Leader: Soon the real debate can begin on independence
A JOINT statement issued by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Secretary Michael Moore yesterday said there had been “substantial progress” towards an agreement between Holyrood and Westminster on the details of the proposed independence referendum.
In so far as they have been following the negotiations, the reaction of most voters will be a sigh of relief, as there can be little doubt the long-suffering people of Scotland have grown weary of the endless manoeuvring and political posturing on both sides.
That we are in sight of a deal, which will be signed off by First Minister Alex Salmond and Prime Minister David Cameron, can only be a positive development, as it will end the phoney war and pave the way for the real debate on the substantive issue of the merits or demerits of independence.
Although it has not been confirmed, it now seems likely there will be one question on the ballot paper, not two, when Scots take the most important decision in more than three centuries of this nation’s history.
A further indication that the “devo-max” option of fiscal autonomy is unlikely to appear in the referendum came from Mr Salmond yesterday. In an interview with a US newspaper he said the coalition would not offer a third option on more powers for Holyrood. Echoing entrepreneur Jim McColl in this newspaper recently, the First Minister added that Scots who backed devo-max would be instrumental in delivering a Yes vote, a signal the SNP will be making the case that those who want more powers should logically back sovereignty.
Yet polarising the debate has drawbacks for both unionists and those who want to end the Union. Nationalists will be forced to make an all-or-nothing argument on the constitution, which is not guaranteed to work in their favour. Unionists will have to come up with answers on how Scotland can obtain what polls show the majority want: further powers within the United Kingdom.
As the Kingdom will remain united (in the event of a No vote), fiscal autonomy can only be achieved with the agreement of the other constituent parts of the UK. That means the UK parliament will have to concede more powers, and that Wales and Northern Ireland will be closely involved.
The question of whether there will be an appetite south of the Border for agreeing to more powers for Scotland and the subsequent changes it would mean for the UK is a moot one, though Unionists will point to the recent Scotland Act, which handed substantial new powers to Holyrood by agreement of the two parliaments, as the model.
However, with the prospect of a deal on the referendum question we should at least be thankful that it will be these kinds of substantial issues we will be debating rather than the minutiae of the voting mechanism.
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