Salmond v Sillars for the soul of the SNP
The SNP is in the throes of a bitter battle between the "moderates" and the "fundamentalists" over the holding of an independence referendum. The arguments are encapsulated perfectly in the following lively exchange of letters featuring former SNP leader Alex Salmond and Jim Sillars, the former MP for Glasgow Govan.
2 September: Keep London out of independence referendum
It is a pity Campbell Martin (Platform, 28 August) did not read my article more carefully, particularly the bit where I warned against people in the SNP claiming to be more pure on independence than the rest of us. Before he persists with the tactic of being "holier that thou" on independence, let me offer him a bit of SNP history.
The argument between "gradualism" and "fundamentalism" is not something that arose in the 1990s. It is almost as old as the party itself, and concerned whether the achievement of a devolved parliament would assist or detract from the cause of independence. As a serious debate, it ended in 1997 with the devolution referendum and the achievement of the Scottish Parliament. What we have now is a mere aftershock.
I have never suggested the SNP could not win a majority of seats at a Westminster election or a Scottish one. Indeed, in every election in which I led the party, we aimed to do just that. We didn’t manage it, but our vote rose from 14 per cent in 1987 to nearly 30 per cent in the 1999 Scottish election.
If a total victory were to come about, the difference between Campbell Martin and myself would be purely tactical. He would advocate the SNP holding negotiations with Westminster and then having a referendum. I think that would be inviting prevarication and obstruction on the part of Whitehall, along the lines of what happened with devolution in the 1970s.
I would argue that any referendum is better held on principle by the Scottish Parliament to remove the incentive for delay and obstruction. That was the effect (although probably not the intent) of the pre-legislative devolution referendum in 1997.
Additionally, this approach would put the referendum process under Scottish rather than Westminster control, which would avoid gerrymandering along the lines of the 40 per cent rule.
However, the real difference between us would emerge in the very likely position that an SNP victory saw us emerge as the leading party in a Scottish election, but short of an overall majority. In these circumstances, Campbell Martin seems to argue that we should be in "permanent opposition", as one of his adherents helpfully put it in another newspaper.Indeed, so anxious is he to avoid ever being seen in a ministerial Mondeo that he would abdicate control of Scotland in these circumstances to our unionist opponents - snatching defeat from the very jaws of victory. On the other hand, I would argue that it should be possible to gain both a majority in the Scottish Parliament for such a referendum on independence and the political support to win it.
Could that be done? Well, the latest opinion poll shows the SNP leading at 30 per cent in an Scottish election, while the latest poll on independence shows a 50-50 split. This provides at least an indication that such a strategy has a worthwhile chance of success.
Indeed, the total transformation in the practicality of achieving independence is one of the most important strategic gains of having a Scottish Parliament. To throw it away would defy all logic or common sense.
Finally, however wrong I be-lieve Campbell Martin to be, he has a perfect right to make his points. What is unacceptable is the manner in which he describes his MSP colleagues. They are neither "dishonest", a "clique", or weak on independence. Perhaps they have just thought about things for a little longer and a little more carefully than he has.
ALEX SALMOND, MP
House of Commons
4 September: No referendum needed on road to independence
I have the greatest respect for Alex Salmond and for the progress made by the SNP under his leadership, and the party owes him a great deal.
Having said that, I hope his letter (2 September) had more to do with a feeling that he must be loyal to the leadership he helped put in place, than on what he believes to be the political reality the party and Scotland face.
I don’t intend to repeat my arguments, but would like to address some of his assertions.
First, that it would be better to have a referendum before the Scottish Parliament moves to negotiate with Westminster on the independence settlement. He argues that this is better because "it would re-move the incentive for delay and obstruction".
As the current SNP position is to hold such a referendum in year three or four of a Scottish Parliament session, we would be handing the British establishment three or four years to use all of its might to ensure an SNP-led Scottish Executive ap-peared a failure in the eyes of the people, and the result of a referendum would be against moving to independence.
I contend it would be better for an SNP-led Executive, elected on a pro-independence mandate, to put our terms to Westminster immediately.
Secondly, he argues I would rather see the SNP in permanent opposition than forming the Executive in a devolved administration. That is nonsense. The only way the SNP could be in permanent opposition, is if he believes that it is not possible for the SNP to persuade the people of Scotland to vote for independence.
In contrast, I believe it is possible to persuade our people to retake our nation’s independence, which will be the catalyst that will give us the powers to tackle the bread and butter issues that affect everyone.
