Saturday 29 March 2014

Mystery Ministers and Jerking Knees

Knee jerk
It doesn't take much to get some knees jerking!

A piece by Nicholas Watt in The Guardian (Independent Scotland 'may keep pound' to ensure stability) has prompted a wee storm of speculation and a flurry of conspiracy theories.

What is the identity of the "Mystery Minister" who has spilled the beans on the British parties' posturing about abolishing the currency union? Was this a slip or a purposeful briefing? If it was purposeful, what is the intended purpose? And what could the "Mystery Minister" have possibly meant by his linking of currency union to the removal of Trident?

All great fun, of course. For the political anoraks among us - and I hold up my hands to that - speculation and theorising is truly titillating stuff. But a word of caution is required. While we should not dismiss such interventions - as suggested in characteristically doltish fashion by Alistair Carmichael - neither should we read too much into them.

Many, perhaps most, politicians like to think of themselves as Machiavellian masters of the political arts. But the mundane truth is that precious few are clever enough to carry off the sustained deviousness of black-belt political gamesmanship. Most are too blinkered by partisan and personal interest to be able to see all the moves and calculate all their implications.

There are no superheroes in politics. Neither are there any evil masterminds. Sometimes, things are no more than they seem.

The comments by an, as yet, unidentified UK Government Minister certainly blow apart the British parties' currency union bluff. But that's no great shock. Only the most bitter British nationalists desperate for some disaster to be visited upon the uppity Jocks took it seriously anyway. Pretty much everybody else knew that the British parties would be obliged do a U-turn on this eventually.

It may even be that this apparently off-message revelation was actually quite purposeful and intended to prepare the ground for some gentle back-pedaling. Watch out over the next few days and weeks for somebody else "close to the UK Government" chiming in with remarks about there being arguments for retaining the currency union.

But there are subtle clues that do suggest this may be a strategic gaffe. Note the following words from the "Mystery Minister".

"You simply cannot imagine Westminster abandoning the people of Scotland."

That is precisely the line we would expect the British establishment to take when going back on their threat to abolish the currency union. They will make out that they are allowing Scotland to use the pound in an act of paternalistic generosity while, behind the scenes, desperately trying to get
+something substantial in return for this selfless munificence.

Of course, the remark may indicate no more than the kind of contemptuous condescension that we are all too accustomed to from British politicians. But we may not be entirely deceiving ourselves if we discern the greasy paw-print of some party spin-quack here.

The reality, of course, is that we can all to readily imagine Westminster abandoning the people of Scotland. So much so that we are now at the point where the people of Scotland are ready to abandon Westminster.

But don't expect to see Darling taking a fall for this, as some commentators have suggested. Even if the "Mystery Minister's" comments were not part of a ploy by the anti-independence campaign, Darling's role is to be Cameron's stooge and take the flak when the referendum produces a Yes result. He is unlikely to be sacrificed at this stage, no matter how much the British media turns against him and no matter how much other people involved in Project Fear may blunder.

The stuff about the currency union is interesting for another reason. It is not the first such intervention. Little more than a week ago, Guto Bebb, the Conservative MP for Aberconwy, spoke out against the UK Government's threat to abolish the currency union calling it an "empty step" and noting the importance of a shared currency for businesses in England and Wales as well as in Scotland.

With all due respect to Guto Bebb, he is a rather obscure figure on the wider political scene in the UK. Which makes him an excellent candidate for the job of flying a kite in preparation for a later intervention by a ranking politician.

Again, I stress that, while its fun to speculate, we shouldn't get carried away. It is entirely possible - even probable - that there is no connection whatever between Guto Bebb's remarks and the comments made by our "Mystery Minister". It could all be perfectly innocent. Total coincidence.

Interesting as this acknowledgement of the British parties' true intentions regarding the currency union may be, it is the linking of this to Trident that has provoked the most vigorous knee-jerking.

If this was intended to plant the idea that the Scottish Government might "do a deal" on the removal of Trident in return for being allowed to use the pound, then it has certainly worked at what I will graciously refer to as the less thoughtful end of the pro-independence spectrum.

Already we are seeing outraged diatribes insisting that there should be no such deal. No doubt there is also a Facebook page where people can vent their righteous indignation at an entirely imagined transgression by the SNP.

If it was intended to provide a cue for British nationalism's little band of amateur propagandists, that is likely to be even more successful. While some independence campaigners may be slightly deficient in their analytical thinking, Britnats tend to avoid such niceties altogether.

I don't have to look at my Twitter feed to know that the Better Together mob are already crowing about how the SNP has betrayed the people of Scotland on the matter of getting rid of Trident. All in blind disregard of the fact that the SNP hasn't actually done anything. And in dumb denial of the fact that the parties to which these Britnats give their allegiance are proposing not only to keep this obscenity in Scotland but to spend untold billions of our money on perpetuating this affront to the sensibilities of decent people.

It's all a fuss about nothing.

The “Mystery Minister” is doing no more than stating the obvious. There is nothing new or revelatory in what is being said. Unless it is unaccustomed frankness from a British politician.

The UK/rUK will obviously try to stretch the timetable for removal of Trident as much as possible. The Scottish Government will have to judge how much stretching to permit and what can be demanded as a quid pro quo.

So far, so unremarkable.

But, always going for the most simplistic approach and the shallowest analysis, the media will peddle this as a “climb-down” by the Scottish Government. Some will even try to spin this as the early stages in a deal to let Trident stay in exchange for the currency union being retained. This is nonsense, of course. The Scottish Government's position has not changed one iota.

Trident is obviously massively important to the British state.  But currency union is simply not that important to Scotland. Certainly not important enough to be bought at the price some are suggesting.

British politicians and the British press see things only from a British perspective. This leads them to miscalculate the relative weighting of negotiating points from Scotland's point of view.

There is absolutely no question of Trident being allowed to remain in Scotland. No government could get elected in Scotland on such a platform. When the "Mystery Minister" talks about the "outlines of a deal" he can be referring to nothing more than a reduction in the amount that the rUK government would have to pay for interim use of Faslane.

Or. more likely, a bit of leeway on the time-scale for the removal of Trident. And that is something that the Scottish Government has to be prepared to negotiate anyway as any attempt to force early removal could easily be portrayed as compromising safety in an unacceptable way for purely political purposes.

But when we are talking about leeway on the time-scale we aren't talking about much. The  "Mystery Minister" almost certainly overestimates the importance of the sterling zone to Scotland and fails to take due account of how important it is to the economy of rUK.

The Scottish Government must be seen to be reasonable in negotiations. But there are limits. In the end, politics is all about compromise. The essential thing is to know where the lines are drawn. I haven't the slightest doubt that Salmond and his team are very well aware of where the lines lie as regards Trident.

It would be unfortunate in the extreme if those with understandably strong feelings about Trident allowed themselves to be manipulated by political mischief-makers to the detriment of the independence campaign.

Let's get those knees back under control, shall we?

Originally broadcast by Aye Right Radio
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  1. I note that Nicola Sturgeon simply welcomed the change in attitude. She said not one word about doing a deal involving Trident. I think it significant that she was the one to make the statement since after the "debate" with Lamont, we all know that she joined CND before she joined SNP.

    Those who feel strongest against Trident are the most likely to be aware of her beliefs, so if it was an attempt to sow dissension then it merely highlights how little the Westminster mischief makers understand about Scots and Scotland.

    1. Alex Salmond has been quite explicit about Trident removal being a firm commitment.