Euan McColm: Don’t be browbeaten by SNP conspiracy

THE conspiracy grows wider still. Not only – according to the Scottish Government – have Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians cooked up a position on currency which puts defeating the SNP before the interests of the people, but businesses have joined their cabal.
Standard Life's Edinburgh offices. Picture: TSPLStandard Life's Edinburgh offices. Picture: TSPL
Standard Life's Edinburgh offices. Picture: TSPL

As pensions giant Standard Life, which employs 5,000 Scots, signalled it was ready to move operations south of the Border because of uncertainty over the economy should Scotland exit the UK, SNP politicians dismissed this as yet more scaremongering. This wasn’t the legitimate view of a major employer but a predictable intervention from just another member of the anti-Scottish independence (for which, read anti-Scottish) gang.

It is an accusation which grows thin through overwork.

When Tory Chancellor George Osborne came to Edinburgh last month to deliver a speech during which he ruled out currency union between an independent Scotland and the remainder of the UK, First Minister Alex Salmond was at his most bullish. The notion that we would not continue to use the pound, with all the protections afforded by the Bank of England, was bluff, bluster, and bullying. When Labour and the Lib Dems backed the Chancellor’s view, they were backing a Tory position for political expediency rather than stating their true beliefs.

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So, when Standard Life this week revealed it has drawn up contingency plans to quit Scotland if it becomes independent, it was playing the same game. The SNP’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson pointed out that the firm, which has almost 4 million UK customers and manages £237 billion of those customers’ money, had raised concerns about devolution as far back as 1992. He ignored the fact that, by 1997, Standard Life was fully supportive of the establishment of a Scottish Parliament. To do so would have undermined the “conspiracy of liars” accusation that’s replaced a serious political narrative from the Scottish nationalists.

Perhaps mindful that yet another attack on any person or institution that dares to raise questions about his independence plans risked pitching him into the premier division of conspiracy theorists (where he might be able to discuss with David Icke just exactly what it is these shape-shifting lizards have against the right of the Scottish people to stand apart from England), Salmond interpreted Standard Life’s warning as being supportive of his wish for a currency union. If the company was concerned about uncertainty post-Yes, it wasn’t his fault but the fault of Westminster politicians who could pour oil on these troubled waters simply by agreeing that his vision was the correct one.

The SNP’s lines on Standard Life were undermined by the party’s former deputy leader Jim Sillars, who defended the company’s position and reiterated his belief that there should have been a proposal for a separate Scottish currency.

While Standard Life was, depending on one’s position on Scotland’s constitutional future, either making a sensible business point or bullying us, the Royal Bank of Scotland was adding its tuppenceworth. In its annual results, the bank stated that a vote in favour of Scottish independence would be likely to significantly impact the group’s credit ratings and impact the “fiscal, monetary, legal, and regulatory landscape to which the group is subject”.

We have already heard concerns about the impact of independence from major supermarkets, as well as the oil giant BP. And the SNP – for what else could it do? – has dismissed their words just as it dismissed Standard Life and RBS this week.

Characterising business scepticism over the practicalities of Scottish independence as simply fat-cats throwing their weight around may play well with the SNP’s core support (and with the assorted radical left-groups that have aligned themselves with the Yes campaign) but does it really appeal to the more conservative-minded voters who sent Salmond to Bute House in 2007 and 2011?

We shouldn’t forget that Salmond’s electoral victory came after his party abandoned its old tactic of playing the victim and created a new story all about calm and trustworthy leadership.

The First Minister won Holyrood victory not by bringing more Scots to the SNP but by taking the SNP to more Scots. In this regard, Salmond bears some similarities to Tony Blair.

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The brilliance of the nationalists’ strategy was to recognise those aspects of their politics which stood in the way of them receiving more votes. Ironically, key among these – perhaps the sole barrier, in fact – was the SNP’s raison d’être of Scottish independence.

That’s why Salmond campaigned not for the right to break-up the United Kingdom but for the opportunity to be allowed to demonstrate that his party could be trusted to deliver competent devolved government. This gradualist approach – in such stark contrast to his predecessor John Swinney’s “we’ll tell the Brits to get off” – was a thwocking great success.

Perhaps, given where the SNP now finds itself, too successful. Salmond’s nation-building exercise was intended to be a longer-term project. Behind the joy at 2011’s Holyrood landslide was the recognition by the party’s most senior figures that another term of productive, competent government without the prospect of a referendum was the SNP’s best chance to bring cautious Scots round to the idea of independence.

More companies – though let’s identify the problems some will cause Salmond and call them employers – are certain to enter the debate before September’s referendum. Is every one of those that expresses concern to be dismissed as a bluffer or a bully? Are we all to be asked to believe that Scotland is being conspired against by big bad unionist business?

Some will buy that story, sure, but others, to whom Salmond’s softly-softly approach appealed, may not consider the reassurance that “everything will be fine” enough to soothe their perfectly legitimate fears.

Alex Salmond’s inability to offer a serious alternative to the rejected sterling zone proposals is at the heart of his difficulties. I wonder for how much longer the SNP’s insistence that every opponent is a lying bully will carry much currency at all.

Twitter: @euanmccolm