With vote hinging on personal wealth, Salmond is faced with an impossible task, writes Michael Kelly
The ICM/Scotsman poll this week has set the next year’s campaigning off to a depressing start. Idealists on both sides are appalled at the prospect of the once-and-for-all issue of independence being settled on the basis of future personal incomes. Yet, the figures make it clear. Assure Scots that they will be ten quid a week better off and they will vote to break up the UK. Maybe they’re forgetting the tax, as yet unknown, that an unfettered SNP government will impose in a separate state.
Where now the grandiose principles of establishing a fairer, more equal society, a Scotland that would abolish poverty, that would pay for a better social security net for the less fortunate? What about the new international role for Scotland, unilaterally abandoning nuclear weapons so the great powers heed and follow our heroic example? What about the drive to green energy which, although it will land us in an era of power cuts, will prove to the world that we love the earth?
None of this matters. It’s all about how well off we will or will not be. Even the promise to abolish the iniquitous bedroom tax, as Professor John Curtice observed in these pages, “cuts no ice”. As idealistic separatists preach high political doctrine, Scots are thinking only of themselves.
Behind all the rhetoric, the nationalists seem to have grasped the venality of Scots from way back. In the 1970s, the SNP launched the “It’s Scotland’s Oil” campaign, which appealed exclusively to the greed of voters. It worked. The SNP finished up with 11 Westminster seats and 30 per cent of the Scottish vote. It used that minority power to bring down a Labour government, ushering in Margaret Thatcher’s destruction of the Scottish economy. A by-product of its perfidy was the wiping out of nine of its MPs – the famous turkeys voting for Christmas. Could the SNP have been so cynical as to believe that by inflicting the worst ravages of Toryism on Scotland, it could persuade Scots to turn from Westminster? It appears so, as the party is using the same argument today.
But I digress into history unpalatable to the SNP. The point is that while there are many nationalists who believe in independence for its own sake – an honourable position – the SNP has never been happy to trust the Scottish people enough to major on that argument. The latest tracking of opinion proves the party to have been right. Unlike the committed few, most Scots are showing a marked indifference to the wider implications of a change in the constitutional position. It makes one wonder, as a reader put it this week, “if Scotland is worthy of independence”?
The talk of nationhood, of distinct national characteristics, of a separate culture, of aspirations that take us down a different road from the English are aspirations that are not having an impact on the general public. Despite that fact that many of these concepts of identity are shared by both unionists and separatists, they are not in the forefront of Scots’ minds. It’s the pound in our pocket that matters.
And that for me, in the narrow context of next year’s distracting vote, is a matter for great celebration. In any wider consideration of Scotland as a thinking, caring nation, the fact that narrow, financial interests could dictate the outcome of such an important and historic decision is a blow to the inflated ideas we have complacently developed about ourselves. It has brought us down to grubby reality by emphasising the mean and short-term nature of voters’ thinking. But it ensures one thing: the separatists are not going to win. There is no way that they can credibly demonstrate that each of us will be £500 per week better off year after year following independence.
It is when the First Minister is questioned on the economic details that he is weakest, not surprisingly, as he is dealing with so many unknowns – not least of which is the price of oil. There are questions about whether or not we will initially be in or out of the European Union – and the terms we will have to accept. There are unresolved issues about the currency. Will Scotland be using sterling, a Scottish pound, or, as seems most likely if we are to be accepted in Europe, the euro? That doubt alone is sufficient to put cautious voters off.
Faced with the guarantee of sticking with sterling within the UK, there is no chance of people voting to translate their savings, their earned incomes or their benefits into an untried new currency or the unpopular euro. Anyone travelling abroad knows the cost of exchanging money. Who’s going to be happy paying that price for transactions across the Border? And the SNP cannot give an answer to what the currency will be because the decision is not its alone to make. It hangs on negotiations with both England and Europe. While membership or not of Nato, another unresolved issue, does not impact directly on incomes, the necessity of shutting Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde (Faslane to the Peace Campers) in fulfilment of the promise of a non-nuclear Scotland does. The cost is enormous and you can be sure that an independent England will not be bearing it.
HMNB Clyde is the largest single-site employer in the West of Scotland. A quarter of the full time employment in West Dunbartonshire is directly associated with the base. The SNP claims that “only” 1,800 jobs would be lost if it were to close, whereas informed opinion suggests that up to 11,000 jobs are generated by its location in Scotland. Few of them will be £500 better off.
The brutal fact for the SNP is that, in economic terms, independence offers uncertainty not security. Building a new state involves complex decisions with international bodies, difficult negotiations with a newly-snubbed partner, blunt economic choices as servicing the new national debt swallows up resources and the unpicking of established relationships and institutions. Sacrifices will have to be made in the short and medium term if the golden goal is to be achieved.
It seems that this hard work will frighten voters rather than inspire them. The No campaign can easily identify “blood, toil, tears and sweat” as the substance of the SNP offer. Churchill could sell that but you, Mr Salmond, are no Winston Churchill.