Scottish independence: A tardis of a white paper

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon field questions from journalists at the Glasgow Science Centre. Picture: Getty
Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon field questions from journalists at the Glasgow Science Centre. Picture: Getty
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A RAINBOW straddled the River Clyde as Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon prepared to launch their most detailed ever vision of independence in front of the world’s press at the Glasgow Science Centre yesterday morning.

Shimmering above the skyline, it must have gladdened the hearts of the First Minister and his deputy as they contemplated one of the most significant days of their political lives.

It would have been tempting for them to interpret it as a portent of a new Scotland built on their white paper – free from nuclear weapons, free from Tory welfare reforms and with a childcare package that gives new meaning to the term “nanny state”.

On this occasion, however, the rainbow was the prelude rather than finale to a flood – the flood of information contained in the document and the deluge of questions that followed.

Ever since the SNP rose to power, the publication of Scotland’s Future – Your Guide to an Independent Scotland has been recognised as the critical staging post on the road to September’s referendum.

But by the glitzy standards one has come to expect from Salmond and Sturgeon media productions, one of the more notable features of this key event was that it was… well… distinctly low key.

Shorn of the celebrity appearances and razzmatazz that have marked previous pro-independence events, Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon presented their document in a professional and matter-of-fact manner.

It was not only the independence-supporting actors and famous faces that were missing. Expectations that the document might mark some sort of cultural milestone in itself were not realised. The widely-trailed suggestion that a great Scottish novelist such as Willie McIlvanney would sprinkle some magic dust over the civil-service speak of the document failed to materialise.

The white paper was not entirely devoid of literary flourish, however. There was a flowery passage from the First Minister, whose preface spoke of the ancient nation of Scotland, “renowned for the ingenuity and creativity of our people, the breathtaking beauty of our land and the brilliance of our scholars”.

Scotland’s nation story had been shaped by “values of compassion, equality, an unrivalled commitment to the empowerment of education, and a passion and curiosity for invention” that had shaped the world.

“This is our country. This is Scotland’s future. It is time to seize that future with both hands,” he concluded.

When it came to hard copies of the document, Mr Salmond might well have been speaking in literal as well as metaphorical terms. At 649 pages, Scotland’s Future is a hefty tome that requires two hands to lift.

Before the First Minister and his deputy came to their lecterns, the visiting media were shown a lumbering video showcasing Scotland’s scenery, before attention turned to the document’s contents.

Then the avalanche of questions began. It was clear the SNP’s leading lights knew their document intimately. A plethora of page numbers were produced off the top of their heads as they fielded questions and guided journalists to relevant extracts of the white paper.

Pages 109 to 117, which dealt with the SNP’s currency plans, were the ones most quoted by Mr Salmond as he was questioned time and again on his plans for Scotland to remain in a sterling zone after independence.

“Could Mr Salmond guarantee that an independent Scotland would be able to share the pound with the rest of the UK?” was the most frequently asked question.

Given Scotland’s “massive” contribution to the sterling balance of payments through North Sea oil and gas, a monetary union would benefit both Scotland and the rest of the UK, was the First Minister’s reply.

In the absence of celebrities, it was left to the Westminster press corps to attempt to inject a bit of glamour (and trivia) to the occasion by turning to the future of Strictly Come Dancing after independence.

It was all very well, argued BBC News political editor Nick Robinson, for the white paper to “assert” that an independent Scotland would keep the pound, remain in the European Union and still have Len Goodman, Brucie and the gang on the Beeb.

Those assertions, said Mr Robinson, should have been written with caveats such as “perhaps”, “maybe”, “fingers crossed” and “hope for the best”.

Surely organisations such as the UK Treasury, the Bank of England and other EU member states would have influence over the make-up of an independent Scotland, Mr Robinson said.

Perhaps fed up with the currency questions, Mr Salmond said he would deal with “the overwhelmingly most important” issue first. Strictly would stay on the telly after independence, the First Minister said. The relief could be felt around the room. What’s more, Mr Salmond was able to reassure the world’s media that if Scotland were independent at the moment, the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special would have been shown north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Some visiting journalists could have been forgiven for thinking they had entered the Doctor’s Tardis and travelled in time to Scotland after the white paper’s 26 March, 2016 Scottish independence day.

As ITN News’s deputy political editor Chris Ship posed a question to Mr Salmond, he pointed out that he had been issued with an “international” media pass rather than a “domestic” one.

“Perhaps that’s jumping the gun a bit,” Mr Ship noted wryly.

As the journalists frantically flicked throught the white paper, Mr Salmond directed them to pages 60 and 61. That excerpt outlined the consequences of voting No in the referendum and represented the only passage that did not chime with the “uplifting and exciting” tone of the remaining 647 pages, he said.

A No vote would mean a new generation of nuclear weapons on the Clyde, imposition of the bedroom tax against the will of Scottish MPs, spending driven by London’s priorities and the possibility of Scotland leaving the EU as a result of the Conservative referendum on Europe.

It was a message in line with what Mr Salmond described as a “tartan thread” running through the document – independence would mean that Scots end up with the government and policies that they vote for rather than a government and policies foisted on them from Westminster.

But while Mr Salmond spoke about his “tartan thread”, the Better Together campaign was contending that the white paper has more strings than the Banff and Buchan Strathspey and Reel Society.


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