Alex Massie

Another Irish Loser: Alex Salmond

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There are precious few heroes in Ireland today and no gods either. But not all the losers are Irish either. Some are Scottish. Chief among them, Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party. Not because an independent Scotland would necessarily have been destroyed by the financial tsunami that swept the globe (though, to put it mildly, it would have been "difficult" to cope and might well have required a humiliating begging-trip to London) but because an independent Scotland would have made some of the same mistakes and unfortunate assumptions that have helped cripple poor Hibernia.

Europe, you see, was an important part of the SNP's slow rise to power. At the time, it seemed a masterstroke: "Independence in Europe" offered the best of all worlds - sovereignty and safety.  No longer would an independent Scotland be a tiny place on the edge of the continent, struggling to swim in choppy international waters. Instead, it would be safe and snug and a full member of the european brotherhood of nations.

And it made sense. This was 1988, remember. Similarly, accession to the EEC was a boon for Ireland after the failures and miseries of the 1950s and 60s. Again, opportunity and security were on offer for, initially, only a modest surrendering of sovereignty. Politics isn't just a matter of political economy, it's also a psychological game and europe was a comforting, reliable backstop.

But then the single currency came along and Ireland - and the SNP - hopped aboard the bus without bothering to ask where it might be headed. Almost everyone else was getting on board, weren't they? And, sure, if the lunatic Tories were lathered-up and furious about the euro then it must be a grand thing, right?

There were only a handful of dissenters, the most notable being Jim Sillars - the man who'd come up with the "Independence in Europe" slogan a decade earlier. By 2000, Sillars was warning Salmond that the SNP's pro-euro position was "absolute lunacy". He had a point: if, as the SNP claimed (with reason!), the Scottish economy often suffered* from economic policy that was dictated by the needs of the south-east of England why would you think it sensible to transfer control to a European Central Bank for whom the local concerns of the Scottish economy could never be more than a tiny afterthought?

Yet the SNP remain committed to the euro and the party leadership would still, I think, argue the Yes case for joining the single currency should it ever come to a referendum. I'm not sure the party's views have changed much since Angus Robertson argued, back in 2002, that:

"With powers moving from London to Scotland, and from London to Europe, UK membership of the euro will squeeze Westminster out of the process, and leave it with no future in Scotland.

"Euro membership hastens and facilitates the process of Scottish Independence by rendering Westminster redundant – New Labour know it, and are scared of the full implications of joining the single currency.

"UK membership of the euro will leave Westminster as an expensive, unnecessary and unwanted tier of government. It will make the case for an independent Scotland in Europe – alongside other nations in the euro such as Ireland, Austria, and Finland – unanswerable."

It's certainly true that small countries are often better-governed than larger countries and there's a point, I think, at which scale becomes more of a hindrance than a help, but looking at the last couple of years it's hard to avoid the thought that, despite their (important) differences, an independent Scotland would, like Ireland, be in serious difficulty right now and that membership of the eurozone would have made a bad situation even worse.

As the Irish are discovering, in bad times the little guy's problems don't amount to much more than a sack of tatties in the grander scheme of things. The SNP's case for joining the euro was more a matter of politics than economics but as, again, the Irish have learnt, the illusion of security is just that.

*This was true during the recession of the early 1990s when the Scottish and London economies were in different parts of the economic cycle. So, mind you, was the north of England which also tends to suffer from policy dictated by the needs of the south-east.

UPDATE: Allister Heath wrote about Ireland and its euro problems for the print edition last month.