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If only Smart Alec Salmond could have brought himself to say ‘don’t know’ to some of the questions

Posted on 27 November 2013 | 11:11am

The focus for both sides of the Scottish independence campaign is the large number of people saying ‘don’t know’ whenever a pollster asks them how they intend to vote in the referendum next September.

The lead among those saying No to independence remains reasonably solid but if SNP leader Alex Salmond can generate real momentum, and swing the bulk of the ‘don’t knows’ to Yes, he is still in with a shout of delivering a seismic change to British life.

Yesterday’s launch of ‘Scotland’s Future’ was his big chance to do so, with national and international attention focused on him and his independence White Paper, ‘Scotland’s Future.’

The next round of polls will almost certainly show a rise in support. He has been able to dominate debate on his own terms for a few days and that level of profile almost always translates into a bit of immediate lift. But it will have to be big to be sustained. And his problem in producing such a lengthy document – 670 pages – is that it raised expectations that all the difficult questions would be answered, and they haven’t been.

I have a lot of family and friends in Scotland and one former colleague in Glasgow – an undecided – said to me recently that he was veering towards Yes. Why? Because, he said, at least Salmond is saying something new, and the other side are just attacking him. I managed to win him back to his studied neutrality – and will hopefully pull him all the way to the Better Together position next time round – by pointing out that it is absolutely right that Salmond’s arguments are subject to more analysis and scrutiny, precisely because he is the one making the case for massive change. Better Together is necessarily a campaign based in the idea that the current constitutional settlement is by and large ok, and certainly not so bad that it requires such dramatic and unpredictable change.

The Better Together campaign is inevitably accused of being cautious for precisely that reason – they are defending a status quo. It is far easier, in a campaign in the modern media age, to campaign for change. But what the Better Together campaign has done well over the past few months is force the difficult unanswered questions onto the agenda, sufficient for Salmond to feel he has to answer them.

He is hoping that in producing so many words, and in having a thick book to brandish as he takes his case to the country, he will be able to persuade people – the vast bulk of whom will not read the entire thing, but absorb parts of the debate as it develops – that it contains the answers.

Salmond, unlike so many of his fellow Scots right now, does not do ‘don’t know.’ They are words that simply cannot pass his lips. He knows it all, or at least likes to give that impression. But in trying to create through length and detail the impression that he has all the answers, I suspect that he has played into his opponents’ hands. Far from filling holes, he has widened them.

So how could he have avoided that? Well, perhaps simply by using those two words from time to time – ‘don’t know.’ He would have done far better – and been far more honest – if he had said ‘obviously some of the questions posed by independence cannot fully be answered right now. Some of the biggest questions of all indeed – our future currency, debt, defence, our membership of major international bodies like the EU and NATO, the role of the Queen – will be subject to ongoing negotiation once the people of Scotland have made their choice. But what this document does is set out how I as leader of an independent Scotland would take those negotiations forward, and deliver a result that is best for Scotland and, I believe, best for the rest of the UK. And what I am asking of the Scottish people is that they trust me, and trust themselves, to do so.’ Such an approach – very different to the one he and Nicola Sturgeon deployed – would have allowed stirring of emotions to work alongside the hard-headed reason he hoped would be the impression of his Big Book.

Instead he simply could not resist being able to stand there and say ‘I have heard all the questions and I have all the answers.’ But he doesn’t. And the questions will get harder not easier, and the answers more not less convincing if he relies simply on assertion between now and September 18 2014.

— Meanwhile, here is Alistair Darling’s response, courtesy of today’s Guardian. I particularly like the last two sentences.

‘Nothing has changed with the publication of the Scottish nationalists’ white paper. Alex Salmond still bases his argument to break up the United Kingdom on mere assertions and uncosted promises. He has ducked the difficult questions on currency, pensions and our membership of the European Union.

This white paper was also an attempt at a manifesto funded from the public purse. The authors promised more childcare after independence. They failed to mention that they have the power to do this now. They promised to abolish the bedroom tax. They failed to mention that their own advisers have told them that they couldn’t do so for some years because of the complexity of the benefits system.

They promised they would answer all the questions anyone could possibly have. Their aim is to point to this white paper and refuse to answer any further questions for the next 10 months. It won’t wash.

We need the facts, but all we got was a political wishlist. We still don’t know what currency Scotland would use if we vote to go it alone. The nationalists want a currency union with the rest of the UK but their own civil servants have admitted that they can’t guarantee that. The problem is that the rest of the UK would have to agree to this – it looks increasingly like a non-starter. Even some nationalists see that a currency union would be a straitjacket, not independence.

So what’s plan B? Using sterling in the same way that Panama uses the American dollar? Or is it a new currency? Or would we be forced to join the euro? We don’t know who would set our mortgage rates. We don’t know by how much taxes would have to go up. We don’t know how secure our pensions and benefits would be in an independent Scotland.

Alex Salmond claims that we will leave the UK and be automatically waved into the European Union without any problem. The issue here is that leading figures – including the president of the European commission, José Manuel Barroso, has made it clear that Scotland would be a new applicant nation and would have to negotiate its way in. No one thinks that an independent Scotland wouldn’t eventually get into the European Union, but we don’t know how long it would take and, crucially, we don’t know what terms and conditions would be placed on our entry.

