others, like education, agriculture and forestry are awaiting their turn in the queue.

The SDA’s stringent examination of Scotland’s financial situation has already revealed the enormous scale of the hidden overall revenue transfer from Scotland to London, and the scale on which Scotland is subsidising the rest of the UK – even without counting the oil.  

The comprehensive SDA energy policy programme, under the chairmanship of a former North Sea oil executive, is against heavily subsidised wind farms, but in favour of other renewables like hydro and geothermal energy.

Drawing on international experience of security and defence, the SDA takes full account of the fact that global cooperation is now the primary essential, and furthermore, that the majority of national and international threats that have to be countered, and the risks that have to be managed, can no longer be resolved by military means.  The remaining risks are nevertheless sufficiently real to make a Scottish defence force necessary.

After the institutionalised lawlessness of the ‘sovereignty of Parliament’ and other aspects of the anarchic UK system, the SDA regards the drafting of Scotland’s post-independence constitution as a matter of priority.  Its contribution to the debate is being steadily refined, not least as regards the definition of Scotland’s marine borders.

The concept of Europe as a player on the world stage has now been overtaken by the new political system of global interdependence that has developed over the past 20 years.  The SDA nevertheless advocates membership of all of the intergovernmental European organisations, but is adamant that Scotland should join the EFTA side of the European Economic Area and should on no account apply to join the EU.

On the domestic economic side, the SDA lays emphasis on the restoration of Scottish manufacturing industry and the promotion of the wealth-creating sector generally.

A recent UN study establishes a clear link between crime and development. It found that countries with wide income disparities are four times more likely to be afflicted by violent crime than more equitable societies. The SDA’s pointer here for Scotland is that crime cannot be combated by toughness alone, but also by social and economic policies that encourage the establishment of a cohesive, stable society that is at peace with itself.

These individual examples must stand for the full spectrum of policies that the SDA has under research at any one time, as an indication of the seriousness of its intention to establish a new post-independence political force in Scotland, parallel to the SNP, which has already permanently taken over the slot once held by Labour.

If and when the SDA decides to contest elections, it will be out to replace the present unionist parties, not the SNP.  The SNP administration is the only feasible Scottish Government at the moment; there is simply no alternative to it.  Therefore, nothing should be done to undermine the SNP by mounting significant electoral competition before independence has been signed and sealed.  That would not preclude, for example, putting up a single SDA candidate in a by-election when there is no real danger of shaking the Government’s position.

Scotland’s transition to its new status – both at home and within its international framework – can only be gradual, and dependent on building up the necessary body of statesmanship that is presently lacking.  This is one of the facts of political life that has not yet registered in Scotland.  I am not stating this as a criticism, but as a matter of fact, as an inevitable result of Scotland’s long absence from the wider international scene, with correspondingly negative effects on the quality of political life and opinion.  

I myself will continue to spend a good deal of time moving in international diplomatic and similar circles in order to keep an eye on trends and events, and to provide the SDA with relevant feedback.  

We of the SDA, who have accumulated experience of how international governance is developing, do not regard ourselves as infallible or in any way superior.  We do, however, identify most strongly with that geographical, historic, economic, social and cultural entity called Scotland, and the welfare of our land and its people is a very personal matter for all of us.

James Wilkie is Chairman of the SDA.  He has worked for many years abroad in foreign policy at government level as well as for the United Nations in Africa and Asia as Rapporteur and Expert on Mission.  See the SDA website at