THE problem with landslides is that they can bury you.
The SNP are still celebrating, rightly, their stunning election victory. But there is a downside to being on top. You can’t blame anyone else when things go wrong, for a start. In the last parliament, the SNP were able to wash their hands of the Edinburgh trams disaster because they’d been forced into it by the opposition parties. Not any more.
You also have to say what you mean and mean what you say. For most of the last decade, the SNP haven’t had to answer awkward questions about the process of becoming independent because the referendum policy factored it out of political debate. Now that the referendum is a foregone conclusion, the questions begin. And anyone who saw Newsnight last Wednesday could be in no doubt about just how little thought the Nationalists have given to answering awkward questions.
Nicola Sturgeon is normally as sure-footed and intelligent a performer as anyone in politics, but faced with Jeremy Paxman, she faltered. The old goat barked at her about when Scotland would join the euro and how big the Scottish army would be, and she sounded robotic, evasive even; retreating behind a mantra that “all this will be for the Scottish people to decide after independence”. Paxo eventually gave up in disgust and dismissed her as if she were a member of an obscure millennial cult. The SNP have to do better. Everything has changed as a result of their colossal victory. They can’t just continue running a competent administration this time round and expect the Scottish voters to award them another gold star for effort. The Scots may even be up for independence now if someone would just explain what it means. But SNP people look pained when you ask them about the “I” word.
“We aren’t there yet,” they say. “It’s up to the Scottish people ... circumstances of the time” and so on. This is nonsense. People have every right to ask what independence means in concrete terms. I want to know when and how Scotland might join the euro. Not least because it might mean Scots having to change currency before visiting relatives in England. Border posts? Nationalists scoff at the very idea – but it is a legitimate question. If the SNP continue to have an open-door policy on immigration, England may well decide to erect border controls to keep out potential migrants. This is happening across the EU Schengen zone right now as refugees pour in from North Africa.
The SNP policy is to keep the pound sterling “for the time being”. Well, I want to know now how the Scottish Government can manage the economy when interest rates are set by another country. The Bank of England signalled last week that it is going to increase interest rates, when Scotland would arguably want them held down.
I also want to know about financing the national debt and the deficit. Of course, Scotland can continue to run a big fiscal deficit, as the UK does at present. But will international financiers continue to buy Scottish debt when it is no longer underwritten by the UK Treasury? If they don’t, it means massive spending cuts or big tax increases as the fledgling nation tries to stave off a sovereign debt crisis. Small indebted countries such as Iceland and Ireland, with bankrupt banks, have been caught in a cycle of deflation – how would Scotland avoid this?
Nor do I think it is illegitimate to ask how big the Scottish army might be, and how it would relate to the defence policy of the RUK (the Residual United Kingdom). Nicola Sturgeon said that after independence there would be an increase in Scotland’s 12,000 defence personnel so that the country “gets a fair deal” – but why? Who has ever said this, and why is it “fair”? Why would the RUK keep the Scottish bases like Lossiemouth, or build the aircraft carriers on the Clyde? Would there be a unified command structure so that the two forces could collaborate in emergencies such as Libya, in which case why have a separate army at all?
And how would that be compatible with withdrawal from Nato? Oh – and what happens about Trident and the thousands of jobs at HM Naval Base Clyde? I loathe nuclear weapons as much as anyone, but I want to know how the SNP plan to remove them.
When would Scotland withdraw from Westminster? And is that really sensible when so many of the issues debated there will directly affect Scotland? Not just issues such as defence, relations with Europe, and maritime law, but health issues like swine flu, agricultural issues such as foot and mouth.
Under the “Social Union” that the SNP has talked about, social security and other welfare matters may – as I understand it – remain more or less the same as in England. Then there is the Queen. She would remain head of state in an independent Scotland according to Nicola Sturgeon, but why? Why should the monarch of a foreign country be the fount of constitutional legitimacy in Scotland? Would there be a referendum on the monarchy and if so when?
Professor Jim Mitchell of Strathclyde University says, on the basis of conversations with leading Nationalists, that the SNP have abandoned independence for federalism, or rather “confederalism”. This means common management of defence, foreign affairs, currency etcetera. This is my impression also. But don’t the Scottish people have a right to know this too? Not least because confederalism is not independence.
It’s clear to me that the May election was a watershed in British history. I believe we could be close to a “velvet divorce” of the kind that broke Czechoslovakia apart in 1992.
Opinion polls suggest independence is actually more popular in England than in Scotland. But Scots have clearly lost their fear, and are looking for a lead. The SNP may be pushing at an open door – but we have a right to know what lies on the other side.
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