Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Alex Salmond thinks 'yes' camp just bluffing... but it has all the aces

The SNP chief believes Northern Ireland would take a benevolent view of an independent Scotland. He hasn't met any parents of university-age children from here then, guesses Alan Cochrane

An independent Scotland would charge £9,000 fees to Northern Ireland students, but students from the Republic would study for free

Alex Salmond has been dressing up in his favourite guise this week – that of international statesman – and, sadly, as far as his own self-esteem is concerned it hasn't gone especially well for the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party.

He got into terrible hot water for appearing to suggest in an interview with, of all people, Alistair Campbell – yes, that one – that Vladimir Putin wasn't all bad. Hugely embarrassing headlines appeared in all of the Scottish papers – and not just mine, either – that questioned his judgment.

The furore took the edge off what Mr Salmond believed was the issue of the week, namely his speech to the College of Europe in Bruges, 25-and-a-half years after Maggie Thatcher's at the time seemingly epic questioning of where Europe was going, but which, nowadays, seems a bit, well, tame.

However, his now-ritual denunciation of the Little Englander – not that he would ever use such a term outright – mentality of much of the Tory party south of the Cheviot Hills was somewhat overtaken by the passage in his peroration that set out his terms for allowing the rest of Europe to vote an independent Scotland into the EU after he wins the independence referendum on September 18.

They'd have to do it, he said, or else they wouldn't get access to Scottish territorial waters and their fishing grounds.

Unless Scotland was let in, no other EU country – he cited 12 that have active fishing fleets – could fish in Scottish waters. That would mean that Spanish, Portuguese, French and, wait a minute, Northern Irish, Welsh and English boats, would be denied access, presumably by the Scottish Government's two unarmed fishery protection vessels, to "his" territorial waters.

As a "take-us-or-leave-us" negotiating stance, it has been widely ridiculed, but then that's the trouble with Wee Eck, as he's been widely known for decades; he often does shoot first and offer apologies, or explanations, later.

But while English politicians believe he's something akin to a ju-ju man, the truth is that in Scotland it's his deputy Nicola Sturgeon who has been given the ultimate responsibility for winning independence.

It is on her narrow shoulders that has fallen the job of securing the two groups of voters who are believed crucial in this contest: women and traditional Labour supporters, mostly trades union members, in West Central Scotland.

They have proved remarkably immune, especially the women, to Mr Salmond's charms and Ms Sturgeon's gender, her more old-fashioned West of Scotland brand of socialism – as well as her undoubted ability – have seen her pushed further and further into the campaign limelight.

Yes the polls have narrowed, but a combination of doubts about the economy and a hankering after remaining British – with a capital 'B' – as well as Scottish remain Mr Salmond's biggest drawbacks.

On everything to do with the economy Mr Salmond is offering not much more than a gamble. I'm not just plugging our book when I say that George Kerevan's options look a lot more concrete than Mr Salmond's.

Like a poker player with nothing in his hand, Alex Salmond insists his opponents – Westminster, Whitehall and the Treasury – are bluffing. The reality is that they hold all the aces.

He says they'll do a deal on an independent Scotland sharing sterling when everyone there says the opposite, because it wouldn't be in the interests of the rest of the UK to share its currency with what would have become a "foreign" country. The Welsh First Minister says he wouldn't countenance a share, and I can't imagine Peter Robinson taking a different view.

Mr Salmond believes the other parts of what's still the UK would take a benevolent view of an independent Scotland. Maybe so, but good nature goes only so far and why, for instance, would Northern Ireland look favourably on Scotland when its Government is determined to make students from the province – as well as from England and Wales, but not the Irish Republic – continue to pay the full £9,000-a-year fees to attend Scottish universities?

Oh sure, there might be a chance of Northern Ireland being able to match the Republic's corporation tax rate if an independent Scotland was also doing so, but isn't Gordon Brown correct in deploring what would be what he calls "a race to the bottom" in this and other taxes as every part of the British Isles tried to undercut each other?

I have no wish to interfere in Northern Ireland politics – I'm having a hard enough time in Scotland – but surely, for those in Northern Ireland who wish to remain British, the separation of the two biggest parts of the United Kingdom would inevitably destabilise what's left.

Being British is a big part of who I am and that's something I'm proud to share with a great many people in Northern Ireland. You don't have a vote in Scotland's referendum, but many of us on this side of the water would still like your support.

Alan Cochrane is Scottish editor and columnist for The Daily Telegraph. He is co-author (with George Kerevan) of Scottish Independence: Yes Or No (The History Press, £7.99)

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