Would Scotland have to give a commitment to join the euro? Would we have to sign up to the open-borders Schengen agreement? We simply don’t know. But still Salmond asserts that everything will be fine. In doing this, the Scottish National party leader exposes a fundamental flaw in the nationalist case. Rather than facing up to the challenges that leaving the UK poses for Scotland, he simply brushes criticism aside. Whether it’s confronting the cost of an ageing population or accepting that North Sea oil revenues will decline, he simply ignores the consequences.

Like everyone else who lives in Scotland, I care deeply about the future of my country. I believe that the case for us staying in the United Kingdom is a strong one. However, I will never shy away from questioning a proposal from our government that will fundamentally change our lives for ever.
We have the best of both worlds right now in Scotland. We have a parliament in Edinburgh that allows us to do things our way and we have the security of being part of the bigger UK. I don’t see why we should trade that in for a one-way ticket to a deeply uncertain destination.’

  • Ehtch

    As someone standing somewhat at the side lines in the land of the dragon, viewing this mainly Scotland vee England (or should I say Westminster) tussle, I don’t know what all the fuss is about.

    Scotland will still be in the Commonwealth, if they vote for self-determination. There are overseas UK armed force bases in the Commonwealth, or maybe I should say, used to be. The Gurkhas from Nepal are in the UK army, as well as servicemen from Fiji etc.. It is just that Scotland would be best governed from Holyrood, I think. The way things are at the moment, it is as if Scotland might as well be governed (outside MSPs influence, that is) by Capitol Hill rather than Westminster – it would make no difference.

    Time and time again Scotland has been used as a “kick the dog” outlet for Whitehall, so the Scots have every right to say “sod them, we have had enough, we’re offski”.

    • Michele

      Don’t accept that Scotland has been used as you say (not in recent decades/most people’s living memory) but am sure some Scots will appreciate the empathy while others will say ‘Of*s get over it already’ to anyone feeling that way.

      My heritage on one side is Irish Catholic but my Dad joined the UK army even before war had actually been declared in ’39. Come adulthood everyone has to stop acting like a sulky child (and I know lots of Scots have done so).

      People have just got to stop bleating about past generations and concentrate on what they them very selves in their own sodding living memories have experienced ….. such as the investment in the North Sea, the Barnett Formula (about which its namesake said almost a decade ago “It was never meant to last this long, but it has gone on and on and it has become Increasingly unfair to the regions of England. I didn’t create this formula to give Scotland an advantage over the rest of the country when it comes to public funding.”) – OMG do I need another full stop there – eeeek?

      If the Scots want a penny by penny comparison of how UK taxes have been spent for the past few decades let’s give it to ’em and alongside that let’s do a quality of life comparison – if a person chooses to stay in a beautiful gorgeous piece of landscape and their travel to work or shopping costs them a fortune that’s always been up to them. Lots of English people would love more privacy and less hooliganism than is possible in busy cities …… sighhhhhhh.

      • Ehtch

        Come on Michele;

        1. Highland clearances.

        2. Poll tax year earlier in Scotland in end of 1980s.

        3. Rangers FC being stuffed by the English inland revenue, sending them down towards the bottom of the Scottish footie pyramid.

        4. OIL! Which Westminster still has first call on of the cash from Scottish oilfields.

        5. Unprotected Scottish fishing industry.

        6. Victimised Clyde shipyards by Heath in the early 1970s.

        7. Kilts and bagpipes, which are constantly patronised in attitude by the Home Counties/BBC/British brainwashing corporation.

        I could go on Michele, by my fingers are starting to wear out.

        What do you say Alec, & Alex F too if he reads this, Ali’s mate?

        • Ehtch

          “Yer can control where my body gers, but yer canna control me mind”, or words to that effect…

        • Michele

          Like I said Ehtch ……….. stop bleating about past generations and concentrate on what they them
          very selves in their own sodding living memories have experienced ……..

          Clearances were 18th/19th centuries. Should I have spent my life droning on about my Irish grandmother who had 14 children and lost 8 or about my Dad’s post-war working life being down the pit actually feeling well off because when he wasn’t laid up with one of many industrial injuries he was being paid more than most neighbours in a country that had no minimum wage? Should he have felt guilty that his father had not been IRA?

          OR should I (and every bugger else) spend more time looking at what IS around us now and not expect compo ‘on behalf’ of people long dead ? It’s all so materialistic and yukky and exploitative < which refers to NOW.

          • Ehtch

            Yes, look what is happening now. Oil revenue is used to subsidise the South-East of England, and blow the Scots, where it actually comes from.

            All spent on Wimbledon tickets and strawberries (which ironically all come from Western Scotland) and cream (from Welsh Dairy farms), and tea and nibble parties in the Houses of Westminster. Ey Bernard Ingham?


