Michael Kelly: How can less debate be better than more?

Tom Farmer. Picture: TSPL
Tom Farmer. Picture: TSPL
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I HAVE heard of some daft notions on the constitutional debate from Scottish businessmen.

But none has sounded as ill-informed as Sir Tom Farmer’s opinion that arguments on the demerits of independence should be postponed until we are within a few weeks of the referendum. This is the most important decision that Britons living in Scotland have been asked to make in generations and it will determine the political, social and economic future of their children and their children’s children. It will establish Scotland’s place, or lack of it, in the world. How can less debate be better than more?

A few years ago, Sir Tom concluded that independence was inevitable, but did not take a stance on it. While he was contributing £100,000 to the SNP to ensure a level electoral playing field, he announced that he was not joining the party because his preferred option at that time was full fiscal autonomy. Maybe the man who had, up until then, financially supported the Conservatives was more concerned with keeping Labour out of Holyrood than in any influence he might have on the constitutional outcome. He certainly went the wrong way about achieving his preferred result.

Since then, the electoral balance has tipped firmly in the SNP’s favour and at last it has been forced into holding its referendum. Inevitably, the debate has led to uncertainty over Scotland’s future which may, or may not, have impacted adversely on private investment here. But a national debate was what Sir Tom wanted seven years ago.

Fearing independence, he said at the time: “It is vitally important that we don’t just slide into this without all the important issues being discussed and understood first. People want and need to know what will happen to their pensions and the NHS under independence.”

Now, as the debate has raged and continues to do so with the vote still 18 months away, Sir Tom appears to have tired of the argument he urged us to have. He admits to being confused by claim and counter-claim over independence and so he has decided that he is “not going to give it much thought until much nearer the date”. Well, he is confusing me. Since he made his plea, most of the arguments put forward by the SNP have been clearly exposed as false. There is nothing in the No camp’s arguments that are unclear or confusing.

I have always been disturbed by successful entrepreneurs who throw their opinions into the political arena. And there have been many more than Sir Tom who have enjoyed weighing in with theirs. They should steer clear of politics. They simply do not have the skill sets or the relevant experience to make sensible contributions to any political debates outside the narrow limits of their own particular sectors. Being lucky in business does not qualify them to suggest solutions to all society’s social and economic problems. Sadly, many of them think to the contrary.

Returning to Sir Tom, he must acknowledge that his outburst is a direct criticism of the party leader he fed money to. It is Alex Salmond’s insistence on postponing the referendum for as long as possible in the hope that something will turn up that is fuelling this long debate. If it had been up to the No campaign, the issue would have been done and dusted long before now.

The valid point that Sir Tom could make is that it is the SNP which is consistently trying to confuse not just him but also the Scottish electorate by refusing to give straight answers and by moving the goal posts in an attempt to avoid any more own goals.

If Sir Tom has been following any of the detail he must accept that the SNP has lost every argument in the debate. On the euro or the pound, entry to the European Union, defence, control of fiscal and monetary policy, the SNP has been given bloody nose after body blow until it is now out on its feet.

Complete fiscal autonomy within the UK is a myth. Add to that the way Scots have been deliberately misled, as exemplified by the First Minister’s response to Andrew Neil’s question on legal advice over Europe, then a picture builds up not of confusion but of a national party that distorts the facts when they conflict with its dogmatic opinion.

The latest fiasco which should convince Sir Tom to come to a conclusion now and declare now for a No vote is the volte-face over predicted oil revenues. Finance secretary John Swinney warns the SNP cabinet that uncertainty over future oil prices has serious implications for public spending on pensions, schools and hospitals – a self-evident truth backed by the strictly independent Office for Budget Responsibility. His report is leaked and within a week the predictions are arbitrarily jacked up to ensure that separation can be portrayed as offering profligate public spending with no need for prudent economic management.

This week, our government has been compared with snake oil salesmen. This is far too favourable an analogy. Snake oil salesmen always have a tangible product to offer. It invariably has a positive placebo effect on some people – like those “health” drinks that unscrupulous businessmen foist on us. And you get it in a reusable bottle. This government has nothing to sell us but false promises and unattainable dreams wrapped up in lies.

If Sir Tom wants his confusion resolved, he should talk things over with Alistair Darling, the former Labour chancellor and leader of Better Together, who has a very clear grasp of the arguments. After that little conversation, he will be further convinced of the folly of separation. He cannot still believe, given the way the opinion polls are standing that independence is “inevitable”.

What he shouldn’t do is to continue anomalously to support the SNP while disagreeing with its raison d’etre. If, as he claims, he is not convinced that independence is the way forward, then he mustn’t discourage others from making the arguments that have destroyed the SNP’s position and credibility in a campaign to save Scotland from the bleak future separation holds.