One of the most effective moments in last week’s televised debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling was when Darling said any eight-year-old could identify a country’s flag, capital city and currency. The flag of an independent Scotland would be the Saltire and the capital Edinburgh, he surmised, but what would the currency be?
The problem for the Yes camp is that with less than six weeks to go before polling day, after a two-year campaign, it is hard for voters to get a straight answer to that simple question. The Yes campaign chairman, Dennis Canavan, says Plan A should be a new Scottish currency, as yet unnamed. The leader of the SNP says it should be the pound, within a formal currency union with what remained of the UK. Assuming Salmond has more clout than Canavan only clarifies matters a little. Leaders of the UK parties, who would have to assent to currency union, say the idea is a non-starter. Salmond says they are bluffing. They say they aren’t. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, last week went so far as to promise an explicit manifesto commitment to reject such a deal. Still bluffing, says Salmond.
The economic detail of this debate is, of course, important. But this spat has now gone way beyond economics and is now firmly in the realm of politics. Salmond’s problem is simple. A voter with zero interest in macroeconomics, and no desire to remedy that lack of knowledge, knows exactly what it means to have a Plan A and a Plan B. This voter might think it not unreasonable that on important matters a Plan B is a sensible idea. Common sense teaches us this. It is why, on a beautiful sunny day, we sometimes put an umbrella in our bag. It is why we take a spare pair of spectacles when we go on holiday. It is why we have a second choice of holiday hotel just in case our first choice is fully booked. Having a Plan B is simple good sense. It is prudent to take precautions in case your plans go awry. Except, it seems, if you are the First Minister of Scotland planning for the moment when Scotland becomes independent.
All the indications this weekend are that the SNP intends to stick to its guns on currency. The party will only discuss Plan A. It will not identify a Plan B. The need for consistency, for message discipline, for one consistent narrative, is taking precedence over all other considerations. This is usually a sound approach to political messaging. But what if the message in question contains a fatal flaw? What if people hear that message loud and clear and do not like it? What if that message in fact becomes a stick with which your opponent, with great delight, beats you over the head, all day and every day?
The nationalists’ decision to dig in comes despite new polling evidence that this decision could deprive them of the momentum they need if they are to have any hope of winning on 18 September. The alternative may seem unpalatable – acknowledging a Plan B would invite scrutiny of that plan, which would expose the flaws that contributed to it not being Plan A in the first place. That may very well turn out to be a rock, but there is no denying they are, now, in a hard place.
The bizarre thing about this whole saga is that it is not hard to discern what Salmond’s Plan B is – it is the continued use of the pound outwith a formal currency union. Anyone with a close interest in the campaign knows this. Salmond does nothing to play down this speculation. And yet he refuses to say the words that would reassure the voter whose only concern is that the leader of his country is taking sensible precautions, and has a back-up strategy. Those words are: “My Plan B is…”
Obama lacks a coherent vision on foreign affairs
PRESIDENT Barack Obama’s latest comments on the Middle East, which we report today, paint an unusually candid picture of the culture of hesitation and uncertainty that have characterised his approach to foreign policy in the White House. The US president admits he regrets not following up his intervention in Libya – to avoid a massacre of anti-Gaddafi forces in Benghazi – with effective measures to help secure the country for a stable new democratic administration.
US global policy has been inconsistent and unpredictable in recent years. A key plank of Obama’s two election campaigns was a distinct coolness about American adventurism abroad, chiming with a new isolationism in the US public at large. Students of American history know that the US appetite for international engagement has always ebbed and flowed. But rarely has scepticism about foreign wars been so deep. This extends beyond “boots on the ground” to any engagement whatsover.
So there has been an unseemly dash to the exit in Iraq and Afghanistan, with not nearly enough thought given to the readiness of the administrations in those countries to cope.
It is very hard to avoid characterising Obama’s approach in both these countries as anything other than “cut and run”.
This was short-sighted in the extreme, simply storing up problems for the future.
The perfect demonstration of this is in Iraq, where the alarming advance of brutal Islamic State (Isis) insurgents has been made possible by the incompetence of an Iraqi army that the US said was ready to be left in charge. It plainly was not.
Across the Middle East, what could have been simple prudence has, in Obama’s White House, looked more like vacillation. It is unrealistic – not to say foolish – to demand total consistency in foreign policy from any country in the application of force. No two sets of circumstances are truly the same. For example, Syria is nor Libya (the nature of the opposition is, as Obama correctly identifies, entirely different).
But in previous administrations, for good or ill, it has been possible to discern a coherent vision of the world and America’s place in it. Under Barack Obama that is harder than it has been since the days of Jimmy Carter.