Brian Monteith: SNP’s low point may be a blessing

Alex Salmond used his speech to criticise welfare reforms. Picture: TSPL
Alex Salmond used his speech to criticise welfare reforms. Picture: TSPL
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LAST week was a bad week for Alex Salmond and by extension the SNP and Yes campaign. Everybody’s saying it: SNP insiders grudgingly admit it off the record, opponents laugh about it in the Holyrood watering holes and commentators (including myself) have paraded the points in columns and discussions.

The received wisdom of last week’s embarrassing climbdown over automatic European Union membership for an independent Scotland is that it has given great weight and tangible evidence to the idea that the First Minister’s “Bluffers Guide to Independence” cannot be trusted and is not worth the cover price. And yet last week could prove to be the turning point that saves the SNP and the Yes campaign; it could prove to be the moment when the strategy towards achieving independence was reconsidered, redrafted and reformed so that it turned public doubts about trusting the First Minister into a virtue about new-found honesty and openness by the broader campaign.

The reason that the question over the EU has plagued the SNP is obvious to anyone who lives and works in the world of politics: the SNP has been trying to sell certainty when uncertainty is the coinage of the European adventure.

It is all very well for the SNP to claim for the nation an equality within Europe with what is left of the United Kingdom were Scotland to leave its association behind, saying we would both be in or both be out and that we should expect to both be in. But to claim that even were Scotland to remain a member, it would automatically inherit all of the existing benefits (such as what is left of Margaret Thatcher’s Fontainebleau rebate) and be able to claim new ones (such as greater control over fisheries or energy) did not reckon with the realpolitik of the EU – where to gain any advantage requires conceding what other nations might want from you (such as maintaining access to fisheries or managing oil reserves).

All of the political parties have representation in Brussels and all were aware of the behind-the-scenes conversations and off-the-record chats that pointed to the EU at least requiring some aspects membership to be renegotiated if not having a long-drawn hiatus until full membership could be secured. The question was never, therefore, about whether Scotland would be a member but at what price and how long agreeing that price might take and what would happen in the meantime.

There are still some SNP cheerleaders who, ostrich-like with their heads in the midden, say nothing has changed, that José Manuel Barroso is only one man and that it is a Scotsman-led, unionist-bred conspiracy. To that I say if anyone harbours doubts that last week was a deep humiliation just ask why did Nicola Sturgeon say her government would seek urgent talks with Barroso to seek clarification?

So let us move on and see the latest debacle for what it is – a cold shower of a wake-up call to the SNP that, if the party is not careful, means it will not only lead the Yes campaign to certain defeat but to a crushing defeat at that.

So, is the Yes campaign beyond saving? The answer to that must be no, for there are two things that can change within the next 20 months and again they involve the issue of trust. Firstly, the SNP can rebuild the trust that it has so carelessly abandoned and secondly the unionists have no monopoly or divine right on trust themselves and just as easily could forgo it.

Just as Gerald Ratner lost consumer confidence with one injudicious comment, just as the BBC lost trust through a series of institutional failures, so too can the divided unionist parties trip themselves up through a combination of complacency and misjudgment.

For the SNP to rebuild trust it must do two things, neither of which are beyond its politicians: it must stop trying to say (or build a perception) that everything will be better through the act of independence; and, correspondingly, it must be brave enough to admit that some aspects of life might be the poorer for independence and will be either worth the trade-off or that, once independent, we will in time be able to correct any such shortcomings.

Unionists, such as myself, have always identified the claim that everything will be better – be it the arts, social welfare, taxes, business start-ups or public health – as clearly unrealistic if not hysterical. Unionists have, therefore, been very happy to draw the SNP on to the ground of what is now called the utilitarian arguments about the cost benefit of independence over the mutualism and solidarity of unionism.

Fronted by a leader with a swagger, the SNP has duly obliged the unionists and responded with a vision of an idyllic “wha’s like us” Scotland, sometimes with credible evidence of what might be better and other times with thinly researched claims and bald assertions – the latter being identifiable by the regularity with which they are repeated, Goebbels-like, so that we might all the more believe them.

The SNP has the opportunity to change this approach and the time to start it is on 1 January, 2013. It can lay the ground by starting to moderate its claims and it can recast its strategy with the publication of its White Paper on Independence – which it would benefit from bringing forward. It must, from that point on, go forward saying that independence will not be easy, that some aspects of Scottish life might be tougher, might be harder – might be poorer – but that because we shall be in control of our own destiny, it will be for us Scots to choose which aspects of life might change and that we might begin to recognise that these changes are worth the self-control, responsibility and the accountability to ourselves. This is the existential argument that all African colonies and East European satellites grasped in the past, that even if we were to be immediately poorer, the freedom from influence or even rule by others is worth the sacrifice.

It is an argument that I think many Scots would respond well to, and it would give unionists some real strategic and tactical problems that, with a heavy irony, might be exacerbated by David Cameron’s gathering problems over the UK’s own relationship with the EU.