Michael Kelly: Oh, for a straight answer from the First Minister

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Salmond’s visit to China has highlighted how he and his party seem to tailor their opinions depending on their audience

IN 1984, it was double-speak. Now we have the updated Made in Scotland version – Salmond-speak. The great thing about the First Minister is that he always has an answer. The problem is that the answer rarely depends on the facts, merely the circumstances in which the question is asked.

He was not the first to adopt this sophistry. The Liberal Democrats have been at it for years, saying different things in different constituencies. It is only power that has made the deception more difficult to pull off. But the SNP has perfected the technique. Selling the myth of a high-spend, low-tax economy by picking one element from Scandinavia and the other from discredited Ireland; demanding decentralisation from London while centralising the powers of local authorities; claiming education as a priority while cutting college budgets and losing 3,700 teachers since coming to power; winning the Western Isles by opposing a wind farm yet covering the rest of Scotland with them; opposing cuts in public-sector pensions yet implementing them; advocating independence from the UK yet criminalising football fans for celebrating long-dead freedom fighters against the same state – the list is endless.

The latest and most cynical example came when Alex Salmond was queried on his approach to China’s record on human rights. He claims to have raised this sensitive issue in a “friendly” way. For “friendly” read “not discussed in any meaningful way”. Instead of making plain distaste for China’s record, he settled for promoting the philosophy of Adam Smith. In this glib fashion, he insisted he could raise the question without offending his hosts. This was not Nixon in China. For a start, there is no amicable way of objecting to a regime that, after what Amnesty International calls unfair trials, executes more people than the rest of the world put together; that has 500,000 in detention without charge; that denies its people access to justice.

More fundamentally, the First Minister surely cannot imagine that advocating the policies of an 18th-century philosopher who justified markets, glorified capitalism and distrusted state intervention, was not grossly insulting to the Chinese. They are communists. They disagree entirely with the assumptions and conclusions of laissez-faire economics, and Mr Salmond’s criticism goes to the heart of their system. He could not have been more insulting if he had been trying, which, of course, he wasn’t. He was just throwing a sop to the human-rights lobby back home, while getting on with the main job of promoting himself (and Scotland).

It would have been far more refreshing for him to admit that an independent Scotland would have as little influence on Chinese policies as the Maltese currently have. However, such an admission would contradict the impression the SNP always tries to give that Scotland, freed from London restrictions, could go out and be a stronger influence for good around the world and not just an insular, insignificant player on the world stage. The First Minster is always ready with an answer but he is rarely cross-examined on them. Wrapped up in apparent logic, they seem so reasonable. But they fall apart when anyone takes the time to analyse them.

Thus, we should be asking the First Minster if Adam Smith is for export only. Or is free, uninhibited market capitalism the way forward in an independent Scotland? Is he really a tartan Tory in disguise? Given the mammoth state intervention explicit in the overblown, debt-financed infrastructure plans just announced, that seems far fetched. Here, Keynes is the philosopher of choice – different circumstances, different answers.

That is why Labour leadership contender Ken Macintosh is right to say he’ll avoid the shouting matches with Salmond that have become a feature of all the opposition parties’ tactics. It’s a good move by Macintosh because he is at his weakest in face-to-face confrontational debates. Not that any of the opposition leaders are particularly able at matching Mr Salmond’s strongest suit. But it is sensible, too, because, with the stakes in the independence discussion so high, it is vital the arguments are examined coolly.

Thus, analysing the viability of the SNP’s long-term capital spending plans requires confirming the private sector believes the projects can be delivered on time and on budget. With the examples of the Holyrood building and the Edinburgh trams to comfort them, can there be any concerns there? However, among the many assumptions underlying the infrastructure plan, one has not been revealed. Does its implementation require a “yes” vote in the referendum or not? If not, but simply borrowing powers à la Calman being granted to Holyrood, then it suggests the SNP feels it can manage the economy pretty well without independence. Are we to expect a new, even more expensive plan based on the promised wealth and increased national income that will be realised once Scotland separates?

It’s a straw in the wind that suggests the SNP is preparing to settle for less than separation. Another one is in its search for models with which to compare favourably an independent Scotland. We have journeyed from the discredited “arc of prosperity” through several states, landing eventually on the shores of Alaska, whose citizens apparently enjoy great benefits from their oil resources. But the significant thing about this comparison is not the economic contrast but that Alaska has never, ever contemplated breaking away from the Untied States. It is happy and prosperous in a federal setting. Joan McAlpine, who raised the Alaska question on these pages, is always worth listening to. She’s a close confidante of the First Minister. But, like her boss, she hedges her answers. She writes that she is talking as a “commentator not a political representative”. Does this mean she has two opinions on this depending on the audience? That is certainly the Salmond way. More likely, this has been run up the flagpole to see if anyone rallies round. It may be we have just seen the SNP blink first. Is this its preferred fall-back when it loses the referendum? Is federation emerging as the definition of devo-max? Lots of questions. Straight answers would be appreciated.