Comment: SNP speak with forked tongue on referendum

A Polling Booth in Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
A Polling Booth in Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
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ALEX Salmond’s strategy is to play a game of safe betting, by aping the major existing body of opinion, writes Gregor Gall

It WAS no moment of madness when Ron Davies, former Labour Welsh secretary, coined the insightful dictum in 1997 that devolution “was a process not an event”. After a very marginal initial vote for devolution in Wales, a referendum in 2011 considerably extended the powers of the Welsh Assembly.

And with the polls still showing no forward movement for the “yes” vote in Scotland, many members in the SNP may reluctantly and begrudgingly start to view independence as a process not an event too. This will allow them to salvage something from a defeat so that they can raise their standard to fight again for independence in the years after 2014.

But notwithstanding that any vote for independence on 18 September 2014 would lead to a process of negotiations over the terms and timing for secession, the thrust of Ron Davies’ dictum takes on an altogether new meaning when applied to Scotland.

This is because since the launch of the Yes Scotland campaign on 25 May 2012, it has become abundantly clear that the SNP leadership is not in favour of independence – not even “indie lite” – but rather a federal form of devo-max.

We know – according to the SNP leadership – that a so-called independent Scotland would maintain the union of the crowns (hence, the monarchy), the pound and the Bank of England, shared defence services and so on. In the key area of economic levers, the SNP is more than happy to allow the City of London to set the terms of exchange for the Scottish economy. So a future Scottish state would neither be sovereign nor independent.

But what makes this all the more surprising when one stops to ponder it is that since the signing of the “Edinburgh Agreement” on 15 October last year, when Alex Salmond conceded that there would be no second question on the ballot paper, in effect, devo-max is on the ballot paper – and, thus, to the exclusion of independence.

This is exactly the kind of mishmash that is sinking – and will sink – the campaign for independence.

On the one hand, the SNP’s key reason for independence – its narrative – is that the people of Scotland are best placed to decide what should happen to Scotland. But, on the other hand, this patently is not going to happen when Scotland after a “yes” vote will have to agree to make compromises with all its so-called partners, be they the Ministry of Defence, the Bank of England or the Westminster government.

What is the strategy behind this thinking? There is undoubtedly the SNP’s recognition of the popular fear of break-up and change (which Better Together does very well to exploit). But this is to concede ground before testing out whether the hypothesis holds any water. What the SNP needs to do is to present voters with a range of options – and over a period of time – to gauge opinion.

For example, a form of full independence with socially equitable outcomes would be one option to contrast with what the SNP is offering. A key point of difference would be that under this option, reforms in the welfare state would be rolled back to the situation prior to 2010 whereas the SNP offers only to roll back changes to since 2010.

But probably the bigger motivating factor for the SNP leadership’s strategy is that they seek to ape the major existing body of opinion in a game of safe betting. When one looks behind the polling headlines of the “yes” and “no” levels of support, the biggest constituency is not for maintaining the status quo but for further devolution.

What are the consequences of this strategy? Well, so far no upswing in the support for independence is the key answer. Another is that the basis now or later has been laid for the re-emergence of the split into tribal camps within the SNP of the fundamentalists (“fundies”) and gradualists over the place and pace of independence.

Before Salmond won the office of First Minister, the tension between the two perspectives was a key underlying dynamic within the SNP. Since the 2007 Scottish elections, and especially since those of 2011, it seemed he had put to bed the tension on account of his undoubted success in pursuing the gradualist perspective. But now he and it are obviously faltering.

Yet beneath all of this is a much bigger phenomenon of politics in a world devoid of ideological differences, namely, that a party’s policies have to be triangulated. The technique, which originates from Bill Clinton’s stategists, involves adopting some of the ideas of your political opponent so that one gains credit for stealing your opponent’s ideas at the same time as insulating yourself from attacks by your opponent on these particular issues.

Apply this to independence, it means saying you are in favour of independence but showing that this does not actually, really mean independence. The result, no matter the supposedly clever political strategy, is that the SNP cannot square the circle. Independence to most people does mean some kind of separation and does emphasise difference and change – but not, of course, according to the SNP.

Speaking with a forked tongue either gets you in political hot water or it gives out mixed message, leading to questions like “Is the SNP really in favour of independence?” Suddenly, the clever and canny political modus operandi that Salmond became known for does not look so clever and canny now.

For Salmond, this may not matter too much as he may well step down as SNP leader no matter the result. He sees his key contribution as getting the SNP this far towards having a referendum. But for his deputy Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP activists, they will have to live with its consequences long afterwards.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford and lives in Edinburgh.