THE politics around the question of Scottish independence is becoming extremely hard to follow.
Alex Salmond, ostensibly at least from what he said at First Minister’s questions yesterday, now wants the UK government to open negotiations on his behalf with the EU to find out whether or not an independent Scotland would get into the EU and on what terms.
This is because the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, has told the Scottish government that no, he won’t meet with Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to hear what she has to say about why Scotland should be allowed in. He will only respond to a request about a specific circumstance from a member state, which the UK is, but Scotland is not.
That suits the UK government just fine as it leaves the commission’s position as set out in Mr Barroso’s last letter, that Scotland, in the event of becoming independent, would become a “third country” in respect of the EU, ie, outside it and having to negotiate its way in.
But hang on, Mr Salmond now claims that Mr Barroso has now clarified that his “third country” letter was not actually about Scottish independence and the EU at all. Good grief. This is getting back to the “in terms of the debate” nonsense about the legal advice that never was.
Mr Barroso’s letter replied to a House of Lords committee inquiry specifically about Scotland. Surely it is reasonable to suppose that Mr Barroso believed his remarks were relevant to the question. If not, why on earth would he include them? It is desperately disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
Cynics might say that Mr Salmond has made his call on the UK government for his own political reasons. Again, he can blame the UK for the lack of any progress on a pressing issue, knowing full well that there will probably be no progress made because it is a debate that Europe does not want to get into.
There is also a consideration that the UK government might want to drag its feet in making representation to Europe in the belief that all uncertainty over any aspect of independence will help with its agenda of securing a No vote in the referendum.
But although both factions may have sound political reasons for such manoeuvring, what about the poor voters who are expected to make sense of this? All there is right now is a mass of conflicting claims with eminent-sounding authorities contradicting each other.
The average voter has no solid basis for judging whether a newly independent Scotland will be in or out of the EU, and if in, whether the membership terms are acceptable or usurious.
Answers from Europe are required prior to the referendum. The Scottish Government should try harder, giving up at the first rebuff is hardly Mr Salmond’s style, but the UK government also has a duty to the voters of Scotland to give it a genuine try.
Broadening the nuclear debate
Constitutional debate, central though it is to Scottish politics, can also hinder discussion of equally important matters. To the SNP, the issue of nuclear weapons is simple – they should be got rid of and will be removed from Scotland upon independence.
In fact, there is a broader debate about the strategic and defence relevance of Trident missiles, which is at risk of being shut down because of the SNP’s stance. The risk is that the nuclear debate simply becomes one of where they are stored and what that means for Scotland and England. But as Lord Browne of Ladyton, a former Labour defence secretary, suggested yesterday, other questions can and ought to be debated. Should the stance that the UK must always have a Trident submarine on patrol somewhere in the world’s oceans be maintained?
And if Britain stepped away from that principle, would that mean the SNP would be happy to have the rest of the non-
nuclear armed (but nuclear powered) submarine fleet retained at Faslane post independence? Does even the prospect of this wider debate on Trident replacement render the current independence-sparked debate moot? What is the point of long and tortuous negotiations about the cost of withdrawal from Scotland (a withdrawal that could take years) when by that time the debate might have moved on to other places. A new deterrent might mean a whole new set of solutions for Faslane.
The world has moved on, both in the threats that Britain faces and on nuclear weapons and their potential use. That broader debate must not be simply swamped by the constitutional one.