Brian Monteith: ‘Best friends’ won’t impress south

Turning people in the north of England against the south is an example of Salmond’s favoured method of divide and rule, writes Brian Monteith

Alex Salmond made a speech in Carlisle on St Georges Day, promising Scotland would be Englands best friend following a Yes vote. Picture: PA

IS THERE a more divisive politician in the United Kingdom than Alex Salmond? In a typical example of bluster framed as bravado, the First Minister told an audience in Carlisle on St George’s Day that Scotland would be England’s best friend.

Unable to guarantee what currency an independent Scotland would have, whether it would be in, out or pending with the European Union or explain how he can make his promises on childcare stack up without finding 40,000 more Scottish mothers than exist to start work and pay taxes – he decided it was time to try his standard political approach of divide and rule with bribes thrown in as the accompanying mood music.

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Well, why not? It has worked for him often enough in Scotland, so why not try it on an English audience keen (if not desperate) to hear that independence will not change anything.

Now, on the last St George’s Day before the independence referendum, he could use that day to reassure Scots that we will retain our vital commercial relationships with England and the rest of the UK because we will all remain friends. We will do this, apparently, by building close economic links with the north of England to help it challenge the economic dominance of the south.

Not content with finding political advantage by turning Scotland against the rest of the UK – and especially England – Alex Salmond is now trying to find some advantage for a Scotland that will need all the friends it can get by turning England against itself.

Compare and contrast the approach of Salmond with David Cameron and Ed Miliband, who instead talk of one nation, which in the British context means the whole of the UK, but in the particular relevance of England that Disraeli referred to meant binding the north and the south. Those politicians seek to heal, but Salmond instead looks for grievances to add salt to.

Maybe those politicians are too soft, maybe you prefer someone red in tooth and claw – then consider Tony Benn, who famously would have any map of Great Britain in his ministerial office placed upside down to change the mindset of his officials. Again, Benn sought to bring people together, arguing about their common problems rather than how different they were.

As tangible proof of how an independent Scotland would build strong economic links with the north, the First Minister announced he would initiate a feasibility study to show how High Speed Rail 2 (HSR2) could start sooner in a sovereign Scotland and help revive the north’s economy.

The First Minister may trade on his past as an oil analyst but he’s clearly no expert when it comes to transport, for the one vital aspect of high speed rail is that it has as few stops as possible so that it can travel at maximum speed for as long as practical. There are, currently, no plans for HSR2 to stop anywhere after Manchester and Leeds – but if it were to travel on to Glasgow and Edinburgh it certainly would not be stopping at Carlisle, or even Preston, Lancaster or Penrith.

With the UK having no reason to fund HSR2 to any of those destinations, a high speed rail track coming south from Scotland would not get a yard across the English border. It would suddenly revert to standard track until reaching Manchester. The claimed savings in journey times could not then be achieved, the business case would not stack up and the expenditure – by Scotland alone – could not be justified.

Because there would be no self-interest for English taxpayers to make an outrageous financial commitment for the stretch of line between Manchester and Gretna, there would be no funds for the scheme. The only way HSR2 could be completed is if it were a British project covered by the British taxpayer.

HSR2 has already evoked huge opposition throughout England because of its massive cost and its ability to turn northern cities into London suburbs, sucking the lifeblood out of them. The idea that against such opposition for a scheme only going to Manchester and Leeds, via Birmingham, the English taxpayer would countenance extending such a controversial project towards a country that had, if the SNP has his way, decided to reject everything the UK stands for – including social and economic solidarity – is the biggest bluff Alex Salmond has yet played.

This is the Alex Salmond that has placed all the problems Scotland faces at the door of Westminster, that has rubbished sterling and called it a millstone around Scotland’s neck. It is the same Alex Salmond that criticised the London-centric economic policies of both Labour and Conservative parties but whose track record has been to centralise Scottish services and reduced local accountability while advocating greater public debt to cure a public debt problem.

The idea that after a divisive campaign, Scotland will be England’s best friend is so outrageous as to be the stuff of comic books. How friendly will Alex Salmond’s Scotland be to Barrow-in-Furness in the north and their continued building of nuclear submarines? How friendly towards the expansion of nuclear power in England with its continued need for Sellafield in the north? How friendly if the UK leaves the EU?

And how friendly will the UK be towards a Scotland that it sees becoming a soft touch on issues such as illegal immigrants, illegal drugs and other illegal contraband? Being an island, all of those issues are better managed through the United Kingdom than through divided countries – another example of the positive case.

Alex Salmond cannot promise what Scotland will be like if he wins independence, he can only assert his view louder and louder. Pretending he can promise Scotland how our relationships will be with England takes him to a new level of audacity – and it is built upon turning people against each other rather than bringing them together.

I just hope the Scottish public sees it for what it is before the referendum rather than after it.