Brian Wilson: Why Scots should beware the V-word

THE Yes campaign’s talk of ‘vision’ is little more than pious hopes and bogus guarantees, writes Brian Wilson
The Scottish Fishermans Federation is concerned about fishing quotas if Scotland joins the EU. Picture: Ian RutherfordThe Scottish Fishermans Federation is concerned about fishing quotas if Scotland joins the EU. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The Scottish Fishermans Federation is concerned about fishing quotas if Scotland joins the EU. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Vision is a word beloved of those with nothing much to say. Indeed, it merits an aphorism comparable to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s classic: “The louder he spoke of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons.”

Nationalists and their “I am not a Nationalist” associates are very keen on “vision”, which they claim to possess in great abundance. Their wretched opponents, in contrast, are mired in the dull old world-as-it-is without the perspicacity to conjure up a glittering future.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Visionaries, by the nature of their calling, are allowed to make it up as they go along, unburdened by anything as tedious as evidence. Every objection can be overcome with the chastisement: “But you have no vision.” At which point, we are meant to shuffle off, defeated, to ponder our intellectual inadequacy.

For those of us who do not want to break up Britain, there is less scope for writing fantasy scripts. To some extent, we are bound to defend variations of the status quo and warn against consequences. This is then branded “negative”, which, in the lexicon of referendum-speak, is the diametric opposite of “visionary”.

Take an example. Speaking to his party conference last week, Alex Salmond cried: “Is anyone seriously meant to believe that the 14th most prosperous country in the developed world cannot sustain itself as an independent country.” I don’t know anyone who suggested that Scotland could not sustain itself, whatever that might mean, but leave that aside.

I suppose Salmond’s words would count as “visionary”, but then listen to Professor John Kay, once one of the Nationalists’ favourite reference sources, who pointed out that the indicator used by the First Minister, gross domestic product, was misleading and that “Scots would make a mistake if they thought that calculation would make them better off”. Quoting GDP as the measure of wealth, wrote Professor Kay, failed to take account of where that money goes – often straight into the accounts of foreign companies. We were in danger of repeating the Irish mistake of using GDP as a measurement which made the country seem much wealthier than it was, leading to the “hubris” of an economic crash and mass emigration.

In other words, a highly deceptive statistic is being used to hold out a prospect to Scots of being part of “one of the world’s wealthiest nations”, to quote the Yes Scotland advertising campaign. The margin between that “visionary” claim and the reality is also, I guess, the difference between current levels of prosperity and the kind of problems that have beset Ireland’s poor old Celtic tiger.

So who should Scotland place trust in? Is it with the visionary, painting with a broad brush, contemptuous towards the kind of economic detail that will impinge upon people’s jobs, pensions and security? Or with the well-qualified realist who points out the deception and thereby runs the risk of being called “negative” or much, much worse?

The same issue was illustrated in stark form by the Defence Secretary’s visit to the Thales factory in Glasgow, generally judged by the Scottish media to have been a disaster. Somewhere in the small print, however, the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions praised Mr Hammond’s “directness” and called on the SNP to respond with “hard facts”.

The same day, Mr Salmond claimed that he could “guarantee” the Royal Navy would continue to order ships from Scottish yards as well as, presumably, safeguard the supply chain of which Thales is part. To any reasonable observer, these claims seem utterly bizarre since whatever else Mr Salmond might one day be in charge of, it would not include Royal Naval procurement.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The Thales employee who took Hammond to task for “coming up here and being quite threatening” spoke from the heart. Nobody likes to be told that their job is on the line. But they like even less to lose their jobs. So no matter which messenger they prefer, the real question is which message will they heed? The unsubstantiable “guarantee” or the unpalatable certainty that what Hammond said is true.

The closer we get to the referendum, the more these questions are being asked. Of course everybody wants to buy into “vision”. It is a nice box to tick. But when it turns out that the box is empty, apart from pious hopes and bogus “guarantees”, then reality starts to kick in.

An excellent example of this comes from the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF). For decades, no industry has been more astute at lobbying government and promoting politicians who will reciprocate with uncritical support. The SNP usurped the Tories as the party-of-choice in north-east Scotland largely because of that mutually satisfactory relationship with SFF members.

No deal secured in Brussels was ever good enough for the SFF. No words of condemnation from the SNP were harsh enough for a succession of UK fisheries ministers. But now, lo and behold, the SFF has had to stand back and ask some hard questions. The rhetoric of lobbying is one thing, but this is now for real – real jobs, real influence, real livelihoods.

The SFF has carried out its own risk assessment and, while not advising it members which way to vote, has signalled strong concerns about the loss of influence in Brussels, if and when Scotland became an EU member. The process of getting there, they warned, would be “long and tortuous” and they doubted if Scotland would be better represented thereafter.

The SFF chief executive, Bertie Armstrong, said that an independent Scotland might have seven votes compared to the UK’s 29. “We would have a place at the top table but we would have a small voice and would have to convince a great many allies of anything we wanted to support”. Including, he might have added, the country we had just walked out on.

According to the chatter of our self-appointed visionaries, Scotland would sail into the EU on a tide of global goodwill. The UK would share its currency on the most munificent of terms. The fisheries ministers of Europe would unite in Scotland’s favour. The Royal Navy would break its own rules for fear of breaching the “guarantee” given by Alex Salmond. It is all doubtless fantastically visionary and the stuff of dinner-table consensus in certain circles – but also complete and utter rubbish. The folk who are quietly taking all this in and are most directly affected are quite capable of making that distinction. They have their own visions to look after.