Brian Monteith: Time for some honesty, Alex

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The Christmas holidays can’t come quick enough for the First Minister. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say the end of 2012 is keenly awaited in the hope that 2013 ushers in a new, fresh start and that the electorate might have forgotten the litany of incompetent and embarrassing mistakes that the SNP has endured over the past month.

Not only was it bad enough for the First Minister that he had to apologise to Parliament the other week after giving incorrect figures on further education college funding cuts, or being found to have misled the Scottish public by saying in a TV interview that he had obtained legal opinion about Scotland’s membership of the European Union if Scotland were to become independent, only for it to be revealed later that he hadn’t, but now the SNP’s policy on Europe has been cruelly exposed as a fraud by no less a man than José Manuel Barroso, president of the EU Commission.

Not once but twice in the same week.

Firstly Barroso gave a radio interview where he made it plain that it was “obvious” that an independent Scotland would be a new state outside of the union and therefore would have to apply for membership. Then he wrote to a House of Lords committee repeating the message.

Even so, the SNP is in denial, with Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney trying to tell us all that Barroso’s statements have no basis in EU treaties. This is sheer sophistry, for the treaties apply to member states and as Scotland would be a new state outside the EU while the remaining constituent parts of the United Kingdom would remain inside it the treaties would give Scotland no protection.

Some in the SNP like to think that the United Kingdom would also be outside the EU and would have to reapply also, but this is based on a false assumption that the UK exists as a result of the Acts of Union in 1707 bringing Scotland and England together.

Again, this is a wilful deception by the SNP for the UK is made up of four countries not two, and so rather than being broken asunder by Scotland’s cessation the UK will continue with its three remaining partners of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The UK will continue with its existing opt-outs (such as the borders control agreement known as “Schengen”), continue being outside the Euro currency, continue receiving the membership rebate negotiated by Lady Thatcher (and nearly given up by Tony Blair).

On the other hand, having none of these opt-outs – but no doubt wanting all of them – and then wanting to have some additional benefits such as securing management of Scotland’s fisheries and oil stocks the question has to be asked: How will they be retained?

The SNP throws up a red herring by saying that no existing EU member country would seriously want to lose Scotland from membership – and this is of course true – but it is also beside the point. What really matters is what Scotland would be willing to give up to get the best terms of membership possible – for in negotiations of this kind you do not get everything on the table.

That there is alarm in the SNP leadership that the Scottish public may think membership is a bogey is evidenced by Nicola Sturgeon saying she will seek urgent talks with the EU and Barroso – this really is preposterous – for the EU’s position has been unequivocal since 2004 when it was last stated publicly. Sturgeon has had eight years to approach the EU, including some five in government, but only now thinks it is urgent that she does so.

Jim Sillars, the former SNP MP and one of the party’s few rational thinkers has made the excellent argument that the SNP should have been better prepared for the European question – by posting the prospect that Scotland would not seek membership of the EU anyway but would instead consider joining the European Free Trade Area.

The beauty of such a manoeuvre is that it would give Scotland all the benefits of open access to the EU’s markets without the potentially damaging costs, regulations and interference from the EU Commission in Brussels. Holding out for membership of EFTA instead of the EU would also give Scotland greater leverage in any bargaining that need to be conducted – but no, Alex Salmond and the Yes-men (and women) around him believed they could go on repeating their assertions without them ever being put to the test.

If it comes, independence will not be easy. There will be problems on the way – and most of them are yet to be addressed by our politicians, Unionist or Nationalist, but the SNP seems to believe it can tell us how everything will be possible and nothing will be a risk. Such an approach is incredulous and treats the electorate with 

Far better for Alex Salmond to be honest enough to say he doesn’t have all the answers and that many issues will have to be solved starting from a blank sheet of paper – for in saying as much he would regain credibility and possibly even some trust.

Until that approach comes, the First Minister is on his way to Hell in a hand cart.