August 20, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
If I were Alistair Darling I would have been on the phone to the Foreign Office last week asking who dropped the ball over Tony Abbott’s comments on Scottish Independence. The leader of the “Better Together” campaign, already riding high after an excellent performance in the debate, must have choked on his porridge when he read the Australian Prime Minister’s comments in the Times last Thursday. Meanwhile, Alex Salmond rightly jumped on what Abbott said to turn them to the “Yes” campaign’s advantage. No wonder the polls this weekend showed a 4% jump towards a “Yes” vote (which are now at 48% ‘Yes’ of those who are decided and are definitely voting).
I say the Foreign Office dropped the ball, because when a foreign Head of State comes to this country they would normally be “looked after”, and if they make a speech it should be read through first by someone to spot any potential issues. Abbott is admirable in his insistence on speaking out on different issues that David Cameron and Barack Obama are far more reticent about, but his words this time were ill-chosen and badly explained.
“It’s hard to see how the world would be helped by an independent Scotland”, said Abbott, ““I think that the people who would like to see the break-up of the United Kingdom are not the friends of justice, the friends of freedom, and the countries that would cheer at the prospect . . . are not the countries whose company one would like to keep.”
Now, what Abbott actually meant was that if you remove Scotland from the United Kingdom, the UK becomes less powerful militarily and politically. We have some serious international relations issues we are dealing with (ISIS, Ukraine, Gaza, North Korea), and Abbott is concerned that if one of the members of the UN Security Council (of which Australia is now a non-permanent member) is weakened, it weakens the ability of the Western World to influence those issues.
The problem is that Abbott didn’t name those issues. He also didn’t name the countries he was talking about. Alex Salmond never looks a gift horse in the mouth, so he rather helpfully filled in the blanks: “To say the people of Scotland who supported independence weren’t friends of freedom or justice, I mean, the independence process is about freedom and justice”, he said. Abbott, of course, had done no such thing, but had been so unclear that it was too easy for Salmond to say he had.
Salmond went on to point out that having a referendum on the right to govern oneself is the very essence of ‘freedom’. He also pounced on the word ‘justice’. Salmond has been using that word often during the campaign, using its more ‘social’ meaning relating to the distribution of income, but still using it a lot. Abbott’s use of both words absolutely needed to be clarified and explained.
We are near enough to the referendum for both campaigns not to want slip ups. Given the ‘establishment’ position in the UK is “No”, they need to be more careful and responsible about what their invitees say on the matter. Which is why if I were Alistair Darling, I would be on the phone to the Foreign Office, asking that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.