An independent Scotland under the SNP would seek to join NATO provided membership wouldn’t compromise the party’s anti-nuclear position, and it could take as little as two years to remove Trident, according to Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
Upon arriving at St. Andrew’s House, the Scottish Government HQ – a formidable and intimidating building which sits above Holyrood, in contrast to the bright and welcoming Parliament design – I’m whisked upstairs to meet the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.
Since the independence referendum campaign was formally kick-started just over a year ago, with the launch of pro-independence ‘Yes Scotland’ and pro-Union ‘Better Together’ groups, Scottish politics has descended into a maelstrom of claims surrounding the viability of Scotland breaking itself off from the United Kingdom.
More recently, the serious issue of exactly how an independent Scotland would defend itself has raised its head – with the usual stream of reports and ‘expert’ opinions battling it out in the media. Key criticism of the SNP’s defence plans are that job losses would be rife and that the reliance on shared defence with the rest of the UK might not occur as easily as the SNP might think. On the other hand, many of the reports which question Scotland’s ability to protect it’s citizens and territory assume that Scotland would be operating on a similar military basis to that of the UK currently, something of which most supporters of independence are not in favour.
The independence debate has sparked – mostly on the pro-independence side – a series of discussions and smaller groups devoted to establishing alternative visions of what an independent Scotland could look like. The most prominent among these are the Radical Independence Movement and the work being done by the Jimmy Reid Foundation, which has recently launched its ‘Common Weal Project’ designed to establish an economic and social blueprint for an independent Scotland following the example of Scandinavian nations.
The polls will not have given much comfort to the pro-independence campaign of late. As a result, the question of what exactly the SNP will do following a likely ‘No’ vote next year has become an important one. The constitutional settlement between Scotland and the UK is almost certain to change following the referendum, but as the governing party at Holyrood until 2016, the SNP seem to have a duty to inform Scots what they would look for in lieu of full independence. Answers to this have not yet been forthcoming.
Nicola Sturgeon is arguably the most important female politician in British politics. In addition to being the Deputy First Minister, she – until recently – held the position of Health Secretary, and currently holds the Cabinet Secretary positions of Infrastructure, Investment and Cities, and Parliament and Government Strategy. However, since dropping the Health remit, Sturgeon has, effectively, been leading the SNP’s referendum campaign. Her fierce debating skills and world-class political abilities have won her admiration from both supporters and opponents alike, and several ‘Donald Dewar Debater of the Year’ and ‘Scottish Politician of the Year’ awards.
A member of the SNP since the age of sixteen, Sturgeon has always thought of herself as a social democrat, and is generally on the left of the party. After John Swinney stood down as leader in 2004, Sturgeon intended to stand for the leadership but instead entered a pact with former leader Alex Salmond, who had resigned the leadership in 2000, and stood as his Depute running mate. It is now only a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’, Nicola Sturgeon will take over as leader from Salmond. She is certainly experienced when it comes to leading her party at Holyrood: she was the SNP Group Leader from 2004-2007, whilst Salmond remained an MP at Westminster. A solicitor by trade, Sturgeon has a sharp mind and is certainly not intimidated by opposition politicians.
We started on the topic of defence; just a week earlier, the Scotland Institute had released a paper on the potential problems that an independent Scotland might face in defending itself, whilst the morning of the interview had seen the launch of the Henry Jackson Society report analysing specifically the current SNP defence policy for an independent Scotland.
“What was your reaction to the Scotland Institute report into defence in an independent Scotland?”
“There’s been a lot of reports recently about defence in an independent Scotland, and many of them raise important questions; clearly the different authors of these reports come at them with different perspectives, and that tends to slant the content to some extent. The Scottish Government will publish, in the run-up to the publication of a white paper, a defence paper laying out, in more detail, the defence policy that we would adopt in an independent Scotland. We’ve already laid out some of the key planks of that, as a defence policy which is based upon very strong conventional forces, and that can be contrasted with conventional forces that are declining under the UK system; military and civilian personnel in the UK in the last number of years have declined by about a third.
“Scotland needs to have strong conventional forces and, of course, we are opposed to nuclear weapons, so one of the key elements of our defence policy would be the removal of Trident, and the money currently spent – I want to describe it as ‘wasted’ on weapons of mass destruction – could be better spent in other areas. That’s the general principles of our defence policy, but, obviously the detail of that in terms of what we’d laid out at our conference last year give the basic planks in terms of the number of personnel, the fact that we’d want to be members of NATO – assuming that that doesn’t compromise our anti-nuclear position; we want to have very close relationships with the rest of the UK, with our partner in Nordic countries – we’ve got a geo-strategic interest in the North Atlantic – that’s obviously going to be a key plank of out strategic defence positioning.”
“One thing that the Scotland Institute report mentioned was the potential for large-scale job losses in the defence sector as a result of independence – does that not concern you?”
“Well, I don’t agree with it. Let’s separate that into military and civilian personnel – the reality in terms of jobs cuts has been within the UK Government. I think that troop numbers are at an all-time low in Scotland just now. We saw just last week, or the week before, the latest round of MoD redundancy notices sent out, so it’s under the current arrangements that we’re seeing job numbers decline, in terms of defence industries and defence procurement. We increasingly operate within a European-wide procurement regime; I used to represent Govan Shipyard – that’s a shipyard that’s won, and wins, contracts on merit because they’re the best in the business, in my view, at what they do.
“You’ve got an MoD that, not too long ago, gave a contract for naval vessels to Daewoo, in South Korea; the MoD leases ships from Norway, so the idea that our defence industries couldn’t still compete – and compete successfully, in my view – I just don’t think is credible. On top of that, of course, Scotland would have it’s own defence procurement needs which would obviously provide employment and business opportunities for defence industries.”
