Brian Wilson: Salmond bluster over EU policy

Even the true disciples might have the uneasy feeling this week that their hero is sounding less like the Great Helmsman and more like the belligerent chap at the end of a saloon-bar with an opinion on everything and answer to nothing.

First Minister Alex Salmond started the salmon fishing season on the River Tay in January, but will he now close it on 12 fishing fleets in Scottish waters. Picture:TSPL

Putin? Much to be said for him. Makes his people proud. Scotland? A nation of drunks. (Another large red wine, barman, and a small one for yourself). And as for the EU, we’ll soon show that Spanish fellow – what’s his name, Caruso? – which side his fish are battered on.

In all sobriety, there is a specific aspect of the First Minister’s Bruges speech that deserves pause for forensic scrutiny. Let’s focus on fish and reflect upon the fact that, even before the referendum is held, we are threatening our friends in Europe with maritime retribution and Norway with a blockade. I’m fair bursting with “national pride”.

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Anyone who has missed this milestone in Scottish diplomacy will wish to know the First Minister’s precise words. The “alternative” to EU entry on his preferred terms, said Mr Salmond, was “the fishing fleets of 12 countries being denied any access to Scottish waters and, as a consequence, their access to Norwegian waters, which is also dependent on Scottish access”.

This does seem like a startling piece of sabre-rattling, not least because it emphatically confirms the precise fear of the Scottish fishing industry, that it would become a negotiating pawn in the bigger game. The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation has described Salmond’s claim of EU entry within 18 months as “completely unrealistic” – and that was before his day trip to Bruges.

But how might the chancelleries of Europe respond in the unlikely event of the First Minister’s words having reached them? Would Europe’s leaders pale at the prospect of being denied access to Scottish haddock? Or would they be more likely to wonder: “Who does this guy think he is – already threatening us while demanding entry on terms which break every rule and are not going to happen? Send him to the end of the queue.”

I wonder if the sainted Norwegians were consulted before our First Minister dragged them into his diplomatic masterplan? Presumably, it is of some economic value to Norway that EU fishing fleets have rights there. Since Norway is not an EU member, where are they to go if Salmond carries out his threat to violate their third-party status and deny access to their waters? The United Nations?

Is there nobody left in St Andrew’s House who dared to tell the First Minister that the guff he was planning to spout was not only daft but also illegal under international law? While his Scottish Navy could be deployed to stop the 12 EU countries fishing in Scottish waters – pause for further swell of “national pride” – they would be obliged to provide free passage to vessels in transit. True or false, Lord Advocate?

But what of the Scottish fishing industry itself? Salmond’s politics are so grievance-driven that he always ignores the other side of the coin which is, in this case, that Scottish fishermen get some of their livelihoods from non-Scottish waters. They catch herring and mackerel in the Norwegian sector, blue whiting in the Irish and more than 50 per cent of the “Scottish” scallop catch comes from the south-west of England.

Presumably, while Scotland is “denying access” to EU fishing fleets in Scottish and Norwegian waters, their own governments will feel obliged to take reciprocal action. How many Scottish fishermen, processors and hauliers would Salmond be prepared to bankrupt in pursuit of his threat to “deny access” to Scottish and Norwegian waters as a negotiating weapon? And if the answer is “none”, then what was the point of his remarks, other than bumptious self-aggrandisement?

Having put the gun-boats on stand-by, much of Salmond’s Bruges speech was devoted to contrasting Scotland’s enthusiasm for Europe with England’s scepticism. It is all hugely exaggerated. The most recent poll suggested that 37 per cent in England and 30 per cent in Scotland would vote to come out of the EU – hardly the basis for a thesis on how different we are.

In reality, I don’t think for a moment that the UK (as it now is) would vote to leave Europe. Take Scotland out, and it becomes a little more likely. But where, I wonder, would that leave Scotland even if we did eventually get into the EU? We would still be selling twice as much to the rest of the UK as to the rest of the world, and ten times as much as to the rest of the EU.

Our overwhelming interest would be to maintain the “rest of the UK” relationship – particularly if we were still arguing about whether or not we could get into the EU. In other words, for those of us who do not want to leave the EU, by far the most useful thing to do is stay in the UK and help ensure that outcome.

A quick word on the two other saloon bar highlights of the week. One of Salmond’s talents has always been for the brazen re-writing of even very recent history and he is at it again on Putin. On the day he gave the interviews, the headlines were about Russia troops massing near Sebastobol, the death of pro-Kiev demonstrator in Donetsk and an emergency debate in the Security Council. If Salmond was talking about Sochi, he was the only man in the saloon-bar who was doing so.

And then the “nation of drunks” or to quote him in full: “My argument is that if you are promoting (Scotch whisky) as authentic and of great worth, you cannot promote it from a nation of drunks”. This, apart from being offensive, completely changes the basis of the Scottish Government’s case on minimum pricing of alcohol which has previously been argued entirely on harm reduction.

One of the arguments against minimum pricing is that, if the precedent was set, it could be used by other countries to create barriers for our exports. I have no doubt the First Minister’s new rationale will have been noted with appreciation by those who will be challenging the policy in Luxembourg. They will now be dealing with two trade-based arguments rather than considerations of health versus trade.

Personally, I find the “nation of drunks” tag as boorish a generalisation coming from Salmond as I would from any other politician. Perhaps he needs a good barman to tell him to be more careful with his language and more sparing with his opinions.