On that basis, I believe it is fair and honest to say every vote for the SNP is a vote for independence. I can’t see how anyone could be surprised when an SNP administration moved immediately to put our independence terms to the government in London.
What the party leadership seems to be saying is that we can’t persuade the people of Scotland to support independence, so we should settle for forming a devolved administration, and then offer a referendum on independence to the same people we apparently believe we can’t persuade to vote for independence.
In conclusion, can I make clear that I have never said that my parliamentary colleagues who form the current leadership of the party do not want independence. What I have said is that it seems to see independence as an ultimate goal, nice if it were to happen, but no longer the main priority.
I joined the SNP in 1977 be-cause I believed that only independence could transform Scotland and deliver a better quality of life and standard of living for our people. I still believe that, and I believe the SNP should be fighting to de-liver independence in the shortest possible timescale, not asking to be allowed to form a devolved administration, which is the strategy adopted by the current leadership and Alex Salmond.
CAMPBELL MARTIN, MSP
The difference between Nicola Sturgeon (Letters, 29 August) and Campbell Martin (Platform, 28 August) can be summed up as follows: he seeks a mandate to negotiate independence, whereas she seeks a referendum to impose independence on us.
She would push Scots into unknown territory, by forcing a vote on independence before a settlement was reached. As a Nationalist, I would vote against "independence" under such circumstances, because the negotiating team would have no leverage over Westminster. Scots would have to accept the terms offered.
Prestonpans, East Lothian
For Alex Salmond to infer that an SNP Scottish Executive would create so much econ-omic bliss that people would vote for independence in a referendum held at the end of the four-year term is to ignore the financial crisis that awaits any future Executive.
Regardless of who is the Chancellor after the next United Kingdom general election, public spending will have to be slashed to balance the books, due to the sluggish growth in the economy.
The Scottish block grant will be savaged, and even the most gifted SNP administration would have to cut back on doctors, nurses, teachers, etc. Westminster spin doctors will en-sure it is the SNP that carries the can, and its credibility would be in tatters.
The SNP leadership must now be honest with the electorate and tell them devolution cannot work, and start campaigning for a mandate to negotiate full independence.
6 September: Route map to independence
I am pleased my correspondence seems to have improved the tone of Campbell Martin’s contribution (Letters, 4 September). But I am surprised I have not yet convinced him of the logic and benefits of the SNP having a clear route map to independence.
First, I don’t argue these points out of loyalty to the party leadership, which was not put in place by me but democratically by the SNP as a whole. Mind you, a degree of loyalty to an elected leadership is no bad thing, and I have occasionally reflected on whether these few people who find it so difficult to display loyalty would expect it from the rest of us if they ever succeeded in becoming that leadership.
In any case, the referendum policy was not devised by the current leadership of the SNP. It wasn’t even put in place by me. The SNP has always accepted that a referendum would be required to change the status of Scotland to that of an independent state.
The difference is rather that we now argue that such a referendum should be on principle and held by the Scottish Parliament, not post-negotiation and conducted by Westminster. The advantages of this approach seem clear, and I have already set them out.
I am not sure from Mr Martin’s latest letter if he now says there should be no referendum at all, whether he would vote against independence in a pre-legislative referendum like Callum Millar (Letters, also 4 September), whether he would accept being in "permanent opposition" like Margo Macdonald, or just lacks confidence in the continuing credibility of an SNP government like Tom Brady (Letters, also 4 September).
Indeed, it is the maze of arguments deployed against the current policy that advertises its clarity and soundness.
I prefer to think that Mr Martin is genuinely looking for the best way forward to independence and, therefore, let me try this thought to fin-ally convince him.
The Labour Party accepted the current proportional representation system for the Scottish Parliament to protect it against the SNP moving Scotland towards independence. It probably didn’t anticipate the extent of the six-party system we have now, but it knew that it would be difficult to gain an absolute majority in a PR parliament.
Our referendum policy was de-vised to allow Scotland a democratic way out of that Unionist trap, a straight vote on the principle of national freedom. Having escaped from the snare, it would seem passing strange to walk back into it.
ALEX SALMOND, MP
House of Commons
9 September: People's choice
In his letter (6 September), Alex Salmond claims the present proportional representation electoral system is a trap to make it "difficult" for the SNP "to gain an absolute majority" in the Scottish Parliament, and that the present policy of a referendum before negotiations will get us out of that trap.
If the SNP cannot command an absolute majority of seats, how is it to get the referendum on principle through the parliament? If, however, it does gain an absolute majority, then it doesn’t need a referendum to provide the mandate to negotiate independence, as that will have been given by the people in the election.