“So, you disagree that there would be any potential for job losses, or do you think that an independent Scottish Government would be able to alleviate this through other measures?”
“I believe that our defence industries are competitive, and will continue to be competitive, and, in addition to that, a Scottish Defence Force would have procurement needs of it’s own.”
“It was stated in the media that the Scottish Defence Force could build patrol boats on the River Clyde; is there any guarantee that the Scottish Government, or the SNP, can give that this wouldn’t be contracted out to a foreign company?”
“We’ll go into all the detail around our defence policy when we publish our paper, but… my argument, my overwhelming argument is on the basis of some knowledge, based on my previous constituency representation of Govan Shipyard, is that these companies, these industries, are competing because they’re the best at what they do. If you take Govan Shipyard – a facility I know well – they are productive, they’re efficient, they’re absolutely top-notch at what they do, so I believe that they’re well placed to continue to be extremely competitive.”
“Finally on defence: the SNP Government has committed to removing Trident from Scottish territory as part of independence – how long do you think it would take to remove Trident-armed submarines after independence?”
“Getting rid of Trident is a matter of principle for us; it’s a matter of principle I’m very proud of, and that’ll be done as quickly as is safely possible. I did some interviews in which I quote the CND, which says that could be done in a period as short as two years. Now, obviously, safety is paramount. We have to be responsible, but we want to see Trident removed from Scotland as quickly as possible, because we don’t think Trident should be in Scotland, and we’re principally opposed to weapons of mass destruction.”
As I talk to Sturgeon, at times it almost feels like she’s searching the deepest recesses of my soul. I feel like I’m playing chess against a Grand Master.
“The SNP, and yourself, have talked a lot in recent months of the ‘Nordic’ and ‘Scandinavian’ Models, so do you welcome the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s ‘Common Weal’ Project?”
“I welcome all contributions to this debate. I think the Jimmy Reid Foundation are coming up with some very interesting ideas that – I hope not just the SNP – I hope everybody who cares about Scotland and creating a strong economy and a fair society will take seriously. I believe that we should create a ‘Scottish’ model, and we should draw on experience elsewhere, where we think that is appropriate.
“I’m a long-standing social democrat: I believe that you need to have a strong economy in order to pay for the kind of society you want, but I believe, greatly, in fairness and social equity; one of the things I think is deeply and profoundly wrong with the UK just now is the widespread and growing income inequalities between the richest and the poorest, and the growing inequalities between the different parts of the UK, between London and other areas. Social equity is something which has always run through my politics very strongly.”
“Is the SNP committed to implementing higher personal or corporation tax, as part of the ‘Scottish Model’, to improve public services?”
“Well, you know our policy on corporation tax, so I won’t go through that in detail. If we’re the government in an independent Scotland, we will do what other governments the world over do – we’ll set tax rates in our budgets every year. Nobody would expect the UK Government now to sit and say what the tax-rate will be in the UK in 2016, nor is it reasonable to expect us to say that for Scotland, but we have a principle and a commitment to progressive taxation.
“For example, we wouldn’t have reduced the 50p top-rate of tax, because we think that is going in the wrong direction when you’ve got a widening gap between rich and poor, but clearly specific tax policies have to be set in light of the prevailing economic circumstances at the time.”
“If there is a ‘No’ vote next year, do the SNP have any plans to look to build towards another referendum within the next couple of decades?”
“These kind of referendums are once in a generation, but if you’ll forgive me, I’ll concentrate on campaigning for this one.”
“But, if you look at Quebec, they had two referendums in fifteen years.”
“This is Scotland. Quebec’s Quebec. I don’t think we could’ve been any clearer that we think this is a fantastic opportunity for Scotland that may not ever come around again. They’re very different countries. I’m sure you will find some comparisons, I’m sure you’ll find lots of contrasts, but I’m focused on the Scottish referendum. I don’t think we could’ve been clearer: this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity; I think it’s a fantastic opportunity, and you might never get it again. I can’t bind future governments, obviously, so I can’t rule out what future governments would do.”
“Will you lobby for another referendum?”
“I’m concentrating on winning this referendum. If you don’t mind, I’ll focus on that. If you want to take the rest of this discussion on the basis of a ‘No’ vote, we’re not going to get very far.”
“OK, let me just ask what your thoughts are on ‘devo-max’: if a ‘No’ vote – would you lobby the UK Government for it?”
“I want a ‘Yes’ vote, and that’s what I’ll be campaigning on; it’s for others who believe in other things to campaign for them. All I would say is that ‘devo-max’ ain’t on the ballot paper, and it ain’t on the ballot paper not because the SNP wanted to block it being on the ballot paper. It’s not on the ballot paper because others blocked it being on the ballot paper, so it’s for others to campaign or argue for what they believe in; I’ll concentrate on arguing for what I believe in.”
2013 has been a bad year for the SNP in its campaign to secure a ‘Yes’ vote in next year’s Scottish independence referendum. At almost every turn, the SNP have been left in the traps either with ever-shifting answers, or no answers at all to key questions. Nicola Sturgeon is, perhaps, the most talented public speaker that the pro-independence side has, and it needs to make further use of her abilities.
However, Sturgeon, formidable and talented as she is, can only do so much when there are yawning gaps where policies would be, and this serves only to encourage the ‘No’ camp’s accusations of uncertainty and that the SNP are ‘making it up as they go along’.
I have yet to meet a single self-proclaimed ‘undecided’ voter – who remains open to the idea of independence – who has not said that they are yet to be convinced by the vagueness which is rife throughout the ‘Yes’ camp, as led by the SNP. One can only wait and see whether the details that the SNP keep promising are sufficient enough to swing the polls in their favour come September next year.