Leader: Hands off referendum
THE plotting, we are told is well under way. Westminster politicians are said to be considering a plan to hijack the Scottish independence referendum and run it on their own terms.
If so, they should think again. The plan seems to be that Coalition leaders will form an alliance with Labour to create a Unionist front that would then use Westminster’s powers to impose the timing and wording of the question on independence. Alex Salmond yesterday issued a strong warning against any such move, and rightly so. Even from a Unionist perspective it would be self-defeating. Nothing could be more calculated to provoke Scottish resentment, leading to an electoral backlash, than such high-handed behaviour.
The Westminster Unionists are believed to be waiting for the election of a Scottish Labour leader before they formulate a definite plan. Their pretext is that uncertainty over Scotland’s constitutional future is damaging the economy and that they do not trust Alex Salmond to run a referendum in which the question is not gerrymandered.
But the same accusation could be levelled against any formula they may devise. Restricting the question on the ballot paper to a straight Yes/No on independence would ditch the “devo-max” option, which would award a significant increase in financial and other powers to Holyrood but reserve defence and foreign policy to Westminster, while maintaining the Union.
That is the solution Scotland on Sunday has consistently supported and which we believe is most representative of Scottish voters’ aspirations. It would be intolerable if that responsible and progressive option were removed from the ballot paper.
Significantly, Salmond yesterday described devo-max as a “legitimate proposal”. Although he was quick to add that it was “not good enough”, there are unmistakable indications that the First Minister may regard it as an acceptable tree on which to fall if he fails to reach the summit of independence. Salmond is a shrewd politician and a realist.
He must recognise the appeal to Scots, if a triple option of status quo, devo-max or independence were offered to them, of the middle road: progress, but not too quantum a leap. That, after all, is what fuelled the devolution process.
The question now for nationalists is whether Salmond’s positive words about devo-max might actually undermine the chances of achieving full independence. As the comments of former party darling Margo MacDonald – still respected by many within the SNP as a doughty fighter for the independence cause – and the concerns of ordinary delegates suggest, Salmond may have some persuading to do before he can claim his party is fully behind him in this strategy. He is vulnerable to the charge, in MacDonald’s words, of “hedging his bets and making it easy for Scots to vote for devo-max”.
Meanwhile, the SNP leader has to defend his right to hold his referendum. It would be an insupportable breach of all the conventions of the devolution settlement if Westminster were to barge in and seize control of this process. So cack-handed an intervention, with its resonance of the 40 per cent rule imposed in 1979, would rekindle past accusations of Unionist perfidy.
The SNP stood for election on a manifesto promise to hold a referendum at some point in its five-year term, and they won an overwhelming endorsement at the ballot box. They have a democratic mandate that cannot and should not be challenged. Labour and the Conservatives talk a good game about learning from past mistakes and forging a new “respect” agenda for Scotland.
Well, respect means keeping their hands off Scotland’s referendum.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
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Temperature: 10 C to 20 C
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Wind direction: North east