Salmond seizes on EU poll proposal to revitalise independence drive

Fri, Jan 25, 2013, 00:00

LONDON LETTER:Scottish poet Robbie Burns’s life was first celebrated by “a Burns’ supper” on January 29th, 1802, though the organisers had to move it to four days earlier the following year after they discovered following a trawl through dusty church records that they had got his birthday wrong.

This week, thousands of Scots at home and abroad celebrate the famous bard’s life, enjoying the haggis and the dram, with many dreaming, no doubt, of independence by the time Burns’ Night 2015 comes around.

In 2009, STV television asked Scots to name The Greatest Scot. Burns was chosen, narrowly beating William Wallace, the Scottish patriot best known because of Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart.

Today, Burns is playing a role in the debate about whether Scotland should vote for independence in October 2014 – a date set by Scottish first minister and Scottish Nationalist Party leader Alex Salmond.

Burns was not a fan of the 1707 Act of Union, condemning in Fareweel to A’ Our Scottish Fame the “parcel of rogues” amongst the Scottish nobility who had sold their nation’s birthright “for hireling traitor’s wages”.

“The English steel we could disdain, Secure in valour’s station; But English gold has been our bane – Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!” he wrote.

For months, Salmond has been under the cosh for setting a referendum date so far out: such a timetable, said his enemies, would create two years of uncertainty, damaging Scotland’s attractiveness to the outside world.

One of the loudest critics was British prime minister David Cameron who, of course, this week decided to create five years of uncertainty about the UK’s place in the EU.

Equally, Salmond was lambasted rightly for his claims, made in a TV interview that became the subject of controversy for weeks, that he had taken legal advice on Scotland’s EU membership if Scots vote ‘Yes’.

In fact, he had not. Indeed, the Scottish Nationalist Party reacted viciously towards The Scotsman newspaper when it reported – accurately – the European Commission’s view that newly-formed states that have seceded from existing EU members have to reapply for membership.

For now, there is, it is fair to say, doubt about what the position would be . However, the SNP has arguably a strong case that none of this will much matter if Scots vote “Yes”. In any event, they will have two years to sort matters out with Brussels and London if they do decide to quit.

However, one thing is clear: the Scots want to remain in the European Union and, barring unexpected developments, will vote that way if and when they are asked the question in late 2017, or early 2018, assuming that they are still around to do so in a UK-wide vote.

Now, though, some will feel that Scotland’s place in the EU could be most threatened not by voting “Yes” to Salmond, but by voting to stay in the United Kingdom.

Salmond, a skilled, articulate politician, perhaps the cream of his generation in Scotland, has seized upon this, telling the leader of Scottish Labour, Johann Lamont, in Holyrood yesterday that Cameron’s speech been “very interesting”.

“The threat to Scotland’s continued membership of the EU comes not from this parliament, this government or the people of Scotland, but from the banks of the Thames with a Tory coalition government that is heading towards the exit door and a Labour opposition that has still to clarify what on earth it thinks about it,” he declared.

Right now, Salmond needs all the help he can get to push his dream of independence, since he has had little success so far – if opinion polls are any guide – in persuading his fellow Scots that they should follow him behind the saltire.

Scots have become more wary about going out on their own. Just 23 per cent now say that “Scotland should become separate”, according to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey – nine percentage points lower than a year ago.

Independence support was probably inflated then, on the back of Salmond’s Scottish parliament victory when the SNP won an outright majority – an outcome that was supposed to have been impossible. Still, the 23 per cent figure is the lowest ever recorded.

Austerity has made Scots cautious. In 2011, 67 per cent of those polled believed Scots would have more pride if they were independent, while 51 per cent felt they would have a stronger voice. Today, those figures have dropped back to 55 per cent and 42 per cent.

Most worryingly from Salmond’s point of view, just 34 per cent of Scots believe that Scotland’s economy would be better under independence – and “the economy appears to be a particularly important consideration in shaping people’s support or opposition”, say the pollsters.

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