UK state-owned bank’s denial of services to RT is attack on free speech – Alex Salmond

Relations between the United Kingdom and Russia, which are engulfed in media scandals, sanctions threats, and fears about a new world war, have hit a new low recently, but is there room left for cooperation on the most important international issues? And, with Britain already divided over how to deal with the coming Brexit, can it stay united on the diplomatic front? Scotland’s former first minister, UK MP, and SNP international affairs spokesman – Alex Salmond – is on SophieCo today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Former First Minister of Scotland, the SNP International Affairs spokesman and member of the UK Parliament, Alex Salmond, welcome to the show.    The Russian embassy in London says people are writing to them asking not to start World War Three. sensationalist press like the Sun or the Express have reported that Russia is getting ready for a nuclear conflict, with British politicians, like Andrew Mitchell, comparing Russians with the Nazis - why flare up all this hysteria? Whose interests does that serve?

Alex Salmond: I think this is very much a time for cool heads and not getting swept up in hysteria It wouldn’t serve anyone's interests. I think emotions have been running high, to be fair to Andrew Mitchell  about Aleppo and particularly the pictures of civilian deaths in Aleppo, the Syrian conflict is causing a great deal of this, there’s way more concerns as well, but this is very much a time for trying to get agreement, to reinforce a ceasefire and try and get people talking or, to use a Second World War analogy, it's time for "jaw-jaw" rather than "war-war".

SS: We’ll talk Syria more in just a bit… But first, did you know that a UK bank - NatWest - said it's closing all of RT's accounts in the country, without giving any explanation. Given that RT has been subject of so much criticism and pressure, has been designated as a threat in a report by the UK Parliament - do you think it was the bank’s personal decision? Or was it political?

AS: As I understand it, NatWest is now saying that’s not the case, but certainly, it was an extraordinary proposition - I mean, the point would be that if, for example, the BBC were using Russian banking facilities and then a state-owned bank were to close its banking facilities, then politicians of this country rightly would be jumping up and down, saying that it is a restriction of the freedom of speech. Certainly, if indeed it turns out that a state-owned bank like NatWest is actually going to close all banking facilities of RT, then that would be, certainly, the sort of thing that should happen in a tin-pot dictatorship, not in a liberal democracy. However, I should say that the latest information that I have is that now NatWest, are saying they are not actually closing all the accounts - we'll just have to see how the story unfolds. But, I think, from both sides of this particular argument, we should be promoting the maximum number of points of view and maximum amount of information, because you can't get understanding between people unless you have that free availability of information. I've got no time for people who sanction the press, whether that be in Russia or in Turkey, or, for that matter, in the United Kingdom.

SS: I still want to pick your brain a bit on this, because NatWest is saying it's not reconsidering but it will possibly discuss the issue and the bank’s move does create obstacles for the normal work of the channel - RT's editor-in-chief stressed that the move came without any warning and the channel followed all obligations it had. Why would a bank come up with a sudden decision like that with no apparent reason?

AS: I don't support the idea that this should be done, I oppose it, but I just like to see how this issue pans out and what the proper explanation is. UK government denied that it had any role in this, but, unfortunately, when you got a state-owned bank, then the suspicion would be that there's a political motivation behind it. However, it should be said that the latest information I have is that NatWest are no longer saying "we're going to close all accounts", so - let's just see how the issue pans out, but, if indeed, that's what happens - then you'll find that not just myself but all parliamentarians who believe in freedom of speech and who don't believe in a liberal democracy that we should be afraid of different points of view - will be speaking up, just as we would speak up if the BBC were being sanctioned elsewhere.

SS: So, to different topic - UK and the U.S. are threatening new sanctions against Russia, as a way to keep the pressure up over the situation in Syria. Is every Russian move the UK doesn't like is going to be met with some kind of sanctions? What result is London hoping for?

AS: Let me say what my position in this is. I don't think there should be intervention in Syria, by any power. With the exception, I think, there should be an agreed UN position against Daesh. The difficulty with Syria at the present moment is that it's being used as a proxy for a wider struggle and that is doing no good whatsoever and is having particularly devastating consequences for the Syrian people. So, I don't believe there should be Russian intervention in Syria, nor do I believe there should be intervention from anyone in terms of taking sides of internal Syrian Civil war beyond an agreed UN assault on Daesh which is in the general interest of us all. The more countries intervene in Syria, then the more complex, the more difficult and the more bloody that conflict is going to get. Having said that, it would have to be said there is a wide range of international opinion who find the tactics and particularly the civilian death count which we're seeing from Syria totally unacceptable at the present moment - and sanctions, of course, are a perfect, legitimate way of expressing a disapproval. Indeed, sanctions are much better way of expressing disapproval than military conflict.

