How Salmond is using EU uncertainty to boost Scottish independence

The Scottish First Minister is encouraged by a new poll showing that support for independence dramatically increases when the prospect of UK withdrawal from the EU is raised.

While Westminster has fixated on an EU referendum that may or may not take place in 2017, rather less attention has been paid to a referendum that is certain to happen, that on Scottish independence next year. 

With the Yes campaign behind in the polls, the SNP is attempting to regain the initiative by launching a new paper on the economic case for independence. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has pointed to six areas in which she claims Westminster is "is hindering Scotland's potential". They are:

- The decision by the last two UK governments to cut capital spending, which would have supported an extra 19,000 jobs in Scotland. 

- Westminster's failure to store oil revenues in a sovereign wealth fund, comparable to that in Norway, now worth an estimated £450bn.

- The debt and credit boom presided over by the last Labour government. 

- The increase in income inequality witnessed under every government since Margaret Thatcher's. 

- The concentration of economy activity in London at the expense of the rest of the UK. 

- The coalition government's decision to pursue austerity, rather than a growth-led economic strategy. 

After seeing off Nigel Farage last week, Alex Salmond was in ebullient form on the Today programme this morning, rattling off statistics showing that over the last five years, an independent Scotland would have been £8bn better off and that over the last 30 years, Scotland had contributed more per head in taxation than the UK average. 

The First Minister went on to offer a clue to his improved mood when he cited a new poll showing that while the Yes campaign trails the No campaign by 44 to 36 points (a smaller gap than in some others), when the prospect of UK withdrawal from the EU is raised the two sides draw level on 44 points each. The poll showed that while the issue of EU withdrawal has little effect on those Scots who have already made up their mind, among undecided voters three times as many support independence as oppose it under those circumstances. "I would say it's all to play for," Salmond concluded. On that point, he is right. The biggest advantage that Salmond has is time. By September 2014, he hopes that the full force of the coalition's spending cuts, less than half of which have been introduced, will have persuaded Scotland that the time is right to go it alone.

Incidentally, on the EU, it's worth noting an important story in today's FT, which reports that Germany plans to avoid the full scale renegotiation that David Cameron hopes to use to repatriate powers from Brussels. It notes that while Merkel is sympathetic to Cameron's desire to improve Europe's economic competitiveness, "she is convinced that this can only be done by improving the process of European decision-making and not simply by repatriating powers to national capitals." So long as this remains the case, it will be difficult for Cameron to persuade his ever more eurosceptic party that is should vote to stay in. And that, as Salmond knows, plays into his hands. 

Scotland's First Minister and Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, attends a Commonwealth Games event at Glasgow Airport. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder