The focus for both sides of the Scottish independence campaign is the large number of people saying ‘don’t know’ whenever a pollster asks them how they intend to vote in the referendum next September.
The lead among those saying No to independence remains reasonably solid but if SNP leader Alex Salmond can generate real momentum, and swing the bulk of the ‘don’t knows’ to Yes, he is still in with a shout of delivering a seismic change to British life.
Yesterday’s launch of ‘Scotland’s Future’ was his big chance to do so, with national and international attention focused on him and his independence White Paper, ‘Scotland’s Future.’
The next round of polls will almost certainly show a rise in support. He has been able to dominate debate on his own terms for a few days and that level of profile almost always translates into a bit of immediate lift. But it will have to be big to be sustained. And his problem in producing such a lengthy document – 670 pages – is that it raised expectations that all the difficult questions would be answered, and they haven’t been.
I have a lot of family and friends in Scotland and one former colleague in Glasgow – an undecided – said to me recently that he was veering towards Yes. Why? Because, he said, at least Salmond is saying something new, and the other side are just attacking him. I managed to win him back to his studied neutrality – and will hopefully pull him all the way to the Better Together position next time round – by pointing out that it is absolutely right that Salmond’s arguments are subject to more analysis and scrutiny, precisely because he is the one making the case for massive change. Better Together is necessarily a campaign based in the idea that the current constitutional settlement is by and large ok, and certainly not so bad that it requires such dramatic and unpredictable change.
The Better Together campaign is inevitably accused of being cautious for precisely that reason – they are defending a status quo. It is far easier, in a campaign in the modern media age, to campaign for change. But what the Better Together campaign has done well over the past few months is force the difficult unanswered questions onto the agenda, sufficient for Salmond to feel he has to answer them.
He is hoping that in producing so many words, and in having a thick book to brandish as he takes his case to the country, he will be able to persuade people – the vast bulk of whom will not read the entire thing, but absorb parts of the debate as it develops – that it contains the answers.
Salmond, unlike so many of his fellow Scots right now, does not do ‘don’t know.’ They are words that simply cannot pass his lips. He knows it all, or at least likes to give that impression. But in trying to create through length and detail the impression that he has all the answers, I suspect that he has played into his opponents’ hands. Far from filling holes, he has widened them.
So how could he have avoided that? Well, perhaps simply by using those two words from time to time – ‘don’t know.’ He would have done far better – and been far more honest – if he had said ‘obviously some of the questions posed by independence cannot fully be answered right now. Some of the biggest questions of all indeed – our future currency, debt, defence, our membership of major international bodies like the EU and NATO, the role of the Queen – will be subject to ongoing negotiation once the people of Scotland have made their choice. But what this document does is set out how I as leader of an independent Scotland would take those negotiations forward, and deliver a result that is best for Scotland and, I believe, best for the rest of the UK. And what I am asking of the Scottish people is that they trust me, and trust themselves, to do so.’ Such an approach – very different to the one he and Nicola Sturgeon deployed – would have allowed stirring of emotions to work alongside the hard-headed reason he hoped would be the impression of his Big Book.
Instead he simply could not resist being able to stand there and say ‘I have heard all the questions and I have all the answers.’ But he doesn’t. And the questions will get harder not easier, and the answers more not less convincing if he relies simply on assertion between now and September 18 2014.
— Meanwhile, here is Alistair Darling’s response, courtesy of today’s Guardian. I particularly like the last two sentences.
‘Nothing has changed with the publication of the Scottish nationalists’ white paper. Alex Salmond still bases his argument to break up the United Kingdom on mere assertions and uncosted promises. He has ducked the difficult questions on currency, pensions and our membership of the European Union.
This white paper was also an attempt at a manifesto funded from the public purse. The authors promised more childcare after independence. They failed to mention that they have the power to do this now. They promised to abolish the bedroom tax. They failed to mention that their own advisers have told them that they couldn’t do so for some years because of the complexity of the benefits system.
They promised they would answer all the questions anyone could possibly have. Their aim is to point to this white paper and refuse to answer any further questions for the next 10 months. It won’t wash.
We need the facts, but all we got was a political wishlist. We still don’t know what currency Scotland would use if we vote to go it alone. The nationalists want a currency union with the rest of the UK but their own civil servants have admitted that they can’t guarantee that. The problem is that the rest of the UK would have to agree to this – it looks increasingly like a non-starter. Even some nationalists see that a currency union would be a straitjacket, not independence.
So what’s plan B? Using sterling in the same way that Panama uses the American dollar? Or is it a new currency? Or would we be forced to join the euro? We don’t know who would set our mortgage rates. We don’t know by how much taxes would have to go up. We don’t know how secure our pensions and benefits would be in an independent Scotland.
Alex Salmond claims that we will leave the UK and be automatically waved into the European Union without any problem. The issue here is that leading figures – including the president of the European commission, José Manuel Barroso, has made it clear that Scotland would be a new applicant nation and would have to negotiate its way in. No one thinks that an independent Scotland wouldn’t eventually get into the European Union, but we don’t know how long it would take and, crucially, we don’t know what terms and conditions would be placed on our entry.
Would Scotland have to give a commitment to join the euro? Would we have to sign up to the open-borders Schengen agreement? We simply don’t know. But still Salmond asserts that everything will be fine. In doing this, the Scottish National party leader exposes a fundamental flaw in the nationalist case. Rather than facing up to the challenges that leaving the UK poses for Scotland, he simply brushes criticism aside. Whether it’s confronting the cost of an ageing population or accepting that North Sea oil revenues will decline, he simply ignores the consequences.
Like everyone else who lives in Scotland, I care deeply about the future of my country. I believe that the case for us staying in the United Kingdom is a strong one. However, I will never shy away from questioning a proposal from our government that will fundamentally change our lives for ever.
We have the best of both worlds right now in Scotland. We have a parliament in Edinburgh that allows us to do things our way and we have the security of being part of the bigger UK. I don’t see why we should trade that in for a one-way ticket to a deeply uncertain destination.’