Allan Massie: Scoring independence own goals on both sides

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Westminster’s intervention is misguided, but the Nationalists are also making unwise moves in this high-stakes game

IT BEGAN with a blunder. George Osborne’s fingers were all over Monday’s story, which invited the age-old condemnation, “too clever by half”. It was an attempt to put Alex Salmond on the spot, and it has rebounded on its authors, leaving Michael Moore, the Secretary of State for Scotland, to clear up the mess. It would have been better if any announcement about the UK government’s referendum proposals had been left to Mr Moore in the first place. Then we might have had no talk of a “sunset clause”, something bound to rile the Nationalists and be rejected by them.

There will be a referendum. This much is clear and although by no means certain it looks like it will be held in Autumn 2014. It is perfectly proper for the UK government to take an interest in it. The proposal to bring forward legislation to ensure that the referendum is legal is sensible, and should be accepted by the SNP; otherwise there is the danger that the legality of a referendum brought forward by the Scottish Parliament may be challenged in the courts. That apart, the distinction between a legally binding referendum and one that was merely advisory is academic; if there was a majority for independence in an “advisory” referendum, the result would surely be accepted.

It was not sensible of the UK government to seem to be setting a time-limit for this transfer of the legal power to stage a referendum. The three Scottish Unionist parties had the opportunity in the last parliament to decide when the referendum was held. They blew that opportunity by refusing to support a referendum bill to which they could – thanks to the majority they then enjoyed – have fixed a time-limit. They might then even have determined the wording of the question. In retrospect Wendy Alexander’s call, “bring it on”, looks sensible, and, from the Unionist point of view, failure to respond to it was a missed opportunity.

The consequence of that failure is that the timing will be determined by the SNP, and there is nothing the Unionist parties can do about it, except grumble about the delay.

Alex Salmond has won this round, and, now that he has chopsen to hold the referendum just after the 2014 Commonwealth Games, I don’t see what will stop him. Wisely, he has decided not to hark back to a medieval battle by holding it on the anniversary of Bannockburn, given Salmond has sensibly made great play of the “social union” between England and Scotland which would survive political independence. A “re-run of Bannockburn” vote would have risked making nonsense of this by stirring up anti-English feeling.

The SNP has good reason to delay the referendum. First, it hopes the swing towards it evident in last May’s election will continue. Second, it fears that a rejection of independence in a referendum would leave a lame-duck administration, even one with a discredited leader. So delay is sensible. Yet it carries risk. All governments lose popularity eventually. Who knows whether by late 2014 the SNP will be as popular as it is today? The bloom may even be wearing off Alex Salmond.

The most important matter is not the timing of the referendum, but the wording of the question or questions. The UK government has tried to seize the initiative by suggesting that it would cede the mandate to the Scottish Parliament only for a simple in/out, yes/no ballot paper, with no third question about enhanced powers for Holyrood.

It is probable that the SNP will reject this, even though Salmond‘s deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, said on Monday that the SNP itself would prefer a straightforward in/out question. She qualified this by drawing attention to “a significant body of opinion” in Scotland that prefers further devolution to either independence or the status quo.

A three-question paper would surely require the details of further devolution to be spelled out. In 1997 we had Donald Dewar’s green paper, “Scotland‘s Parliament”, to approve or reject. Will there be anything comparable?

My own view is that, even if there is a majority against independence, further devolution is certain. Consequently, including this option in a multi-choice paper is unnecessary and risks muddying the waters. From the Nationalist point of view, it would have the advantage of dividing the Unionist parties. On the other hand it might dilute the independence vote, with some preferring to play safe and opting for something short of separation. Given that, even if there is no majority for independence, the size of the vote in favour of that option will surely indicate a degree of dissatisfaction with present arrangements, it might be best to take further devolution for granted, and leave it to the politicians in both parliaments to negotiate the details when the referendum hubbub has subsided. In any case if there should prove to be a majority for independence, any third question would be redundant.

The UK government’s intervention has been cack-handed, though some intervention was inevitable. The SNP is eager to give the impression that it speaks for Scotland. It doesn’t. It speaks for a sizeable proportion of the electorate. Yet even last May, when it had a remarkable success (admittedly on a low 50 per cent poll), and won an overall majority of seats at Holyrood, the three Unionist parties won 46.7 per cent of the vote, the SNP 44.7. In the UK election the previous year (in which the turnout was more than ten points higher) the SNP came second in terms of votes cast, still some way behind Labour. If it would be absurd and dishonest to pretend that the SNP is not at the moment the most popular single party in Scotland, it is equally absurd and dishonest to pretend that its voice is Scotland’s. The Scottish Unionist parties have handled the constitutional question ineptly, but they still represent a huge body of opinion, and are entitled to be heard.

Likewise the UK government and the Westminster parliament, which passed the legislation that brought the Scottish Parliament into being, have a role to play. The coalition has moved towards an understanding with the SNP. In response, the Nationalists are unwise to speak of “dictation” and would be well advised to seek co-operation rather than confrontation. They might well benefit from doing so.