In his debate with Campbell Martin, Mr Salmond is displaying the same surprising lack of understanding of the independence issue as he did when he led the party to its first Scottish Parliament defeat; he put independence tenth on his list of priorities.
12 September: Here's your answer, Mr Sillars
Jim Sillars (Letters, 9 September) asks how an SNP government could secure a vote for an independence referendum without an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament. The answer is that there may well be MSPs who support independence, but not the SNP, and others who do not agree with independence but favour the issue being settled by the people. I know some of those in the latter category and I think he knows some in the former.
He repeats the canard that I put independence tenth in my priorities in the 1999 election. The reality is that the independence referendum was presented as a vital step to a new Scotland, and the manifesto related every single substantive issue within it to the importance of moving on to independence.
I have spent my entire adult life arguing for independence. He spent the first half of his political career arguing against it, and the past ten years attacking those who argue for it on the basis that we don’t believe in it as much as he does.
I recognise the zeal of the convert, but the sad fact is that his contribution for many years has been entirely negative. His talent could have been really important for Scotland’s cause. What a pity that he wasted it.
ALEX SALMOND, MP
House of Commons
16 September: All talk, no action
Alex Salmond, having failed to contradict my assertion that an SNP administration with an absolute majority has a legitimate mandate to move straight to negotiations on independence, took refuge in a minority administration relying on others to assist it (Letters, 12 September).
He says there "may well be" MSPs from outwith the SNP who support independence, and others who, while against it , will back a referendum. "May well be" also means "may well not be", a dangerously loose peg on which to hang party policy.
Although the SNP holds a minority of seats, Tommy Tonner, a Salmond supporter, claims (Letters, 11 September) that six out of the present seven parties favour a referendum. So why is there no move by the SNP to harness that support for a referendum now, and so test the Salmond-Swinney policy?
It is a fair question because, if we have to wait for the election in 2007, it would be 2008 at the earliest before a referendum was held. That’s a long time to wait to see whether there "may well be" the necessary support.
I suspect two reasons for speech without action: 1, the parliament cannot hold a referendum on the constitution, and the SNP knows it; 2, the SNP-plus-others formula is easier to write about than to accomplish.
Mr Salmond objects to my "canard" of his placing independence tenth on his list of priorities. A canard is a false rumour. It wasn’t a rumour. He did place it tenth. As for my attacks, these have not been on those genuinely seeking independence, but on those holding up that banner to the party faithful while surrendering to devolution and its electoral "trap" - Mr Salmond’s own word - that he led the party into.
18 September: Girning Sillars should show some consistency
Jim Sillars’ objections (Letters, 16 September) to SNP independence policy grow increasingly obscure. He wants the SNP to seek a mandate to negotiate independence and then have a referendum. I want the SNP to seek an independence referendum and then negotiate with a popular mandate behind us.
The advantages of the current SNP policy are manifest - his position leaves the SNP having to gain an absolute majority in a proportional system before any action is taken.
Alternatively, a minority SNP administration could mobilise a referendum majority in the parliament to allow the Scottish people the chance to determine our own future.
His all-or-nothing approach seems unattractive, certainly to those of us who don’t believe in going off in a grand huff every time we fail to convince the people. He claims that he only attacks those who are not genuine about independence, but as I recall the entire popula- tion was once condemned as "90-minute nationalists".
The Scottish Parliament can talk about whatever it pleases, including Dungavel, even when it irritates Jim Sillars and Jack McConnell. It can consult the people on whatever it chooses, including independence, even if that irritates Westminster - a point now accepted by Mr McConnell but not, of course, by Mr Sillars.
The SNP has a viable and consistent strategy to get to independence. Jim Sillars’ strategy changes with every re-emergence from his periodic political slumber.
In a previous letter, I pointed out he has been both fiercely unionist and passionately nationalist. I missed out his pro-devolution and anti-devolution phases, his pro-convention and anti-convention periods and his bewildering conversion from anti-European to Euro-enthusiast and now to reborn Eurosceptic.
Perhaps if his talk had even a smidgeon of consistency, then I might believe that he plans any action at all beyond a long, self-indulgent girn.
ALEX SALMOND, MP
House of Commons
19 September: SNP must stop being the party of devolution
The nearer I get to the deep flaw in the SNP’s position on a referendum, the greater grows the personal abuse from Alex Salmond (Letters, 18 September). Of more importance than my sinful political life is his failure to understand the difference between negotiating from the strength of a majority mandate, and a minority SNP hoping to get the support of other parties, including Unionist ones, to hold a referendum.
