I’ve been in this game too long. I remember being taken by the Tories nearly twenty years ago to Brussels to hear Baroness Ellis warn that Scotland would not be allowed to join the EU. Don’t even think about it! France and Spain would block an independent Scotland to discourage their own separatist movements. England wouldn’t accept Scotland as a legitimate nation. There would be years of wrangling over budgets. England would dump financial liabilities onto Scotland to reduce its contribution to the EU budget etc etc..
Scotland would end up broke and isolated, a ragged and homeless fragment lost in the North Sea. It was tedious rubbish then, and it is rubbish now. Yet, barely a week goes by without some report or other announcing that wee Scotland would be frozen out of Europe and told to go and sit on the naughty step.
I’ve just been looking at the latest report to hit the front pages. It came from the House of Commons Library and it is a background briefing note, not an authoritative assessment of the Scotland’s legal status within the EU. It carries its own health warning “[This briefing note] should not be relied upon as legal or professional advice or as a substitute for it. A suitably qualified professional should be consulted.” It goes on to rehearse all the arguments that have been made about Scotland’s relationship to the EU that have been made over the years. Pros and cons – naturally, the Scotsman chose the con and headlined this as “£8bn Bill To Join The Eurozone”. This presupposes that Scotland would automatically join the euro, which of course is not going to happen, at least in the short term. Just like Sweden, Scotland would have the right to decide whether and when to join the euro. The report goes on to question whether membership would be automatic and finds differing views among constitutional authorities.
Lawyers make their money from creating legal complexity, so you will always find that there are differing legal opinions about secession. But the political reality is that it is inconceivable that the EU would try to block an independent Scotland from entry. The EU is founded on the principle of national self-determination, so the idea that Scotland would not be recognised as a nation in Europe is ludicrous. Scotland is already a part of the EU through its participation in the United Kingdom, and as a nation in its own right, Scotland would automatically qualify for membership of the EU. It would take concerted action by the other member states to prove, either that Scotland is financially insolvent, or that it is not a democracy, or that it is in in violation of the European convention on human rights. That is not going to happen.
Sure, there may be bureaucratic obstacles to formal entry – calculations of Scotland’s contribution, relationship to the eurozone, Shenghen – all of which are the subject of opt outs by the UK. But many of these problems would also face the RUK (Residual United Kingdom) in exactly the same way. How much should England and Wales pay exempt of Scotland? What weight should English votes continue to carry in the Council etc etc..
But the central question: Scotland’s ability to remain in the EU, answers itself. in 2004, the EU admitted a raft of small European countries many of which had been part of the Soviet empire. The idea that the EU would reject Scotland because it used to be part of the UK is laughable. Iceland is being given a free entry ticket to the EU as I write. Scotland is a wealthy country, unlike Greece or the small former Eastern block countries like Latvia and Estonia or minnows like Malta. Scotland has around £400 billion in oil reserves, a quarter of Europe’s wind and wave energy, five of the top universities in the planet.
I despair at unionists who make these arguments because they are only destroying their own case. If this is the standard of debate we can expect in the run up to the independence referendum then – roll on independence!
From the Sunday Herald – The Demonisation of Salmond.
A spectre is haunting Scotland – the spectre of Salmond. In the past week the First Minister has been compared to the Zimbabwean dictator, Robert Mugabe. He has been cast as a “Jekyll and Hide” character whose true “bullying” tendencies have come to the fore since the May election. He has governed, some say, with a “sinister centralism”. To the London press the First Minister is a devious trickster, playing politics with the constitution. While City analysts Citigroup say his determination to plunge Scotland into the “uncertainty” of an independence referendum will destroy the Scottish renewables industry and deter investment.
And it doesn’t stop there. The outgoing Labour leader Iain Gray, used his farewell speech last week to condemn the “ugly side of nationalism” under Salmond’s leadership, which he claims is spreading “vile poison” across public life. The image is of Salmond as the Dark Lord, inspiring his “cybernat” demons to pollute the internet with what Gray called “smears and lies” against anyone who disagrees with him. Salmond was also accused of attempting to “nobble” critics, like the academic Matt Qvortrup who had objected to the two question referendum proposed by Salmond at his speech to the SNP conference.
Salmond has been here before of course, and he’s well used to unionists attempting to link him to the “dark side of nationalism”, as Labour’s former shadow scottish secretary, George now Lord Robertson used to put it. In the 1990s, Labour portrayed Salmond as a cross between Umberto Bossi of the Italian Lombard League and the Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. Salmond was famously dubbed the “toast of Belgade” for his opposition to allied bombing during the Kosovo conflict. More recently, before the 2007 Scottish election, the SNP leader was excoriated in the Scottish tabloid press as “the most dangerous man in Scotland”. During the recent Supreme Court row, the advocate general, Lord Wallace, accused Salmond of challenging the rule of law itself by his “aggressive interventions” against English judges.
The First Minister naturally dismisses these charges and points out that he remains hugely popular where it counts – among Scottish voters. They don’t seem to think Salmond has horns on his head. The FM’s personal popularity has been a huge electoral asset to the SNP, and it’s not surprising therefore that unionists have been doing their best to tarnish it. What is surprising is how inept they are at doing so. The comparison with Robert Mugabe was as ludicrous as it was offensive – no one, even Lord Cormack who made the remark, seriously believes that the FM intends to lock up opposition politicians and foment violence on the streets. in the same debate, the former Tory Scottish Secretary, Lord Forsyth claimed, under parliamentary privilege, that the SNP leader had told the chancellor, George Osborne, privately that if Westminster tried to stage its own referendum on independence would “use the police” to frustrate it. The SNP say they’ve no idea what Lord Forsyth was talking about.
