SNP's Angus Robertson believes a stronger Scotland will be a benefit to Northern Ireland
With just days to go until Scotland goes to the polls to vote on an independence referendum, Liam Clarke speaks to Angus Robertson MP of the Scottish National Party.
Q. Have you any connections to Ireland north or south?
A. .No, apart from the fact that in a previous life as a journalist I contributed to Good Morning Ulster and RTE. I was a journalist in Vienna for 10 years and did a bit of jobbing for the broadcast media in Ireland. Of course, I know all your MPs in Westminster.
Q Neither side of the independence debate has made much use of nationalist or unionist MPs from Northern Ireland. Why is that?
A. The campaign in Scotland is focused on voters here deciding on our best future on September 18. An element to the debate is the continuing social union that we will share with our friends on these islands. We are connected by family, by history and in so many other ways. That will continue after a Yes vote.
Q. So these links will still be maintained?
A. The proposition we are voting on in Scotland is who is best placed to make decisions about Scotland. Is it the people who live here, or are decisions better made by people who, more often than not, we don't elect to Westminster? The question is a democratic one about optimal governance and how we can help our economy grow, create a more socially just society and see Scotland directly represented in the international bodies that increasingly impact on our lives. We want to be directly represented in the European Union, to work with our friends in Nato and also through the British Irish Council, which has its headquarters in Edinburgh, and which will become an increasingly important body in the years following independence.
Q. Would there be a common travel area?
A. We are very strong supporters of the present Common Travel Area that involves the UK, the Republic of Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. That will remain after a Yes vote. A sovereign Scotland would retain the social union, the single market and the travel arrangements across these islands. We believe in maintaining our links to the European Union, which is sadly under threat from eurosceptic voices in Westminster.
The links we enjoy across these islands are even more important for us as home nations. To be clear, a sovereign Scotland can play its part in continuing to grow and develop our long-standing relationship with Northern Ireland.
Q. Attitudes to nationality and the union in Northern Ireland are often tied to religion. Is that the case in Scotland?
A. The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey showed that the SNP's tremendous election results in 2011, which returned the only majority government anywhere in the UK, were secured with strong support across all social demographic and confessional lines. The realities of Scottish nationalism are significantly different to the experience elsewhere.
We on the Yes side have support from every sector of Scottish society. That is one of the really encouraging aspects of the debate.
Our vision is of a Scotland reflecting every section of society, leaving identity a personal matter. In the same way people have been able to be Scottish in a UK context, people will be able to remain British in an independent Scottish context.
If people want to remain British, be entirely Scottish, be hyphenated with any other form of identity, whether that is European or Scots Asian, that is OK. I was born in London and I am half German, so I am a Scots/English/German. In Scotland this debate is not driven by identity, it is driven by a belief in what will deliver a better future.
Q. We have a poster of Mel Gibson playing William Wallace in the film Braveheart erected on the Falls Road in support of Scottish independence. Has that sort of thing featured in your campaign?
A. No. Our campaign is about the future and not the past. We are focused on what the powers of independence can bring, so that we have modern governance with a written constitution.
The sort of change we want to achieve is making our economy more competitive, our social policy fairer by scrapping the likes of the bedroom tax, protecting free education for students and getting rid of nuclear weapons from the Clyde.
Q. Has our nationalist/unionist model been a bit of a turn-off in Scotland then? Do you see us a bit 19th century while you are 21st century?
A. I am very focused on ensuring that our campaign is the right campaign for Scotland. Many of us in Scotland have friends in Northern Ireland, indeed across Ireland, and we know their views, but the debate in Scotland has been focused on people here and the opportunities that a Yes vote would bring. The ?No side have concentrated on trying to persuade us that we are uniquely incapable of making decisions for ourselves.
Q. So the whole tribal thing is not applicable?
A. I have been campaigning on the referendum for two years and the debate in Scotland is characterised by civility and by huge public interest. Beyond the excesses which one finds everywhere in parts of the social media, the debate has been impressively moderate and respectful. Most people in the international media who I have spoken to see this as a model process which is civic, democratic, non ethnic, non-violent and surprisingly good natured, given how important a decision it is.
Q. Do you envisage co-operation with Northern Ireland on issues like tourism?
A. There is an excellent working relationship between the Scottish government and the Northern Ireland administration within the British Irish Council. It is an arrangement that is relatively new and it holds great opportunities. If we look at what our northern European neighbours have been able to achieve through the Nordic Council, we can see what an excellent vehicle for future co-operation between our nations the Council can be. When looking at issues like tourism or energy, education and the environment, there are priorities which we share. We must co-operate to ensure that the optimal decisions are taken.
Q. Things like the electricity interconnector would be unaffected?
A. Yes – the interconnector would not be affected.
Q. What would happen to Scottish regiments in the British Army? After independence, the Irish regiments were stood down. What will be your military posture?
A. Scottish recruited regiments would transfer to the Scottish defence forces after a Yes vote. Defence co-operation between Scotland and the rest of the UK will continue to be extremely important and will operate within a Nato context. Scotland lies in a very strategically important area, with the Atlantic to our west, the Iceland gap to our north and the North Sea to our east. We have to focus on our maritime responsibilities. Unfortunately, the UK has not taken this seriously. There isn't a single serious ocean-going Royal Naval vessel based in Scotland that is conventionally armed. The only things of note that the UK has based in Scotland are nuclear submarines, which are not fit for the purpose which is required, given the changes to the high north and Arctic. The Irish Air Corps has more marine patrol aircraft than the RAF. We have to take our northern security significantly more seriously than the UK has been prepared to do and those will be the defence priorities of an independent Scottish government.