An SNP with an absolute majority negotiates from the strength of a clear mandate won on the principle in an election. A referendum post-negotiations will detail the agreed terms of divorce from the United Kingdom, enabling a final judgment by the people based upon certain knowledge about the currency and its relationship to sterling (of critical importance to the financial services industry and to those in private pension funds held on a UK basis); trade relations with our biggest market, England; our position within the European Union; pensions; social security; defence, and the division of state assets.
A referendum held by a minority SNP administration on only the principle of independence, even if allowed by Westminster, cannot, by definition, put any certainties before the electorate.
The difference in these two approaches is clear. The first gets an incontestable majority for the principle, and then guarantees the test of the detail of a negotiated settlement in a referendum. The second puts the SNP’s policy in the hands of other parties, and risks the distinct possibility of losing the referendum. A lost referendum on the principle would sink independence, which is no doubt one of the reasons why, as Mr Salmond claimed, Unionist parties might back the minority SNP in holding one.
But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the present SNP leadership does understand that, and knows that losing a referendum will leave it free to abandon independence openly, and become the devolution party, as which it fought the last election.
23 September: Lesson of history shows SNP policy is right one
Those who have been following my correspondence with Jim Sillars over an independence referendum will have noticed a Sillars shimmy in his latest letter (19 September). While previously he told us the Scottish Parliament wouldn’t, or even couldn’t, hold such a poll, the real problem is now that we would lose. He then goes on to suggest that such a defeat is the real cunning plan of the SNP leadership
If we leave to one side the last bit, which takes conspiracy theory a long way, even for him, his arguments are similar to those he deployed against the pre-legislative devolution referendum of 1997, in which he campaigned for a national abstention. In reality, that process was altogether more successful than the long-delayed, post-legislative 1979 referendum, in which politicians of his generation allowed the self-government issue to be prevaricated into the sand.
We should learn some lessons from history and one is the problem of allowing a negotiating, or legislative, timetable to be set by Westminster rather than putting the matter to the people of Scotland. However, the decisive advantage of SNP policy over the Sillars position is that it allows progress to independence in the very likely situation, in a PR parliament, of an SNP administration without an overall majority.
Throughout our correspondence, he has been totally silent on what to do in this situation, although Margo Macdonald helpfully admittedly recently that the alternative strategy was one of "permanent opposition". I don’t think that such inaction is good enough for Scotland.
Finally, I am sorry he took such umbrage at my spelling out of his political track record. To have listed the full variety of conflicting positions he has held may be embarrassing, but it is not abusive. My point is merely that he has put each of these forward with ab-solute certainty before proceeding to put the opposite view with equal vigour.
The point of personal criticism I have made of him is quite different, and, in a way, much more damning: no one in recent Scottish politics has had more God-given talent, and sadly he has wasted it.
House of Commons
25 September: SNP must beware falling into Westminster trap
The irony of the SNP referendum policy debate is that it takes place in your columns, and not at the SNP conference. There, while space on the agenda is found for greyhounds, branches wanting a debate to reassess the Salmond-Swinney core policy are denied it.
Alex Salmond’s letter (23 September) shows that the more he writes, the more light is cast on weaknesses in the present policy. A minority SNP administration, elected on John Swinney’s sleekit basis of "vote for us but not for independence", would have no moral or political authority to face down a reluctant Westminster, untie its grip on the constitution through the Scotland Act, and then hold a referendum, never mind win it.
Mr Salmond seems to be-lieve his policy will keep Westminster out of the independence issue. How naive. The fact is that, so long as the SNP is in a minority in a devolution setting, Westminster calls the constitutional shots.
But what if, faced with an SNP minority administration clamouring for a referendum, Westminster was not reluctant? What if it saw that as its main chance to scupper the independence movement? Has it never crossed the leadership’s mind that Westminster might hold one, knowing it would win? Doesn’t the leadership realise that a minority administration faced by a constitutional superior in Westminster, with a long record of playing it dirty, isn’t a winning formula?
The only way the SNP can re-move the obstacle in the Scotland Act, the trap into which Mr Salmond led the party, is by achieving a majority, giving it the mandate to negotiate. The political force of an independence mandate and the temper of the times it would demonstrate, would create a new realm of realpolitik in which control of events would lie in Scotland, and not London. There is no other way.
If you want submit a letter for publication in The Scotsman you can email it to letters_TS at scotsman dot com.
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