SS: But the question is, are they working? I just want to get your point of view on the way things stand right now. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson has said that such steps haven't had much effect in the past - if he himself admits sanctions are failing, why insist on bringing new ones in?

AS: The difficulty Boris Johnson has, of course, is in opposition, when he was a back-bench MP, when he was mayor of London, when he was just a newspaper columnist - he has written things which have been very favourable or at least could be seen as favourable to Russian intervention in Syria. Now, when he's a Foreign Secretary, he's singing an entirely different song - but that's not unusual for Boris Johnson. I mean, this is someone who held two positions on a European referendum and wrote an article on either side. But when you get into serious politics and serious diplomacy, then it helps enormously if you have a consistent position from the Foreign Secretary. So, the concession position I would like to see: I would like the ceasefire to be reinstated, I would like an agreement between the superpowers that they will not try to adjudicate in a complex, multifaceted civil war in Syria and the sole international action that should take place should against Daesh, which is in interest of all to stop that death cult gaining any more ground. The sort of action which we see now reaping dividends in Iraq is the only military action that international body should be engaged in, in Syria. The rest will cause a prolonged, bloody civil war which we've seen already lasting longer than the Second World War, and it would mean many more civilian deaths and casualties, because the unfortunate fact is whether you've got Russian bombs or Americans bombs, then civilians actually die. The difficulty I think Russia has at the present moment is assisting in the bombing of a heavily built-up area where, no doubt, there are some muslim extremists among the Syrian Freedom army, but nonetheless - if you bomb that built-up area like Aleppo, there are bound to be civilian casualties and I would argue that Russia should not be doing that and it's perfectly reasonable for the international community to express that whether through sanctions or other action.

SS: You've brought up Iraq and we're now seeing a U.S.-backed offensive against extremists in Iraq's Mosul. The U.S. claims that the humanitarian suffering there is unfortunate, but inevitable in such operation. On Aleppo, they're saying that the bombing of terrorists should stop altogether and locals must not leave the city -what's with the double standards here?

AS: Can I just say, what I think the difference is between Iraq and Syria at the present moment: Iraq has a government, not everybody’s cup of tea, but nonetheless has a legitimate government which has invited international support, has asked for international support. Therefore, it's main opposition is the Daesh death cult whom we all oppose. Similar, in pragmatic terms, there is in Iraq, at the present moment, not just government forces, but through the Kurdish Peshmerga and other forces, you have  an efficient ground force which makes action in Mosul practical. Now, undoubtedly, in a conflict there's going to be bloody consequences, but at least, in Iraq, you see a position where you can have an effective outcome which should be for the benefit of us all. The difference with Syria is that you have, of course, Daesh penetration within Syria, taking advantage of the chaos in the country, but otherwise, you have a prolonged, multi-faceted civil war, and the more countries engage, whether that be Russia or anyone else, in that civil war, then the more prolonged that conflict is going to be which is why I would argue that international action is legitimate against Daesh, but international action or national action to take sides in a proxy conflict is not, and the consequences for civilians we see in Aleppo have to be faced up to.

SS: You're saying that situations in Iraq and Syria are a bit different because when the Iraqi government was having trouble fighting terrorists, they called for America's help. But, I actually, I feel like the situation in Syria is quite similar, because when Syrian government felt like it was having trouble fighting terrorists - ISIS, precisely, and the so-called moderate rebels, they called the Russian government for help. What's the difference there?

AS: Difference is that Syria has also a civil war taking place, a multifaceted civil war between many groups. Some of us are trying to take a reasonably consistent position in these battles, consistently opposed, for example, the Iraq war and the activities of the American-led coalition which has been one of the genesis of this, a disaster. But that doesn't make it right, for other countries, whether it be Russia or anyone else to intervene in a civil war. To the extent where the international action is targeted against Daesh - then fine, but that is not the case, with not just, incidentally, the Russian intervention, but also the Turkish intervention as well - it's an intervention into a civil conflict and that intervention and proxy wars are not the way to conduct international affairs, and it is certainly not the way to secure Syria in terms of benefit of civilian population.

