Eddie Barnes: Alex Salmond is in no hurry to reach a decision on the questions in the independence referendum
STUDENTS of the art of political negotiation should centre their attention on Scotland over the coming months. Next month, Alex Salmond will publish the SNP government’s paper on the conduct of the referendum process.
David Cameron has already offered to come north to sign a deal to ensure the referendum gets going. It sounds simple. It isn’t.
The negotiations seem certain to get stuck in mud over the issue of the question, or questions, to be asked. For the pro-Union side, it must be a yes-no contest putting independence to the test. UK ministers appear ready to concede pretty much everything else on the running of the referendum to Salmond in order to ensure this straight choice is put. Salmond can now expect intense pressure to agree – starting today, when an expert panel set up by the pro-Union lobby will pronounce on how to proceed with a single question.
Their rationale is clear. Polls suggest at present they’d walk it. Plus the constant pressure on Salmond to sign up has the advantage of questioning his resolve. Why, Alistair Darling asks, is Mr Salmond shying away from a high-noon battle on independence? The more he does so, the weaker he looks, they believe. The same questions are being asked in the pro-independence camp, with Nationalists impatient for the start of a historic battle. Hesitation would leave Mr Salmond in danger of being caught in a pincer between his opponents and his supporters, both of whom want the contest to begin.
The First Minister has already said he too favours a single question. But, despite the dangers above, the signs are that he will continue to opt to straddle both horses for a while yet. Opponents of Mr Salmond note that one of his signature tactics is always, as far as possible, to keep his options open. And that means, for now, remaining open to both independence and more devolution on the ballot. First, it offers a good fall-back option. More than that, from soundings in the SNP camp, it appears Mr Salmond is keen to implant the idea within “civic society” and the wider population that, if he had his way, the SNP is prepared to adopt a compromise. Some SNP figures declare they would go as far as to remove independence from the ballot paper altogether. They are eyeing the political consequences: if, eventually, it does boil down to a straight independence battle, the Nationalists reckon the pro-Union side will be blamed for refusing to allow a choice on the middle way which, despite being a complete unknown, appears to be the most popular destination. Who knows, if such a narrative is set, how many voters might decide to back independence in this fight, simply out of frustration?
With that end in mind, figures on both sides are anticipating Mr Salmond opting to wait as long as he can this autumn, despite the pressure he is under. One senior pro-UK person jokily predicts he will set up a commission on devo-max, led by Henry McLeish.
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