‘When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another’, the best way of going about it probably isn’t to write a 670-page document and then snarkily deride journalists who point out the obvious holes in it. As an old romantic, vaguely sympathetic to the dream of Scottish independence, I have long suspected that the SNP leadership are the greatest hindrance to the separatist cause. Alex Salmond’s off-form, dull, dreary performance this morning only served to reconfirm that feeling.
While separation is unlikely and potentially dangerous, increased devolution shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. The ‘devo-max’ option would essentially give Scotland tax and spending powers and thus turning England and her neighbour into two competing financial players within the same currency zone. If lost, the referendum will be a stepping stone to this position of healthy rivalry and competition.
But today even that goal looks unlikely as Salmond consistently fails to deliver. For a long time, the SNP was Alex Salmond. Like McFarage, he was the face of the movement and kept it alive in its darkest days. It was thanks to him that the SNP went from being just a shouty pressure group to forming Scotland’s executive. But that sparkle has now gone.
The SNP could have written the greatest declaration of independence accompanied by a fully caveated and costed roadmap. Obviously they did not, yet even if they had, it would still have been undermined by the seemingly amateur operation the First Minister has surrounded himself with. At the same time as declaring that Scotland would be a grown-up, sensible country, free from the constraints of London rule, his deputy briefed out that if Westminster will not let Scotland keep the pound then they would default on their debts. Very grown up, very sensible, very responsible.
The holes in ‘Scotland’s Future’ have been well-documented (see Alistair Darling for Coffee House here), but even the weight of the White Paper was not enough to distract from the core failings in the SNP’s campaign. As Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael put it: ‘Rarely have so many words answered so little’. Today’s launch was really a tacit concession that the SNP do not have real answers to the big questions: the currency, the head of state, how borders would really work and how Scotland would represent herself on the world stage. Tackling these key issues would favour the SNP as it would allow the debate to move back to the broader, more idealistic conversations about independence. But by running away from the big questions and trying to please too many people, Salmond is allowing the separation campaign to get ‘Yes 2AVed’.
The successful ‘No’ campaign in the 2011 AV referendum tapped into two key issues: cost and confusion. How much will it cost, and how the hell will it happen? These two mantras were hammered home day after day. The ‘Yes’ campaign then did not produce the answers in sufficient time, and it would seem the ‘Yes’ campaign in Scotland is falling into the same trap. Salmond is being outclassed by Alistair Darling.
Salmond’s attempt at making separation sound like some sort of halfway house that’s not too scary because the Queen will be there for continuity and Dr Who will still be played on TV is damaging his cause and his brand. Those old romantics like me who are sympathetic to much of Salmond’s cause need fewer hefty tomes and more answers to simple questions before it is too late. As the absurd Joan McAlpine, the former editor of the Scottish Sunday Times turned MSP, wrote in her Daily Record column today, the White Paper ‘makes America’s historic Declaration of Independence look like a Post-it note’. Yes, and sometimes less really is more.