SS: The UK is selling weaponry to an autocratic Saudi Arabia - according to the Guardian -  Britain has sold more than 3.7 billion pounds of arms to Saudi Arabia since the airstrikes began in Yemen, who then uses those weapons to bomb civilians in Yemen, where it’s fighting an intervention war - why is the Foreign office okay with that?

AS: Unfortunately, the Foreign Office is turning a blind eye to what seems to be clear breaches of international law in South Yemen, and I think there should be not just a re-evaluation, but there should be an arms embargo to Saudi Arabia until they can account and properly satisfy the international community that their weapons are not going to be used against civilian populations, and it's vitally important that people internationally have a consistent attitude. Bombs fall on civilian population in South Yemen, they fall on civilian populations in Aleppo and they fall on civilian populations elsewhere, and they all should be equally  condemned. The Foreign Office is under a huge amount of pressure with this within the UK Parliament and as each incident, atrocity becomes more manifest, than the greater that pressure becomes. There was a 150 years since the first Geneva Convention was originated and signed, that war should not conducted if it puts at serious risk the civilian populations, if it is not possible to discriminate between combatants and noncombatants, and yet we've had 21 medical facilities of MSF bombed this year by a variety of ways. No doubt, people will argue that many of these things were accidents, but 21 instances in the course of a year speaks of a huge deterioration in standards of conflict,even in warfare, which we haven't seen for, well, a hundred and fifty years.

SS: Britain blocked EU efforts to establish an independent international inquiry into the war in Yemen - Amnesty International called this move a ‘betrayal’. What exactly is the UK afraid of? 

AS: I suspect that the UK ministers are highly embarrassed by the conduct of the Saudi Arabia and their allies in South Yemen and ministers have been squirming as each instant has been reported. There's huge pressure in the UK Parliament on this matter, as there rightly should be, and hopefully that pressure will yield results and what's the practical thing the UK should be doing is it should be instituting an arms embargo until such time as Saudi Arabia and its allies can satisfy that they are not targeting civilian population with munitions which should be proscribed for civilian populations. Now, these are matters where it is vitally important that politicians, when they’re speaking internationally, speak fearlessly and that should apply to all of the theatres where these conducts of international warfare are being breached. The Geneva convention, when it was signed way back in the 19-th century, was an innovation, an innovation that took root, and at various times of history people have ignored it, various powers have said that they're not bound by it, but, basically, it has been something in terms of the conduct of international affairs that people have adhered to and it has provided protection for countless millions of people over that period of time. And yet we're now seeing a slippage away from it and that slippage should be stopped and it can only be stopped if people speak consistently without fear or favour.

SS: How the situation will unravel in the Middle East depends also on the outcome of the big U.S. vote - I know that you have met at least one of the candidates, Donald Trump, when doing business with him in Scotland. You wrote that his temper would make him a security danger to the U.S. if he gets elected - but his actual foreign policy ideas are a lot less hawkish than his rival’s, perhaps his victory could actually reduce world tensions?

AS: I've actually meant both candidates, for the same amount of times, I've met them both twice in person. My evaluation is really not so much a policy evaluation, it’s more of a personality evaluation. I don't think that Donald Trump has the temperament that would make him fit to be the president of the U.S. I can tell this from personal experience. For example, when we've had a huge argument about an offshore wind demonstrator in Scotland, when he took the Scottish government to court when I was leading it and he lost, incidentally, not once but three times. The conversations I've had with him as we tried to avoid the court action would convince me this is not somebody I would like to see as President of the United States. This is someone who in the course of a phone call can go from threatening to bullying to all-chummy and all sweetness and light and then back to bullying again, in the course of a few minutes in a phone call! That was an argument about wind power. Let’s see him in an argument about hard power, we won’t be arguing about wind turbines, we would be arguing about deployment of forces or nuclear weapons! And somebody with that temperament, in my estimation, is not fit to be President of United States of America, which is why I've said so, loud and clear.

SS: You have once said that Scotland can use its political profile to create foreign policy initiatives and opportunities that the UK would find difficulty accessing - on which points does Scotland outplay Westminster when it comes to foreign policy?

