Brian Monteith: Farage hits SNP where it hurts

Nigel Farage's accusations that the SNP are being politically dishonest about 'freedom' hits the mark. Picture: AP
Nigel Farage's accusations that the SNP are being politically dishonest about 'freedom' hits the mark. Picture: AP
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Not being part of the UK but staying part of Europe hardly amounts to ‘freedom’, as SNP claims, writes Brian Monteith

With the immaculate timing to maximise media exposure that we have come to expect of the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage has got to the heart of the weakness in the SNP’s campaign for independence by accusing the nationalists of political dishonesty.

The SNP says it is preparing to bring freedom to Scotland, but the Ukip leader claims this is a deceit so long as Scotland remains within the European Union, and that if there is a Yes vote Scots should, at the very least, be granted a referendum once EU membership terms are negotiated.

On Friday, as the SNP’s annual conference began, Alex Salmond had made a typically bullish claim that only invited scorn, saying: “We’re not an ordinary political party because we… are part of a movement. That movement, that aim, that ambition, is the freedom and independence of our country.”

I wondered how long it would take before we started to hear the freedom word and people started painting their faces blue as an allusion to Braveheart. I think it is a word that the SNP should think very carefully about deploying, for it opens the Yes campaign up to some obvious questions, and not just the one from Nigel Farage.

What kind of freedom is it where the defence of the country means remaining part of Nato? Many members of the SNP – and especially other more militant nationalists from the revolutionary left in the Yes campaign – are disappointed that the SNP has said it would apply for Nato membership in the event of a Yes vote, and no wonder.

The claim that there would be no more Westminster wars is simply empty rhetoric when military commitments and deployment can often come from being involved in Nato forces, such as Germans, French and Danes serving in Afghanistan.

And Nato is nothing if it is not about mutually assured protection. Considering the current escalation in Ukraine, it is no longer fantastic to consider a scenario where Russia threatens the sovereignty of the Baltic states or Poland, all of whom are Nato members. Being a member does not leave one with a choice; Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would deserve Scottish military support whether we were in the UK or not. The freedom to choose to fight or not is not an option the SNP can offer.

What kind of freedom is it where the “sovereign” Scottish Parliament will have its public spending proposals subject to veto through the oversight of the UK Treasury? This is precisely what will be required by the Bank of England and UK government if a formal currency union is to be negotiated, as Alex Salmond claims it can be.

And consequentially from the same arrangement, where is the freedom in setting interest rates to suit Scotland’s economic circumstances when the Bank of England will be setting them by considering the needs of the larger economy of the UK? As an external client, rather than a fully involved member, Scotland will have less institutional influence or democratic accountability of officials through parliament than it has now.

Having obtained a freedom that could have allowed a Scottish currency to be established, the SNP is proposing to give it up as soon as it might be gained.

These are just some of the “freedoms” recommended by the SNP’s white paper. It is a strange kind of freedom that in many cases gives Scottish politicians no greater say than they already have at Holyrood or Westminster and in some cases, such as public spending and currency, is highly likely to give them less. And that’s just with the current status quo, before any new proposals for more devolution to give Scotland more autonomy within the UK.

Additional autonomy in the areas of welfare, such as housing benefits or in setting and collecting more taxes, provoke the question: why would we want to have less freedom over key areas that affect our economy when we can maintain those better existing arrangements and still gain more autonomy without actually leaving the UK?

If there is a Yes vote there will then be a need for other negotiated arrangements between the continuing United Kingdom and a new Scottish Government – and in a desperate effort to maintain working arrangements that we currently enjoy the SNP will have to trade away yet more freedoms to be different or act differently that the SNP has said it wants or will deliver

So, irrespective of what the European Union wants, in an effort to, say, maintain open borders, encourage students to study at Scottish universities or use the assets of Network Rail, the Scottish Government will find its “freedom” marginalised by bargaining to the extent it will appear not to exist at all. Something will have to be conceded, it cannot expect to retain every preferable arrangement, priorities will have to be made and the most expendable conceded – such as charging English, Welsh and Northern Irish students tuition fees.

Losing these freedoms are all in addition to the issue that Nigel Farage has raised, namely, what freedom will Scotland have, by proposing to leave the United Kingdom but staying in the European Union? Earlier this year the EU commissioner Viviane Reding boasted openly that 70 per cent of the UK’s laws originate from Brussels. That proportion would not reduce if Scotland left the UK but remained in the EU.

It is not as if the SNP – or anyone else in the Yes Campaign leadership – is proposing that once the exact terms of Scotland’s membership are known the people will be given any sort of say in whether or not to be a member. Having just won what it is describing as freedom from the United Kingdom the SNP is clearly fearful that the people might like the taste of it and decide they don’t want to be in the EU either. And why not, the SNP keeps pointing to countries such as Norway and Iceland as examples we should follow – and they are both outside the EU. Meanwhile the UK is likely to have such a referendum – when it has the opportunity to discuss any new terms a UK government may have negotiated.

All the while Ukip is reported by YouGov to now be at 10 per cent in Scotland for the EU elections – on the cusp of winning a seat, and ICM reports that 37 per cent of Scots favour leaving the EU. Nigel Farage may have started a hare running that Salmond cannot catch.