The outcome of this was a draw – not necessarily an honourable draw as Nicola Sturgeon was clearly busking her way through many of the questions asked [such as whether or not an independent Scotland would have its own external intelligence agency - an MI6 lookalike].
A major moment was Ms Sturgeon’s inability to cite accurately the number of treaties in whose negotiations she had said an independent Scotland would share, She could only manage ‘A few thousand?’ Committee Chair, Richard Ottaway MP, gave the correct figure – a gasper at 14,000.
Work on these alone, in advance of the final formal separation from the UK, would take more than the scant nineteen months the First Minister has allocated between the October 2014 referendum and the putative first full Scottish election.
The committee session was a draw because some of the positions presented to Ms Sturgeon were nonsensical and a draw because others, put to her with great confidence – were vested interest questions put by placemen for the major lobby groups of defence and whisky.
Ms Sturgeon asserted that Scotland would establish its own domestic intelligence service – the MI5 lookalike. Given that the Scottish Government has been unable to make an intelligent case for how its own cause of independence would work in practice, where they would find the operatives for such a service has to remain an open question.
This was part of the line taken in questioning by Foreign Office Minister, David Lidington who pointed out that the cost to the UK as a whole of its three intelligence agencies is £21 billion a year; and that Scotland would be starting from scratch, not simply maintaining existing services.
He specifically highlighted the fact that it’s not just a matter of employment costs but of recruiting – of the finding and training of suitable people in very specialist expertise – which also means finding competent and appropriate trainers. Then there is the need to establish and maintain a headquarters operation.
As in so many aspects of the revelations of forward planning for putative independence, such as it is, Ms Sturgeon made is clear that part of Scotland’s intelligence needs would come from yet more shelter from the UK.
While a foreign diplomatic service focused on trade generation is the constructive approach, the cost of establishing it, as with an independent intelligence service, would undoubtedly be significant. It could be done via a super consular/commission set-up but the First Minister’s vanity would hardly envisage taking that route.
However, one of the nonsensicals was pressure put on Ms Sturgeon by repeated questions from John Baron MP [Conservative] on how many embassies an independent Scotland would establish, pressing her to say that Scotland would duplicate Britain’s 270 diplomatic missions.
Me Sturgeon rightly pointed out that smaller countries can operate fewer but far better targeted missions, where much of the UK’s establishment has no great current purpose but is a legacy of empire.
On the issue of competence, the UK’s performance in intelligence, diplomacy and trade support through its 270 missions has been far from impressive. It is hardly a model to hold up to Scotland on any grounds beyond its sheer presence.
It was a second intervention from Foreign Office Minister, David Lidington, that flushed out the lobbyists penetration. He warned of the negative impact of an independent Scotland on trade interests, saying: ‘particularly on the promotion of defence equipment [Ed: aka 'arms sales'] and whisky’.
Lobbying is wholly pernicious in its success in influencing government ministers and policy. Defence and whisky are persistent and assiduous lobbyists and intimidate governments of any colour with their massive financial firepower.
This is a counter-democratic process. It will take an extraordinarily principled and determined government – the sort hoped for in the independence proposition but showing no sign of materialising – to act against the lobbying tradition, now a fully fledged ‘industry’, demeaning that term.
In the meantime it is interesting that the arms and whisky industries clearly see the need to lobby the UK government to press the case of their promotional needs upon a potentially independent Scotland.
Ms Sturgeon did put on the record that:
- an independent Scotland would get no in-out referendum on the EU;
- Trident is a non-negotiable removal.
The true value of a session like yesterday’s was what it shows of the calibre of thinking on either side. While Ms Sturgeon batted as best she could, she was clearly adrift and lacked the sort of authority hat carries the day. That only comes from having done the work and having the answers – and neither is the case.
But on the other hand, while the questioners raised some pertinent issues and some supplied relevant facts to illustrate the situation they were focusing on – it is no easier to be impressed by predictable bores asking over-rehearsed questions, placemen and emptily self confident posers than by someone struggling to reach and missing the bar.
So a draw that fell short of being an honourable one is the best that can be said of the Edinburgh session.