Allan Massie:Referendum heat could prove dangerous

Michael Moore was replaced following a government reshuffle. Picture: Getty
Michael Moore was replaced following a government reshuffle. Picture: Getty
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With mild-mannered Moore’s sacking and Salmond’s call for a TV showdown, both sides are upping the ante before Scotland decides, writes Allan Massie

THE replacement of Michael Moore by Alistair Carmichael as Secretary of State for Scotland came as a surprise because Mr Moore was generally judged to have done a good job. Certainly he handled the passing of the Scotland Act, which transfers fiscal powers to Edinburgh, and the negotiations over the referendum, with skill, good sense, and good humour. The post is one in Nick Clegg’s gift rather than David Cameron’s because it has been recognised from the time when the coalition was agreed that Scotland was Liberal Democrat rather than Tory territory.

The change may not be entirely surprising as we move into the hard campaigning in referendum year, because Mr Carmichael is regarded as a more combative fellow than Michael Moore. Certainly, when he was his party’s choice in the Scottish television debates before the last general election, he put up a good show. Nevertheless, Mr Moore should surely have been rewarded for his good work with another position in government, even if there was no longer a place for him in the Cabinet.

Mr Carmichael and Mr Moore are alike in that they both represent constituencies which have voted Liberal, and then Liberal Democrat, for a long time, since 1950 and 1965 respectively, constituencies at the opposite ends of Scotland which have never shown much enthusiasm for the SNP and independence. Orkney and Shetland and the Borders are evidently pretty content with things as they are. To this extent both men may be thought in tune with what looks at present like majority Scottish opinion.

The SNP’s deputy leader, Nicola Sturgeon, understandably and unsurprisingly greeted the change by saying that it was the message, not the messenger, that was wrong, and spoke of the Better Together camp’s “negative campaigning”. Well, as I’ve remarked before, “no” is inescapably a negative word. There is no way in which you can say “no” positively. One may however predict that Mr Carmichael will be saying “no” in a rather louder voice than Mr Moore did. He is very evidently a man who relishes a good scrap. He will be happy taking the attack to the SNP.

Whether this is the right approach remains to be seen. There is certainly a case for saying that keeping the temperature of the debate low is the best policy for unionists. For one thing this irritates the SNP no end, as Ms Sturgeon’s complaints about “negativity” indicate. Mr Salmond’s demand that he should debate with David Cameron rather than with Alistair Darling, the leader of the Better Together campaign, shows the SNP’s eagerness to raise the temperature. Supporting it in an article last weekend, Kevin McKenna rather rudely suggested than any debate with Mr Darling “risked sending the nation to sleep”. Not a bad idea, some might say . . . though actually I suspect that Mr Salmond would find Mr Darling’s calm and good-humoured authority difficult to deal with.

Kevin McKenna, however, made the case for a Cameron-Salmond debate. “This may indeed principally be a debate among Scots, but it is also about the future of the UK. People living elsewhere in the UK may not be able to participate in the referendum, but Mr Cameron has a moral duty to be their voice as the debate unfolds.”

This is a fair argument. Is it also a persuasive one? It’s certainly what Mr Salmond and the SNP want – which may of course be a good reason for not giving them it.

There is, however, a certain logical inconsistency in Mr Salmond’s demand. On the one hand he has insisted from the start that independence is a matter for people living in Scotland, no matter their nationality, and for no-one else – not even for Scots, and those who regard themselves as Scots, who happen to be domiciled away from Scotland. What they want is of no importance. They have no right to a say in the future of Scotland. That is a matter for those who appear on the electoral register here in Scotland, and for nobody else. Whether we remain part of the United Kingdom or not is for the inhabitants of Scotland to decide, and the opinions of people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland don’t matter a damn.

On the other hand, Mr Salmond wants to engage with Mr Cameron in a TV debate, and when the Prime Minister declines on the grounds that the referendum is a debate among Scots (as Mr Salmond insists that it is), takes the huff.

Of course, it is quite arguable that Mr Cameron is wrong to refuse the invitation to debate. After all, Kevin McKenna is right when he says that it is also about the future of the United Kingdom. He may even be right then he says that Mr Cameron has “a moral duty “ to be “the voice of people living elsewhere in the UK”. Indeed this “moral duty” may be thought all the more imperative simply because of Mr Salmond’s insistence that the voice of these people is of no account.

Yet the Prime Minister has made it very clear he wants us to choose to remain part of the United Kingdom – even though there are some in his own party who believe that it would be to their advantage if we were to vote for the door marked Exit.

The indications at present are that we won’t do so, but if the gap in the polls begins to narrow as the SNP step up their campaigning in the coming months, Mr Cameron would be wise to keep his options open. He will doubtless continue to make the case for the UK; the only question for him will be how best to do this. The answer is not obvious. Is it to the advantage of the unionist cause for the Prime Minister to intervene energetically, or would he be playing into Mr Salmond’s hands by allowing him to present the debate, which he is currently losing, as an argument between Scotland and Tory England?

It’s a very nice dilemma. For the moment, however, Mr Cameron is on firm ground when he says, in effect, that he has accepted Mr Salmond’s argument that whether we vote for independence or not is a matter for the Scottish electorate alone, and that the case for the Union is therefore best made by Scottish politicians in Westminster or Holyrood.

The Scotsman Conferences is hosting a series of events capturing the many facets of the Scottish independence debate. 3 December sees a formidable line up of expert speakers tackle “The Independence White Paper: A Business Plan for Scotland?” For more details on this and other great events please visit