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Scottish Independence Debate / Yes case ‘full of contradictions’, says Carmichael

Isles MP and Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael says he is "straining every sinew" to achieve a No vote. Photo: Shetnews

ISLES MP Alistair Carmichael has sought to dampen reports that he will resign as a UK government minister and join the Scottish negotiating team in the event of a Yes vote.

The Scotsman reported on Thursday that he would leave his position as Scottish Secretary if Scotland rejects the union in next month’s referendum.

He was quoted as saying he would join the Scottish negotiation team “if I was asked to”, and admitting it would be “difficult to see how you could fit into a cabinet which was at that point on its way to becoming part of a foreign country”.

But Carmichael said he had merely stated he would “cross that bridge when I come to it”, and affirmed that he was focused 100 per cent on securing a No vote.

“There’s an enormous amount of uncertainty [if there is a Yes vote] and this is just one tiny bit of it,” he told Shetland News.

Carmichael said he had no intention of walking away from Scottish politics if Better Together loses the 18 September vote, and that his “first responsibility is always to my constituents”.

“It is a little bit conceited of Alex Salmond to be playing the political equivalent of fantasy football at the moment when the vote is still to happen,” he said.

Was he flattered that some senior SNP figures had sent out tweets welcoming the notion of bringing him on board? “No,” he laughed. “That’s the day you have lost any sense of self-awareness.

“It’s because I care about Scotland that I am straining every sinew to deliver a No vote. It’s also worth remembering why it is that Alex Salmond wants to have these conversations. If he is talking about this he doesn’t need to be talking about the massive gaping holes on currency, on pensions, on membership of the European Union, the list goes on…”

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The Yes campaign continues to believe it has momentum on its side, but Carmichael said it had “continued to flat line in the polls, and I think, frankly, they’re whistling in the dark to keep their spirits up”.

And where does he believe Shetland stands on independence now? “I think we have a majority of people here wanting to remain in the United Kingdom. There will be a significant minority who will support independence, but that’s nothing new, that’s always been the case.”

On her visit to Shetland on Wednesday, where she received a standing ovation after speaking in a packed Museum auditorium in Lerwick, deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon said the SNP would still seek to devolve powers to Scotland’s islands in the event of a No.

Carmichael said he hoped that would be the case, but that it would represent an about-turn after seven years of “centralising” SNP rule.

“She still needs to explain why this damascene conversion to localism,” he said. “If she is saying that they have done a U-turn on this, which you describe to me, then I think that’s to be welcomed, because the way they have done business for the last seven years has been highly centralising.

“Most of what they are promising in the event of a Yes vote could be delivered already. If they’re no longer holding us to ransom then I think that’s a positive move, and I think Tavish [Scott] and Liam [McArthur] should take the credit for that.”

One proposal that does require a Yes vote is the SNP pledge to devolve 100 per cent of net income from the seabed around the islands, which currently goes to the Crown Estate, to Shetland.

With proposed offshore wind and tidal developments, Sturgeon believes that could be a major boon to the isles. Is Carmichael disappointed the offering from London does not match Edinburgh’s in that area?

“We’ve already delivered reform on the Crown Estate,” he said. “I’ve always said that there’s more that could be done, but she takes very much an Edinburgh view, that it’s all about the revenues.

“We know here that it’s not all about the revenues – important though that is – and it’s also about the accountability of the Crown Estate for the way it does its business.

“In that regard I’ve already put in place the framework for the isles, which guarantees that the island communities will have a direct stake in holding the Crown Estate commissioners to account for their use of the seabed.”

Many on the centre left have criticised the Better Together campaign for failing to articulate how the UK, one of the most unequal societies in the western world, can become a fairer place to live in.

Asked to outline that case, Carmichael responded: “First of all, you rebuild the economy and get people back into work. There’s no point beating your breast about poverty and inequality if, at the same time, you’re not prepared to muck in and fix our economy.

“A strong economy, with low unemployment, high employment and a tax system that allows people, especially on low incomes, to keep as much of the money that they earn as possible.”

Describing himself as “somebody on the centre left of politics”, he said inequality and poverty were things that mattered to him, but that “you don’t solve them by drawing a line on the map”.

“If poverty in Glasgow or Dundee matters, and it does, then it matters just as much in Liverpool, in Manchester, in Newcastle, in Cardiff and Belfast, and I’m not going to turn my back on people in these communities and pretend that their poverty is somehow less important.”

Carmichael said there was much to admire in the Scandinavian social model, but is adamant it can only be achieved with higher taxation.

He described the SNP’s plans to reduce the rate of corporation tax below that set by George Osborne at Westminster as one of “the multiplicity of contradictions at the heart of the white paper”.

The Scottish secretary said he felt there were “half a dozen” different visions for Scottish independence.

“If John Swinney is speaking to an audience of business leaders in Edinburgh, he’ll lay it on with a trowel about cutting corporation tax. If Nicola Sturgeon is speaking at a food bank in Glasgow, you get a lot of promises of higher spending and greater social service provision.

“They have to tell us which it’s going to be – will the real Yes campaign please stand up?”

Carmichael continued: “To pretend that you can [adopt a Scandinavian level of public services] while only talking about cutting taxes, and not recognising that some of them would have to rise, is fundamentally dishonest.

“People who do approach the independence referendum from a centre left perspective may want to think twice before they buy a prospectus that seems designed to encourage more companies like Starbucks to come here.”

Sturgeon used her visit to describe the failure of 1970s and 1980s Labour and Tory governments to set up a UK oil fund as a “monumental mistake”.

Does Carmichael agree? “What Nicola obviously doesn’t understand from that time is that you can only spend the money once, and today they’re offering us an oil fund that they would actually borrow in order to set up.

“I just don’t understand the sense of that, and however you might with hindsight view the decisions of the 1970s and 1980s, the fact is that money came in, it was spent.”

He added that while the campaign was proving “exhausting, physically and mentally”, he was doing what he loves – talking politics. “It is tiring, but it’s a good tiring – I’m doing what I enjoy.”

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