It's been a fairly depressing couple of days for anyone watching the independence referendum campaign north of the border. Both sides would do well to remember that people are losing their jobs in Portsmouth, Glasgow and Rosyth after the BAE Systems announcement yesterday. It would have been appropriate, I think, for the main focus to have been on support for the people who were going to be out of work, but, no. Sadly and predictably, there's been a big row about what would happen if Scotland votes for independence next year.
It stands to reason that if Scotland votes to stay in the UK, the UK's warships will be built on the Clyde. That's a certainty. If Scotland votes for independence, the rest of the UK has 3 options.
- Open their own shipyard, maybe that might involve re-opening Portsmouth;
- Keep the contracts in Glasgow
- Look elsewhere
The SNP Government, as it always does when questioned, just kind of shrugs its shoulders and says it'll all be fine, that it makes sense for the work to continue in Glasgow for skill and cost-effectiveness reasons. They might well be right on that, but what about the politics? Would a rUK government which has just had to do a major restructuring job want to pay a foreign country to do a job it could and would normally do within its own shores? How would its electorate react if it did?
This argument continued through the late night political shows last night and through First Minister's Questions (answered by Deputy FM Nicola Sturgeon as Alex Salmond is in China) this afternoon. By the end of her exchange with Labour leader Johann Lamont, I was, frankly, over all the wrangling. There is no need to make quite such a meal of a self-evident point. All the pro-UK parties need to do is say that the work is certain to stay in Scotland if we stay in the UK, not so certain if we leave. We don't need 20 minutes of sabre-rattling when it's not the most pressing issue about all of this. This pudding has about 10 times more eggs than it actually needs.
I will at least give Willie Rennie credit for asking the most concise and pertinent question which completely undermined the argument Nicola had been trying to develop using that old trick of quoting her own words from several years ago back at her. He said:
The big problem for the Deputy First Minister is that what she has said to Johann Lamont today is not what she has said in the past about procuring ships. Let us look at what she said about a fisheries protection vessel before she was a minister. She said:
it should be reclassified as a grey ship in order that the work can simply be given to a Scottish yard.”
The Sturgeon shipbuilding doctrine, powerfully put, was that warships should be built inside the national boundary. She wanted the then Scottish Government to pretend that our fishing patrol ships were warships so that they could be built here, but now she wants the UK Government to do the opposite. Does she see no inconsistency between what she said then and what she is saying now?
Elsewhere, Alistair Carmichael, Secretary of State for Scotland, said that Portsmouth would be well placed to build the frigates if Scotland voted for independence. It's understandable, but I wonder if it's fair to give Portsmouth false hope given the current state of the polls which show a clear majority against independence.
A couple of months ago, Carmichael called out Alex Salmond after the First Minister inferred that the case against independence was the case against Scotland. We all have to live with each other come 19th September next year so keeping that sort of divisive and unnecessary language out of the debate is essential. Everyone, on both sides of this debate, has Scotland's interests at heart and to pretend otherwise is, as Alistair said, "ludicrous and offensive."
Sadly, there's no shortage of SNP elected representatives ready to make such jibes. SNP Fife Councillor David Alexander, called Alistair a "supposed Scot" on another Fife Councillor's public Facebook page:
It's nasty stuff and, sadly, we are likely to see more of it as the referendum gets closer. The SNP is highly disciplined and very hierarchical. If a message went out from the top that these sorts of comments should not be made, it would probably be obeyed. The problem is that the First Minister himself has not set the best example.
Questioning the Scottishness of the Secretary of State is not acceptable. Sure, there a couple of parliamentarians on the pro-UK side (not Liberal Democrats) that I'd love to send on a fact finding mission to somewhere with no broadcast or internet signal till after the referendum, but the Yes side has a much wider problem with its supporters expressing such unpleasant views.