AS: We're developing a foreign policy perspective. As you would expect, at the present moment, if you look at the issue of most immediate concern in terms of the economy and social life in the UK, that's obviously an attitude to the rest of Europe and the EU, where Scotland is through its First Minister seeking to protect our European relationships from what's happening in Westminster. That's a developing different policy at the present moment. If you look at it more internationally, at some of the initiatives we're making, for example, the participation of women across the MENA region is one of our initiatives at the present moment. We've arranged conferences to support that. We're working hard with the various Kurdish groups who have a long-term association with Scotland to try and bring these groups together and to also have an illustration of how constitutional politics can, over a period of time, achieve results, and while the work of fighting elections and peaceful progress can sometimes take a long time but it's much more rewarding at the end of the day than conflict. And to try and bring the various Kurdish strands of opinion together themselves - it strikes me as an important aspect. And thirdly, I would point to our standing up not just as part of our initiatives against global warming but also the idea of climate justice, where we've been promoting very heavily the justice of seeking to help the developing world, which is bearing the consequences of global warming, although their contribution to it has been very slight in comparison with more developed countries like the UK, US and, of course, Russia - so that idea of climate justice as an initiative in itself has been something which we've been promoting very strongly.

SS: Closer to home, while the government is deciding on which type of Brexit to enact - a ‘hard Brexit’ which means loss of access to the European single market - or a ‘soft Brexit’ which means some kind of a deal with Brussels - Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, is however saying it’s a ‘hard Brexit or no Brexit’. Is the current government misled about its options - or is it misleading the public?

AS: First, we have to state what that policy is. It is extremely frustrating at the present moment that we can't get anything coherent out of the United Kingdom government, even to the extent of refusing to have a parliamentary vote on this matter, which would seem ironic, given that the only coherent argument they had for leaving the European Union was to reinstate the sovereignty, of, presumably, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and therefore to say the Parliament shouldn't vote in these things strikes me as doubly-ironic. But the SNP approach to this is very clear - firstly, we're cooperating with others to try and retain as much connection as possible with the European marketplace, in your terms, a "soft" Brexit, membership of the single market if not the EU - that is our position, that’s the position where we will have maximum contact and it will cause the least economic damage. If that isn't possible, then we'll seek that position for Scotland, and the First Minister of Scotland has laid out that position, plus the important priorities of retaining the social employment rates of Scots and also protecting the position of European citizens.

SS: So would having a "hard" Brexit be good for the Scottish National Party?

AS: I'm coming to that third point. If neither the first joint approach from the party is possible, and if the UK government refuses to listen to the initiative being about to be made by the First Minister of Scotland, then she has said very clearly: then we'll be talking about an independence referendum within 2 years time, within that negotiating period where the issue of Scottish independence will have to be put to the touch in these new circumstances once again.

SS: I know you’re in favour of the EU, but you can’t ignore the results - 17 million people voted to leave the EU after all. Can you explain what contributed to this result? Why are people dissatisfied with the EU?

AS:There's a range of reasons, but remember, within these figures, Sophie, that it was a narrow vote for leaving the European Union in England, and it was a landslide vote for staying in, in Scotland. So remember, there's a tale of two very different nations within that vote. There was 62% to 38% majority for Remain in Scotland, whereas 52% to 40% majority for leaving in England. So a different context between the two countries. But in England the thing that was motivating the Leave vote was resistance to immigration, that many-many communities in England see immigration as a threat. We don't have that same attitude in Scotland, basically because we have a country which has experienced emigration for many years in many parts of our country and no society, which has seen the debilitating effects of emigration fears immigration, and societies which haven't seen that and which fear immigration...and many areas of England were... I think, scaremongered into that position.

SS: What do you think could be the results of this second Scottish independence vote if it comes to that?

AS: Well, if it comes to that, and if the UK government has refused to listen to sense as far as the Brexit process, if they refuse to conceit concede to Scotland's legitimate aspirations as a nation, then I think there will be a referendum and in that context, I think the result will be Yes to independence.

SS: Alright, Mr. Salmond, thank you very much for this interview. Best of luck to you. We were talking to Alex Salmond, the former leader of the Scottish National Party, the SNP International Affairs spokesman and member of the UK Parliament, discussing the ways to resolve the most pressing international issue and how Britain's Brexit negotiations are moving along. That's it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.