Jim Sillars: Yes campaign must show foresight

Shoot-from-the hip fisheries policy should be replaced with the more sophisticated form of diplomacy with Europe. Picture: Julie Bull
Shoot-from-the hip fisheries policy should be replaced with the more sophisticated form of diplomacy with Europe. Picture: Julie Bull
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To win the day the Yes campaign must show foresight and remember that what is said before the vote can have a powerful effect on what happens after the result is known, writes Jim Sillars

That’s it then, Yes people can relax, clear our minds of anxiety created by those opinion polls and terrible bookies’ odds, and enjoy what’s left of the summer. Alex Salmond, taunted by his opponents as a “loser” tells us, like another famous Scot fighting for independence, John Paul Jones of US Navy fame, that he has not yet begun to fight. Nae bother, the best is yet to come.

It seems the Scottish Government’s skirmishes with Westminster and Brussels over Nato, defence, Trident, currency, pensions and EU membership, have been mere minor episodes in a phoney war – a few probing patrols sneaking onto each other’s territory with no casualties, and no prisoners to fortune. The SNP blitzkrieg that will sweep the enemy from the field and secure a Yes victory will come in the autumn, when Alex’s White Paper will dot every “i” and cross every “t” of policy, and answer every question. He will, as in the past, overturn those polls. If only.

I have my doubts about how able a machine is the Scottish civil service from which will emerge the White Paper, and I have serious doubts about the political ability of the Salmond circle to conduct affairs from now until polling day. Even the dogs in the street must by now be aware of just how formidable is the team formed at Westminster to defeat independence.

A comparison with the quality of the material produced by the Treasury and that produced by Salmond’s office in recent weeks, shows a difference between a Premier League and a Third-Division outfit. As for political ability in what is a new arena, the big league, for the SNP leaders (and especially their advisers), there is cause for concern.

Before dealing with the issue of political ability, there is a question to ask of SNP backbenchers about the White Paper. What it says, or does not say, its substance or lack of it, will be one of the defining moments of the campaign. Whatever its content, SNP backbenchers will find themselves anchored to it. The question arises, therefore, if they are going to campaign for it, do they have a say in its content? Or will they see it only on the same day as the public, and thus, unlike the public who can be critical of it, be faced with the instruction from the Whips to give it unconditional support? Will they be excluded or included in its formulation? It’s a fair question.

Now, back to political ability. I have remarked before in this newspaper about the lack of intellectual rigour in the Salmond camp.

There often seems to be policy made, if not on the hoof or shot from the hip, certainly without thinking through its consequences and, critically, how it will be received by people with a variety of legitimate interests, including other countries whose support we need to mobilise, or who should be rendered neutral, this side of polling day. The recent threat to close the North Sea to EU fishing boats if Brussels gets shirty with our application to continue membership, is a case in point. Of course the Scottish fisheries waters will not be available to EU boats if we are refused continued membership, and a great area of sea will be removed from the Common Fisheries Policy(CFP). But it was the blustering, aggressive, offensive tone in which that fact was relayed, which betrays a lack of the sophistication required in international affairs.

The SNP had better realise now that there is a “before” and “after” scenario. In the months before polling day, the European Commission, senior MEPs from states other than the UK, and member states’ governments can be expected to make statements calculated to be downright unhelpful to the Yes side. None of them want to see any disturbance to the present set-up, or have a precedent set about the legitimacy of secession. If, however, Scots vote Yes, it will be a different matter. The EU will have to deal, not with an unwanted hypothesis, but with a new political reality in which their worldwide boasts about promoting democracy and the rule of law, will be put to a worldwide test.

All the negative stuff they said when Scottish independence was a hypothetical, will be swept aside, realpolitik will operate, and while continued membership will not be seamless, nevertheless the door, with conditions, will be opened. They will also be desperate to find reasons why Scotland is not to be seen by others as a precedent.

The problem is that the “after” doesn’t happen until after. It’s what is said and done during the “before” that will affect public opinion, and the result. To threaten, and antagonise the member states who do have a stake in the North Sea’s contribution to the CFP, and give them good reason to undermine the Scottish Government’s claims about the certainty of continued membership, is not wise.

A more sophisticated approach, and one that would put our putative partners on the back foot morally and politically, would be to ask them about the cemeteries. When De Gaulle took France out of the military side of Nato, he insisted that every American serviceman be removed from French soil. Lyndon Johnson instructed his Secretary of State Dean Rusk to ask him about the cemeteries. When face to face with Rusk, De Gaulle repeated his instruction, whereupon Rusk asked him if it applied to the thousands of US dead buried in France from both World Wars?

So, the team in the Scottish Government should stop the aggro and take old Lyndon’s advice. All over Europe there are Scottish dead who sought to free France, Denmark, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Italy once it changed sides, while others now in the EU were, shall we say, not quite on the side of the anti-Nazi angels between 1939 and 1945. On what moral and practical grounds can our present partners in the EU tell us to get out? Does my uncle Jimmy, and thousands of other Scots who went over and there never came back, mean nothing? Never mind the fish Alex, ask them about the cemeteries.

As for the practical concern of our present partners, about creating a precedent, there is an explanation that can ease their worry. Present Scotland to them as being sui generis – being different from and having no secession implications for any other area within the member states. Stack up the arguments that make us different – the unusual voluntary nature of the agreement in 1707 and the legal and legislative uniqueness of the Act of Union with its recognition of our separate legal system and other institutions. The Lord Advocate is a smart lawyer. Get him on the case.

Let bluster and braggadocio give way to the sensible practice of diplomacy, playing on those historical strengths that my uncle and others helped create with their sacrifice, and endeavouring to persuade by reasoned discussion (perhaps a diplomatic team to visit every capital). Above all, no more macho quick-fire policy that takes no account of consequences. It’s time to start winning friends and influencing people over there. Remember to get to the “after” Yes has to win the “before”.

• Jim Sillars is a former deputy leader of the SNP