The biggest environmental changes in the world are happening to our north, with the melting of the Arctic ice flows. That opens up sea routes north of Russia so trade coming from south East Asia gets to Europe 40% quicker taking a Northern route when there is no ice. As a follow-on, the geo-strategic realities to our north come into clearer focus.
There have been increasingly regular visits by the Russian navy off the Scottish coast. In the past year there have been two unscheduled stops by the Admiral Kuznetsov, the largest aircraft carrier in Russia's northern fleet, off my constituency. The Royal Navy didn't have a vessel in Scottish waters. They had to send an ageing frigate, which took 24 hours to arrive from the south coast of England, to perform the usual screening role which the domestic navy has to perform.
Q. Would the Scottish defence forces recruit here?
A. The Scottish defence forces would be open to all service personnel currently within the UK armed forces and recruitment will be open to those not yet serving. The White Paper does not specify a closed recruiting strategy. It will take a five- to 10-year period to be fully operational and we are confident we will reach a manning level of 15,000 uniformed personnel in Scotland compared to the 11,000 the UK currently has based here. We take a very open approach to Scotland in comparison to the approach that the UK government.
Q. Would people from here be able to apply for Scottish citizenship?
A. The citizenship policy of the Scottish government is outlined again in great detail in the white paper "Scotland's Future", page 272. Broadly, citizenship will be open to people who have a connection with Scotland and wish to apply for it, ie people who have a parent or grandparent from Scotland, people who were born there or people who have lived there for 10 years at some point. Dual citizenship with any other country will be allowed.
Q. And you would retain the Queen as head of state?
A. We are committed to retaining Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth as head of state. She has served with great distinction, both in a UK context but throughout the 16 realms of the Commonwealth where she is head of state. We were delighted to host the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow recently. We look forward to playing a constructive role within the Commonwealth as an independent state and member.
Q. As citizens of another EU state, wouldn't our students be eligible for free university education in Scotland?
A. The Scottish government has outlined its route map for continuing free education in Scotland and will work within the European Union to continue that policy. It is one of the great advantages to young people in this country that they are not saddled by debt and EU students have also been taking advantage of this. We will move into a new phase after a Yes vote.
Q. So will free university education be available?
A. I have said what I have to say on that.
Q. What practical difference would we notice if Scotland was independent?
A. The big change would be for people living in Scotland who will have a parliament which they fully elect and a government which they always elect. In terms of people travelling between Northern Ireland and Scotland or continuing to trade using sterling and so on, there will be no change to current arrangements.
Q. Are you confident that Scotland will continue to use the pound sterling?
A. Alastair Darling (the head of the No campaign) has stated that "of course Scotland can continue using the pound". We are confident that there will be a currency union between Scotland and the UK. All the indications we have had in private signals within Westminster are that a currency will be agreed because it is in the interests of the people in the rest of the UK as well as Scotland.
There has been a fiscal commission working group which included two Nobel Prize winners in economics advising the Scottish government. Their advice is strongly that a currency union is the preferred option for all concerned.
Q. You aim to strike corporation tax up to three points lower than whatever rate applies in England. If we strike our own rate in Northern Ireland, will you try to compete with us?
A. The Scottish government has outlined its position in the White Paper, which is that it wants to reduce Corporation Tax in Scotland. There are a further range of measures that will make Scotland an exciting investment opportunity from elsewhere too.
A Scotland that is more economically competitive and as a result stronger means that we are also in a position to import from major trading partners, which include Northern Ireland.
This is a win-win situation for everyone on these islands. A Scottish economy that grows will put us in a position to build our trading relationships with Northern Ireland to our mutual benefit. There is a real prize to be pursued here. It is to support the growth of exporting industry in both Scotland and Northern Ireland and resist the centrifugal forces of London and south east England. It would be fantastic to see greater business and economic growth in Northern Ireland, in Scotland, in Northern England and, indeed, in Wales. A stronger Scottish economy is not only advantageous to Scotland; it is also advantageous to our significant trading partners, including Northern Ireland.
Q. In the event of a No vote, what tax varying powers would Scotland seek from Westminster under devo max?
A. We remember being encouraged to vote "No" in the 1979 referendum (an early poll on devolution which was defeated) by the Conservative Party, suggesting that we would have a better offer later. What we got was 18 years of Thatcherism and no further powers. The only way to guarantee more powers for Scotland is to vote Yes in the referendum. The UK parties have been trying to create the impression that they are in favour of more autonomy for Scotland, having rejected that until the beginning of the referendum process. There is no detail of what might be guaranteed if there were to be a No vote, so you will forgive my scepticism about what powers might be transferred after a No vote. What we are seeking are the normal powers of an independent country, and that is what we will get if we vote Yes.
Q. So your message is that Scotland isn't going to move, the ferries will still be there, the arrangements will remain the same and you will co-operate on issues like tourism, the economy and cultural exchange. Is that a fair summary?
Q. How do you get on with Northern Ireland MPs?
A. We sit on the same benches immediately in front of the unionist parliamentarians from the DUP and Sylvia Hermon as well as Naomi of Alliance and the SDLP members. We see each other every day and on a personal level we get on extremely well.
Q. What is your own future as a Westminster MP if there is a Yes vote?
A. One sure thing is that after a Yes vote on 18th September Scottish MPs in Westminster will be looking to do something else.