            And before you ask why Western Scotland strawberries Michele – strawberry plants require frozen weather in Winter in their annual life cycle to fruit, in Spring when they are polytunnelled in late Winter. That what comes from being a country boy – you know these things from nature, which SE England Tories are totally ignorant of, especially that rubbish SE BBC Countryfile Sunday over comfortable glassy eyed on nature programme.

          • Ehtch

            A new South Wales needed Michele, to stop us bleating? We would, if the Tory Whitehall civil servants didn’t feck us
            constantly up our aristotles, bottle and glass. SOOONG!


        • Michele

          ooops, think I just deleted a whole new post …..

        • Michele

          1. 17th/18th Cs, crimes by earlier generations, it’s disingenuous to blame later ones (but I believe there was a welfare basis anyway).

          2. Yep, we should be punished for what Thatcher ordained ….. durrrrr.

          3. Yawn, sorrrreeeee
          4. Yep, we were a YooKay, did London leave Scotland to fund that exploratory investment to get the stuff out and isn’t it part of why Barnett Formula was higher for each Scottish?
          5. You’re sounding like a nationalist H, if I did so I suppose I’d be considered an arrogant English barsteward?
          6. See 2.

          7. Crybaby time?

          My likely-lost post was about whether I should bleat on about my Irish Grandma and her sad fecundity and whether I should feel guilty that Granddad wasn’t IRA and my Dad having no choice but t’pits OR should I look around at the NOW (or the now till Clegg)?

          • Ehtch

            Reality Michele – what is held within the mind counts, and three hundred years is just a fart in time. I made my points of reality, and you made yours of unreality, I think.

          • Ehtch

            By the way Michele, us saying hello to Romans, when they came visiting us, when “Wales”, better known as Britons then, was all of England and Wales, and South of Scotland. You go to Hawick there, they look exactly like as us bleaters, and we are talking 2000 years ago for gawd sakes, but we still remember…


        • Michele

          There are a couple of responses waiting to come up ……. on the welfare topic of your #1 – think inbreeding 🙁

  • Allygally

    Apparently the Spanish PM has said today that he would make sure an “independent” Scotland will not be a member of the EU.

  • Ehtch

    Sorry Dylan, one day late, as you used to do, as I do. Happy 99th for yesterday. Dates as I do, trying to keep dates, non-for-Xmas, teatimed, or snacking, with fine single malt at side, if though are told to do not, Ali bach, with all us understanding, us falling on the chapel floors at Xmas morning, drunk as skunks, as you watch, us fools,

    You block your own mind,
    experiences had.
    Something happens bad,
    and try open can’t.

    It’s my past, experiences,
    gnawing at me.
    Cannot help myself, period,
    don’t blame me.

    “Things” go on before me,
    then branded.
    Hard to leave that feeling,
    wasted hided.

    Market fair of life are we?
    striding along.
    Mind does battle with body,
    together not belong.

    Song in poem, happy 99th birthday, Dylan fy mach,

  • KDouglas

    Shouldn’t you have used speech marks at the start of each new paragraph of your Darling quotation? Just saying.

    You have to like Alistair D – he is cogent and fair. Salmond is very skilful but I never quite believe what he says and AC’s alternative strategy for him (thankfully withheld until now) seems more plausible than what he’s done.

    There’s no question that the Bullingdons have been Salmond’s great gift. Alistair could now do with a bit of help from Ed Miliband.

  • Michele

    Off topic but looking just now at a retweet on AC twitter re ‘Boris Johnson IQ comments reveal ‘unpleasant, careless elitism’.

    Oh how true, he’s like a clone of his father in the pretentious interview a few months ago where the Snr ‘bumbled’ about how many sons he’d had at Eton and how much he’d forked out to that establishment as a result. Oh what a hoot, the equivalent of the present £30k pp pa being forgettable like so much small change ….

    Private schools are classed as charities, I’d place a bet that in years gone by (if not still) there were deals where they received pre-tax ‘donations’ from their customers who then paid reduced rate fees from post-tax earnings (or profits).

    • Ehtch

      Yep Michele, something needs to be done about these charity statii, if that is the correct plural, of these schools for the kiddies of the rich elite. It is a travesty, and makes a mockery of charity giving.

      AND it is indefensible that these MPs can claim expenses towards their little Johnnys and Victorias education at such institutions. Envy, I hear you ask? Too damned right I am envious – wish I had their cash. But it is like the candle of the public purse is being burnt at both ends.

      • Michele

        I wonder whether in centuries to come some of their comments will be as infamous as Marie Antoinette’s ‘Let them eat cake’?

        • Ehtch

          These days it is usually used by that French firm ATOS, contracted by the Whitehall treasury, to tell people to go to work, when they either die of cancer after within a month, or hang themselves in total desperation. Then there is the grannies when they have no more money to put into their electricity/gas meter, who will freeze to death this Winter, ey Mark, the artist taxi driver? That’s the reality.

  • Michele

    Dreadfully sad programme re Friday’s helicopter-fail on BBC last night 🙁
    Not sure whether it will be on iPlayer:

  • Michele

    Blimey, this was all five months ago!
    I feel quite daft that I’ve missed anything there might have been about what will be the status of a separated Scotland.
    Will it become the Republic of Scotland?