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.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser