After a couple of weeks of something frightening and bad called ‘campaign rhetoric’ from Westminster politicians, Alex Salmond today tried to reassure Scots that everything would be OK if they did vote for independence. ‘The rest of the UK will never be foreign’ to an independent Scotland, he insisted, sounding rather in favour of another aspect of the Union (alongside the Queen, the pound and so on). And this ‘campaign rhetoric’ about the currency union was wrong – and dangerous to the rest of the UK, said Salmond. Employing something that was of course nothing like campaign rhetoric at all, the First Minister warned that ruling out a currency union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK would damage British businesses through transaction costs:
‘Now my submission is that this charge – let’s call it something, let’s call it the George Tax – my submission is that this would be impossible to sell the English business, to be charged by their own Chancellor for the privilege of exporting goods to Scotland.’
The George Tax was one of the many deft rhetorical flourishes that Salmond employed (definitely not campaign rhetoric though) in his speech and the Q&A afterwards. He described the interventions from George Osborne and colleagues as ‘a succession of day-tripping Conservative ministers flying up to Scotland to deliver lectures and then flying back to Westminster again’. He joked that the ‘charm offensive’ from David Cameron ‘didn’t last very long: it was just replaced by the offensive only a week later’. Those references to ‘campaign rhetoric’ were also supposed to dismiss threats about the pound and the EU as just scare stories, rather than a real statement of what would happen in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote. Salmond wants voters to think that the risks are not real, just empty threats.
And he tried to frame Labour’s involvement in that cross-party intervention on currency union last week as damaging to the party’s long-term prospects, saying:
‘But the sight of a Labour shadow chancellor reading from a script prepared by George Osborne was too much to bear for many Labour supporters in Scotland. For Alistair Darling’s former election agent, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back and made him declare for a Yes vote.
‘I predict that moment will prove to be one of Westminster Labour’s biggest misjudgements.’
This, of course, wasn’t like the sort of ‘bullying’ that the SNP has experienced from politicians, central bankers or European types in the past few weeks. As low income Labour voters are the ones who hold the key to whether Salmond gets close to a ‘Yes’ vote, it’s also an important point to make.
But while Salmond’s speech was engaging and detailed and all the rest, it did highlight once again how very light his model of independence is, from the question of national identity to currency union. The difference between independence-lite and devo-max is technically quite thin, but the ‘campaign rhetoric’ of the past week has shown that one carries a great deal of risk and the other doesn’t. Vote ‘Yes’ for independence-lite and leave the European Union and lose the pound. Vote ‘No’ for the devo-max promised by Westminster politicians and stick with all the things Salmond wants to assure you are safe. Salmond warned voters again about what he sees as the bullies in the Westminster establishment, but the question is whether they’re more uncomfortable with Westminster politicians or with the risks of independence. And if independence-lite doesn’t offer them much more than devo-max, then why bother taking the risk of voting ‘Yes’?