What the unionists never quite seem to grasp is that many Scottish voters – even some unionists – regard such remarks about Scotland’s elected leader as a slight against them. Treating the First Minister of Scotland as a devious anti-colonial demagogue or a proto-dictator is offensive toward the Scottish people. Similarly, the charge that Scotland is too wee or too poor to govern itself is counterproductive and flies in the face of constitutional reality in Europe. Yet, hardly a week goes by without some politician claiming that Scotland would be in the red to the tune of £4bn – this week’s figure quoted by Annabel Goldie in her swan song as Tory leader. There has also, in recent weeks, been a succession of “leaks” from “government sources” questioning Salmond’s policy on Europe. One claimed that it would take three years and “billions” in lost revenue, before an independent Scotland would be allowed to rejoin the EU. Another said that if Scotland did remain in Europe, there would have to be border posts to control immigration to England.
The SNP suspect there is a degree of co-ordination to the assault on Salmondomics. No sooner had Citigroup warned investors against backing renewable energy in Scotland last week, than the Institute of Mechanical Engineers tore into Alex Salmond’s industrial policy, saying there was “no credible evidence” for his claim that green energy can create 130,000 jobs. Nicola Sturgeon, standing in for Salmond at Question time in Holyrood, countered that Citigroup were wrong, that renewables were on target, and that, anyway, according to a report from Price Waterhouse Coopers, there was still £376 billion in North Sea Oil, waiting to be exploited. It was all rather similar to the debates before the creation of the Scottish parliament, when Edinburgh financiers warned of a flight of investment because of the “uncertainty” of devolution.
A degree of nationalist paranoia is understandable, but I very much doubt if there is a conscious conspiracy to demonise Alex Salmond. The Scottish unionist parties are in no shape to mount anything so coherent right now. Rather, there are signs that Westminster politicians, and the London media, are becoming more aware of what’s happening in Scotland and are starting to ask more searching questions, not just about independence, but also of “devolution max” – which many believe is simply a ruse designed by Salmond to “rig” the referendum so that he can’t lose. And it has to be said that many questions are legitimate: there are indeed gaps in the SNP’s independence prospectus. If Scotland keeps the pound after separation, is that really independence? Do the SNP still support the euro, and how would it be introduced? Would England set up border controls if Scotland had a more liberal policy on immigration?
There has also been a more considered strand of criticism from liberal commentators like the journalist Joyce McMillan, who sat on the devolution constitutional steering committee in the 1990s. In an article last week, she warned that Scotland was becoming, by default, a “one party state”. “It’s time” she said, “for the people of Scotland to wake up to the dangers of this largely unforeseen situation; and perhaps to start developing some new and imaginative mechanisms for challenging the SNP’s dominance, forcing it to clarify its ideas, and holding it to account”. The SNP’s decision, after the Scottish elections to “hog” the chairmanships of parliamentary committees is regarded as a sign of this centralism – though it has to be said that packing committees is what all governments do.
Since the May election, Salmond has certainly lost no time in sweeping aside opposition to his legislative programme. Last week, he pressed ahead with minimum pricing of alcohol, a measure that had been defeated by the opposition parties before the 2011 election. The SNP have also introduced a supermarket levy and Salmond seems determined to drive through with the highly controversial “Offensive Behaviour at Football Matches Bill” in the teeth of opposition. After the SNP won a comfortable vote on this bill on Thursday, Labour, Lib Dem, Tory and Green MSPs issued a joint statement, also backed by independent MSP Margo MacDonald, which accused Salmond of ignoring parliament: “If the SNP government exploit their majority to force through this rushed, flawed piece of legislation there is a real risk it will do more harm than good.”
What ever happened, say opposition parties, to Alex Salmond’s commitment to the “new politics of cooperation and compromise” that he proclaimed after the 2007 election? All politicians develop autocratic tendencies – remember Tony Blair. In Scotland, moreover, there is no second chamber, no House of Lords, to balance the power of the government in the lower house. Also, Scotland has traditionally been run by crony networks based on Labour Party membership – remember the Sinclair Report in 2001 which identified the networks of Labour patronage that radiated from the Fife offices of the former First Minister, Henry McLeish. There is a legitimate concern that the SNP might seek to replace the Labour “crony state” with a nationalist one.
However, it would take more than a few intemperate remarks about English judges to justify a claim that the SNP is running an autocratic administration still less an elective dictatorship. It’s not been in office long enough to make such an impact anyway. As more key offices become available for patronage, we will be able to see which way the SNP intends to blow. For example, nominations close shortly for the post of Information Commissioner, to replace Kevin Dunion, a vigorous defender of freedom of information, who clashed with Alex Salmond over FM’s refusal to public civil servants’ internal advice over the merits of local income tax. If the SNP-dominated committee appoint some nationalist toady, we may be justified in concluding that there are incipient centralist tendencies.
But so far it is hard to justify the charge that the SNP has been creating anything like the one party states that Labour presided over in the past. The simple truth is that Salmond is popular because he appears to put Scotland first. Many non-nationalists support the SNP because Nationalist ministers appear to be doing a good job. By demonising Alex Salmond, the unionist parties risk undermining their own case. Like the SNP, they need to start talking Scotland up, instead of talking Alex down.