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Good to talk?

Brian Taylor | 13:21 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010

It is understandable that the political parties in Scotland are seeking to find consensus with regard to the impact of the defence review.

Equally, it is understandable that there are problems standing in the path of that search.

Not least that the parties fundamentally disagree on small matters such as the very future of the United Kingdom which the forces under review are pledged to defend.

Today's cross-party talks focused, in particular, on the jobs impact should one or both of the aircraft carrier orders be cancelled.

There is also concern with regard to RAF bases.

The talks were described on all sides as "constructive" - which is what you say when there has been no agreement but the various parties have contrived to conclude the meeting without falling out openly.

Why can't they just agree? Why cannot they just say: give 'em the money and keep the jobs on the Clyde and at Rosyth?

Differing objectives

Because of party politics - and party political differences.

To stress, these are not minor obstacles, not invented problems. These politicians are in different parties because they pursue differing objectives.

Firstly, the party politics. It is relatively easy for the SNP and Labour to demand that the carrier contracts are maintained without amendment.

It is more tricky for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats - because those parties form the coalition UK government which is taking the decision on the defence review.

Longer term, they have to be wary of the impact upon their parties' credibility.

That does not mean that this is the defining characteristic ahead of all other considerations such as Scottish employment.

But, for serious parties, it is a factor to be borne in mind.

Next, defence policy. In order to achieve limited consensus on the carrier orders, the parties will have to focus narrowly upon aspects of defence, sidelining others.

Defence strategy

In particular, they will have to sidestep their differences over the Trident nuclear deterrent.

Labour's Iain Gray commented of today's draft document from the Scottish government that "Faslane is not even mentioned", that it does not address "Scotland's crucial role as part of Britain's defence strategy."

From the Scottish government perspective, that is quite deliberate, not accidental neglect.

The SNP team made clear in advance that they would pursue the Trident issue with a separate approach in order to achieve consensus on the carriers, if at all possible.

In other words, their approach was designed, as they saw it, to be co-operative, not obstructive.

I cannot imagine that Nicola Sturgeon, who chaired today's talks, will find Mr Gray's remarks particularly helpful.

The Labour leader, however, also stresses the need to involve the unions in any combined submission.

It seems likely that this point will indeed have to be addressed.


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