ALEX Salmond, normally a sure-footed performer, appeared to have stumbled yesterday. During a television interview, he argued that if Scotland became independent, there would still be a United Kingdom. The continuance of the UK would be assured, because the Queen would still be the head of the independent Scottish state.
As was swiftly pointed out, this is word-play nonsense. The Queen is head of state of many Commonwealth countries, but none claims to be part of the UK. And it is somewhat implausible to imagine that Mr Salmond, should he win the referendum vote, would promptly tell the world that the people had demanded the continuance of the UK.
The fact that Mr Salmond stumbled became clear when the Scottish Government media machine issued a clarification which omitted the words United Kingdom. The First Minister, the clarification said, meant that there would be not just a continuing head of state embodied by the Queen, but a continuing social union between relatives and friends living either side of the Border, and continuing use of sterling as a currency common to both Scotland and England.
Mr Salmond’s remarks and the clarification are more interesting than just an example of a rare faux pas. They point to a real paradox and problem at the heart of the SNP’s campaign. To win as much support for independence as possible, the SNP needs to reassure as many voters in the undecided middle between committed Nationalists and unionists that there will be no great upheaval and no damaging uncertainty, whether that concerns pension payments or defence forces. But in order to make independence look like a project that is worth doing, the SNP needs to set out what real and lasting change independence will make.
No change and all change, everything stays the same and is completely different – these are completely incompatible and irreconcilable opposites, as is Scottish independence and continuance of the UK. To assert that is to insult the intelligence of the Scottish electorate, as is the blithe assertion that Scotland will carry on using sterling pound notes as though nothing had happened.
Mr Salmond does have a point that the world is full of currency unions. But the eurozone’s problems also underline the fact that for such a currency union to work, there needs to be a central authority capable of enforcing responsible use of the currency in all parts of the union. In a Scotland-England currency union, it means that Scotland would not be able to arbitrarily issue as many banknotes as it wished, nor could it have complete freedom over taxation and borrowing. Lax Greek behaviour with these two matters is what has led the euro to the brink of collapse.
It points to a glaring flaw at the heart of Mr Salmond’s independence project – that Scotland might become independent in name only, having its economic hands as tied as ever before. Is this the real import of his television slip?