SETTING the referendum date so far ahead in an uncertain future carries huge risks for Alex Salmond.
When the SNP first decided to play the long game in its efforts to win a popular mandate for independence, pitching its promised referendum well into the second half of this Scottish parliament, strategic positioning must have ranked very high indeed in Alex Salmond’s calculations.
By the autumn of 2014, the now-majority SNP administration at Holyrood would have had time to reinforce the party’s reputation for competence in government, already established by its 2007-11 minority administration.
With the next Westminster election looming just months away, in May 2015, the prospect of five more years of David Cameron’s Tories (whether in coalition or not) would be enough to detach even more disillusioned Labour voters in Scotland and mobilise them behind the independence cause. Delaying the referendum that long also offered the prospect of some kind of recovery from the banking crash, the credit crunch and subsequent recession, first triggered in 2007. The worst of London’s budget cuts would have been endured. Surely by late 2014, voters would be glimpsing signs of fresh growth and new jobs ahead.
And with the return of something approaching economic normality, the SNP could hold out the prospect of an oil-rich, independent Scotland, ushering in an even more prosperous future for its people. If Scots could begin to shake off the reality of years of austerity and squeeze, surely they could find the collective self-confidence to grasp the party’s promise of a materially better tomorrow through re-writing the constitutional settlement with the rest of the UK?
Of course playing the long game in politics carries profound risks. The unexpected – the eurozone crisis; the humbling of Rupert Murdoch; the Rangers liquidation; that “cesspit” of rate-fixing in banks, for instance – happens. Established political scripts – such as independence in Europe or politicians of all stripes lionising our financial services sector – have had to be rewritten in haste. The company they have, in the past, chosen to keep comes inconveniently back to haunt them.
Leaving the SNP’s defining referendum date that late in the electoral cycle also leaves your critics an awful lot of time to ask awkward questions. Like this week’s information wrangle over whether Alex Salmond and his colleagues have even sought legal guidance on whether an independent Scotland would automatically become an EU member state. What earthy reason is there to go to the courts to deny us all a straight, open answer to that rather fundamental question?
The long game also leaves plenty of time for tides of public opinion that seem to be flowing powerfully in one direction. Views that Labour under Ed Miliband is patently a basket case; and Cameron’s Tories are on easy street south of Hadrian’s Wall, for instance can suddenly ebb away, replaced by fresh and quite contrary currents. How long these new flows will prevail is anyone’s guess.
Current polling evidence suggests, were there a UK general election tomorrow, Miliband’s Labour Party would romp home to an overall majority of 90 or so at Westminster. Neither David Cameron nor Nick Clegg, battered by this week’s debacle over Lords’ reform, will be in any hurry to grant him that opportunity. However the strains within the ruling Westminster coalition are now so deep neither man is master of his own destiny.
If the Prime Minister fails to placate this week’s rebel Tories and deliver some measure of Lords’ reform by the autumn, Clegg could retaliate by scuppering boundary changes which would favour the Tories in 2015. Were Cameron to try and placate his own increasingly assertive backbenchers by proposing moves to repatriate significant powers from Brussels, Clegg has already indicated he would try to stop him.
With some emboldened Tory MPs calling for a mid-parliament revision of the coalition agreement with the LibDems itself and others openly canvassing the virtues of minority government from here on in, we have to assume that the long road to Scotland’s independence vote will be strewn with many fresh surprises in the UK political scene, some of them at best problematical to delivering that ‘Yes’ vote.
Worse, that continued political turbulence may not be smoothed by the hoped-for recovery in our economic fortunes. Scotland will find out on Wednesday whether our economy followed the UK as a whole back into recession in the first quarter of 2012. Even if it has held its head just above water, the most recent surveys of business opinion make pretty grim reading.
The growth conundrum continues to haunt many of the economies on both sides of the North Atlantic, not just the UK or Scotland within it. And now that the brakes are coming on in China and elsewhere in the emerging economies of the south and east, the malaise seems to be spreading. That will put even more strain on over-borrowed governments like ours.
The latest long-term projections from the UK Office for Budget Responsibility point to the added fiscal pressures caring for an ageing population will have UK deficits through to 2061. The independent OBR has also highlighted the acute volatility of oil and gas tax revenues over the past decade and its expectation that future revenues through to 2040 will be significantly lower than it was projecting just a year ago.
An independent Scotland would not be immune from these very same pressures. And, in a somewhat shorter timeframe, Glasgow University’s Centre for Public Policy for Regions has just produced an updated assessment of the budget pressures facing the current devolved Scottish government through to 2016-17, the other side of the planned independence referendum date.
The most striking feature of these new numbers is that, while nearly 70 per cent of capital cuts had already taken place by the end of March this year, less than 25 per cent of the real terms reductions planned for resource spending (the dominant slice of the Scottish government’s budget) have yet to take place between now and March 2017.
No doubt, as these cuts continue to be made, the First Minister and his cabinet colleagues will try to pile all the blame on London. But, whoever’s to blame, the cuts will have to be made right up to referendum day and beyond.
It’s not the scenario the SNP was banking on when it set Scotland’s decision day so far into the future. And it’s not a scenario it can renounce if it is serious about an independent Scotland retaining sterling as its currency and pursuing fiscal prudence to boot. With the most recent polls on the national question showing waning support for full independence, could it be that choosing to play the long game on its defining purpose will prove to be, for the SNP, a risk too far?