Scottish independence: Handshakes and smiles all round... now it’s game on
An HISTORIC milestone on the century-long march to Scottish independence – or the moment the Union finally out-foxed the biggest threat to its existence in 300 years. Whatever the upshot of yesterday’s momentous deal to stage a referendum in 2014, that fate now lies in the hands of Scots themselves.
It was hailed as “game on” afterwards by Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, who played such a key role in securing the agreement with the SNP administration at Holyrood.
The magnitude of events was difficult to avoid yesterday, as the world’s media descended on Edinburgh for the visit of Prime Minister David Cameron.
He put pen to paper on a deal that was immediately christened the “Edinburgh Agreement” by Alex Salmond.
Just in case there was any doubt about the sense of occasion the SNP leader attached to events, he wasn’t slow to crank up the hyperbole.
“It paves the way for the most important decision that our country, Scotland, has made in several hundred years,” Mr Salmond said.
“It is in that sense a historic day for Scotland and a major step forward in Scotland’s home-rule journey”
The day began with Mr Salmond posing with babies in Edinburgh – the generation who will be the real beneficiaries of independence.
Mr Cameron, meanwhile, donned hard hat and high-visibility jacket, climbing on board the bones of the biggest warship to be assembled in the UK at Rosyth. The message was equally blunt – leave the Union and lose thousands of shipbuilding jobs on the Clyde and Forth, as the Royal Navy takes its orders south of the Border.
The sense of destiny was perhaps lost on the Scottish public outside the Scottish Government’s St Andrew’s House headquarters. Barely a dozen or so bothered to stop on the other side of police cordons to catch a glimpse of historic events taking place across the way.
Barcelona – with its million-strong home-rule march in recent weeks – it certainly was not.
But after more than a year of spats, brinkmanship and prevarication about who was in charge of this referendum, a deal has been reached. It’s one that many of the main players in the process, such as Scotland Office minister David Mundell, doubted would ever happen.
The deal signed was always going to be a formality yesterday, and it left Scotland’s First Minister free to do what he does so well – playing the gallery.
Holding court with a packed international media conference in the bowels of the Scottish Government’s headquarters, he barely faltered, even lecturing one London-based inquisitor on the origins of the Union flag (it was nothing to do with political union, incidentally).
Mr Cameron was challenged to a live TV debate “anywhere, any time” by the Scottish leader, who said this would help to set out the arguments for and against the Union.
He even revealed his advisers had recommended he try not to look to “triumphalist” as he set out the details of the agreement.
“You’ve failed,” came the cantankerous riposte from one brassy newspaper hack at the back of the room, prompting a chuckle from Mr Salmond’s deputy, Nicola Sturgeon.
The historic SNP landslide win in last year’s Holyrood election is something the nationalist camp sees as concrete evidence that the current floundering support for independence can be turned around.
Just weeks before sweeping to victory, the SNP had been ten to 20 points behind Labour.
“If you win arguments you win elections; if you win arguments you win referendums,” the First Minister said yesterday.
Persuading Scots of the “nature and essence of independence” and its benefits will secure this nirvana. Clasping his hands in a rare show of emotion, Mr Salmond added: “I believe that with all my heart and soul.”
A year-long political poker game between the two men at the helm of the UK and Scottish Governments came to an end with the deal.
The fraught negotiations have stemmed from Mr Salmond’s reluctance to cede any kind of control to Westminster on the staging of the historic vote, insisting that it should be “made in Scotland, for the people of Scotland”.
But has he surrendered too meekly in the one area that could have allowed the nationalist movement to salvage something from the process: a second, “devo-max” question.
Mr Cameron may be a relative political novice alongside Mr Salmond, but many already believe his success in securing a single “yes/no” question on independence could be pivotal. It slams the door on a third option of more powers for Holyrood, which polling indicates is the most popular option.
Mr Cameron insisted yesterday this was what he always wanted. He said: “One single, simple question – that to me was always the key.”
Mr SALMOND could barely conceal his disappointment that this third option to hand Holyrood full economic powers was ruled out.
“That was an argument foreclosed on by the Westminster government,” according to Mr Salmond, who added that any process of negotiation requires “compromise on both sides”. Negotiation was necessary, of course, because Westminster held control over staging referendums on constitutional change and had to transfer this legal power to Holyrood before any deal could be struck.
It remains to be seen whether this concession on devo-max has been a fatal error on the part of the First Minister. Support for independence is currently running at less than 30 per cent, casting major doubt on the likelihood of a “Yes” vote in 2014. Perhaps, as Mr Salmond hopes, the devo-max supporters will instead migrate to independence, as did the tycoon Jim McColl.
What is not in doubt is that voters have felt frozen out of the referendum debate in the 18 months since the SNP secured their Holyrood majority, amid bickering over who was in control and the question that would be asked.
It remains to be seen whether the next two years will ignite a great national debate on the benefits of full economic powers in Edinburgh, a separate Scottish military and Scotland’s membership of the European Union.
For Scots are facing a historic crossroads. After more than 300 years of political union, Scotland could be on the verge of reclaiming its political independence and standing alone on the world stage.
The deal yesterday stood on the shoulders of ever-evolving Scottish political autonomy in the past decade, coinciding with a surge in support for the nationalist movement.
Devolution and the Scottish Parliament, far from killing the SNP “stone dead” – in the words of Labour grandee Lord Robertson – have seen it flourish to the point where complete secession from the rest of the UK is now just one cast of the ballot paper away.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 25 mph
Wind direction: East
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
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