Alex Salmond floats many ideas and thinks up a new one every time he can’t answer a question about the one before, writes Brian Monteith
I think I first saw the trick on television, probably on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. A man with a long rod spins a plate on top of it. Soon he has about a dozen plates spinning and he has to dash about to keep them all up before he carefully takes them down without breaking any.
We all understand that trying to keep too many plates spinning at the same time means that some are likely to come crashing down, but what happens if you fly too many kites?
In his attempt to make Scotland leaving the United Kingdom a positive concept and staying British a negative reality, is Alex Salmond not in danger of raising expectations that he cannot explain, never mind meet?
Over the last few months, we have had a number of ideas floated by either the SNP leader or one of his ministers and we can be certain, for there is nothing left to chance in the SNP’s media operation, that each new theme, each new idea, is part of a carefully choreographed campaign to set the agenda and wrong-foot the opposition by constantly moving the line of attack.
This is not original or groundbreaking: it is a classic approach to campaigning that we have not seen done so efficiently since Tony Blair’s New Labour fought for power in the late 1990s.
There is a difference with the SNP’s strategy, however, and it is that what Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell were offering was not just inspiring; it was quantifiable. The British public could understand from its own experience and knowledge what was being offered.
What Salmond is offering is at best wishful thinking and often a pipe dream on stilts, but if he moves on to the next idea quickly enough, will it really matter? Just look at how the unionists flounder trying to keep up; divided by party allegiance there is rarely a coherent response – and may never be.
The danger for Salmond’s approach may come not from political opponents but from the public finally deciding there are just too many offers on the table for independence to be credible, too many kites being flown for them all to stay in the air. It is the public that may finally tire of the never-ending parade of too-clever-by-half ideas and decide there are too many unanswered questions.
Just look at some of those kites. An oil fund? The pound sterling as currency? A high speed railway to England? Free higher education? Providing renewable energy to England and Europe? All these ideas fly a positive future but when the questions that are asked of them go unanswered, then should we not be concerned that they don’t make sense?
An oil fund sounds a morally attractive idea, ensuring a source of public investment for future generations, enough to make you think why has it never happened before. The reason for that is simple: politicians in the here and now – including the SNP – prefer to win the support of current voters rather than their yet-to-be-conceived grandchildren so they hose us down with so-called free benefits for things like eye tests, prescription drugs, bridge tolls, educational allowances, bus travel, tuition fees and so on.
They have flared-off the oil revenue and are now burning it at a growing rate. When the Centre for Public Policy for Regions said that Scotland could not afford an oil fund due to current and projected spending levels, it had a point, and when Tom Miers posed the question why the SNP government had not used its current powers to introduce such a fund, the answer was the same – because its politicians prefer to spend the money now on all those giveaways the English don’t enjoy.
So what would Alex Salmond change to make this kite fly? When the SNP suggested the pound sterling as the currency of choice for an independent Scotland, it was to provide reassurance that we would not join the troubled euro and that nothing noticeable would change. This would leave Scotland with no central bank and put us at the mercy of Threadneedle Street if there was ever an economic crisis – and economic crisis there will be.
Neither Alex Salmond, John Swinney nor their successors can end the economic cycle, so who would help Scotland? How strange that London rule suddenly becomes our salvation when for so long it has been presented as the problem. If, as the SNP argues, Scotland does not matter to the Bank of England, why would we suddenly matter after separation? That kite just crashed and burned.
A high speed train to London from Edinburgh and Glasgow? Why would the rest of the UK build a line north from Manchester to meet any Scottish line at Gretna at a cost of tens of billions to their taxpayers?
Free tuition fees in an independent Scotland? Well they would be free for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who, as citizens of the European Union, would enjoy the same benefits Germans have now. British students could be expected to surge into Scotland. How could that cost be covered? Oil revenues? Oops, there goes the oil fund kite.
Not to worry, Scotland would be raking it in by selling renewable electricity to England and even beyond. Unfortunately, that kite is falling to earth too, for the economics just don’t stack up. Renewables are not the cheapest source of energy and they require subsidies to bring their price down and levies on other competing sources to make the competition dearer.
Where would the subsidies come from and how can Scotland impose levies beyond its jurisdiction? Faced with cheaper nuclear power and other sources such as gas, the rest of the UK could source its power elsewhere and leave us to tilt at our redundant windmills.
The kite-flying strategy is not foolproof. If Salmond can’t or won’t answer the questions posed of him, then his kites will get their lines crossed and the whole spectacular show must fall to the earth with a thud.
• Brian Monteith is policy director of ThinkScotland.org