The months when politicians take their summer break is often referred to as “the silly season”. However, it is also time for reflection, away from the hurly-burly of the daily debate which goes on both in Edinburgh and Westminster. So it is that two of our political figures have been delivering measured comment on Scotland’s future.
Let’s start with the First Minister, Alex Salmond, who delivered a speech in Hawick earlier today. He focused primarily on Scotland’s relationship with the European Union, insisting that this country would have more of a say when it chose to be independent. He also expressed fears that Scotland’s voice in Europe could be silenced if, following the referendum on membership promised by Prime Minister, David Cameron, the UK “were to sleepwalk out of the EU.”
“If we don’t become independent,” he said, “we won’t have control over what happens. It’s an all-too-real example of why it will be better for all of us if decisions about Scotland are taken by the people who care most about Scotland – those who live and work here.”
Mr Salmond went on to stress that small countries had shown that they could “wield great influence”. By way of example, he pointed to the way in which Denmark had used its presidency of the EU Council to drive forward major reform of the Common Fisheries Policy. “Scotland worked closely with Denmark,” he explained, “but we had no capacity to lead reforms in the same way that Denmark could.
“These countries often wield great influence. After all, the EU is an organisation where negotiation trumps ultimatum; where the strength of your ideas can matter more than the size of your population. Not being at the top table has harmed our interests for four decades. Within the UK, we are occasionally consulted. With independence, we would contribute as equals.”
In a more reflective foray, the former First Minister, Henry McLeish, set out his stall in an essay penned for The Scotsman. In it, he claimed that the Tories and much of the unionist establishment could be described as “indirectly hastening the breakup of Britain”. Indeed he even claims that Conservatism in London could be “a much bigger threat to the union than nationalism in Edinburgh”.
Mr McLeish argues that a “perfect storm of issues, events and toxic politics is brewing not in Scotland but in London, at Westminster and Conservative Party HQ, which, over the next 12 months, could engulf the referendum campaign and impact the mood and mindset of a nation, change the political psychology of how Scots might vote and ultimately determine the outcome of the vote.”
He goes on to warn that the ‘No’ campaign seems oblivious to what might happen or is simply ignoring the signals. As he explains, “a recent headline seemed to capture the scenario facing Scots – “Independence is risky, but Union is even scarier”. There is little doubt Scots would not like to see their future through the prism of the current UK government and their fear this could be their shared destiny within the Union at Westminster. This is the nightmare scenario.”
He discusses the potential impact of UKIP on politics south of the Border, and analyses the current debate within the Labour Party over what, if anything, it stands for. And this is a problem for Labour both at UK and at Scottish levels. Mr McLeish points out that, in London, “Labour has to reconnect with the electors and show willingness to transform a tired and dated Union and set out a new direction for a modern, federated, flexible and fairer one, where maximum powers are available to Scotland and the English question is addressed.
“Labour in Scotland has to engage with identity and nationality, difference and diversity, and start to believe in Scotland as a nation. Labour should be arguing for a Union worthy of its name and where each country can work out its own destiny. Saving the Union by respecting Scotland’s demands and ambitions is a small price to pay for stable politics. If this is not a price the unionist parties can pay, Scottish voters may have no option but to vote to end the historic links and build a new Scotland.”
In putting forward his thoughts, Henry McLeish is today looking at Scotland almost as an outsider with inside knowledge. Since leaving politics, he has spent much of his time in North America, where he holds a visiting professorship at the University of Arkansas School of Law and a position at the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. Unlike Alex Salmond who remains deeply embroiled in the campaign to persuade Scots to vote for independence next year, Mr McLeish can at least now afford to stand back and offer a more thoughtful, reflective and impartial perspective.