Bill Jamieson: David Cameron’s referendum headache

David Cameron: Shouldn't resort to namecalling. Picture: PA
David Cameron: Shouldn't resort to namecalling. Picture: PA
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Pushing for an early devolution vote to satisfy ‘investor uncertainty’ may rebound on the PM

IN THE space of three days we have been catapulted from soporific post-festive torpor to an almighty rammy between London and Edinburgh. This is not over the pros and cons of independence as such but on the procedures and protocols for a referendum. What made us think for a moment that even the pathway to this vote would be other than a legal and constitutional minefield?

Prime Minister David Cameron declared at the weekend that the independence referendum should be brought forward to minimise business and investor uncertainty, and that it should be a straight “Yes/No” question on the ballot: no second “Salmond safety net” option for “Maximum Devolution”.

Alex Salmond has countered that the UK government has no right to dictate the terms of the referendum or the timing, given the support for the SNP in the Holyrood election last year, which delivered it a stunning overall majority. He has defiantly named, if not the exact date for the referendum, at least the season (autumn 2014) and says the “devo-max” option should be put out for wider discussion. Such matters should be for Scotland to decide, not the subject of dictation by a London-based Tory politician – etc, etc.

The indefatigable Jim Sillars has pointed out the legal position under the 1998 Scotland Act with which Mr Salmond seems unfamiliar. Some believe Cameron has put Salmond on the back foot and forced him to concede a commitment to talks to avoid the nuclear option of resort to the Supreme Court. However, the prevailing view is that it is Salmond who is setting the pace and who continues to run rings round a confused and leaderless unionist opposition.

Just before we settle into the trenches for this war of constitutional attrition, there is, I suspect, a broad group of Scots who do not fall comfortably into either of these positions. Cameron and Salmond are not the only fruits. In fact, there is good reason to believe that the option which could well command a powerful endorsement in any referendum may not be presented at all: an effective disenfranchisement which could undermine the referendum vote as envisaged.

First, on the question of timing, it is strange to hear from a Conservative prime minister such anxiety to rush at constitutional change, especially one that may break up the Union. There are three strong reasons for not rushing.

First, there is as yet no clear definition of what “independence” is. Second, there is no clear definition of what “maximum devolution” is. And third, given the current arguments over the Scotland Bill, there is no clear definition of what the status quo is.

Unless and until we are more fully clear as to what it is that we are voting for, what is and is not involved, what may or may not profoundly affect our economy, whether we will have a greater deficit or a smaller one, a crushing debt burden or a bearable one and not least, which currency we will be in, Scotland has every good cause not to rush at this, for fear that we may end up with the constitutional equivalent of the Edinburgh trams.

David Cameron, the Chancellor George Osborne and Scottish Secretary Michael Moore have made much in their calls for an early referendum of concerns over “business investment and uncertainty”.

Now I follow business opinion fairly closely. And I detect little concern over this issue at present. That may change dramatically if a “Yes” vote results in a commitment to join the euro. But for now, the overwhelming worry across Scottish business is how to survive the downturn and to batten down the hatches rather than a vote three years out.

Osborne has referred to the effect of uncertainty on overseas investors. But here too, since no specific cases are cited, it is hard to gauge how deep or widespread this is.

In her column here this week, Joan McAlpine, the fast-rising Eva Peron of the SNP, wrote of the tide flowing inexorably towards independence (it surely can’t be long before she has her own declamatory balcony and forest of microphones overlooking the Royal Mile, soon to be renamed Victory Avenue of 5 May). She quoted Victor Hugo, he of Les Miserables: “You can resist an invading army, but not an idea whose time has come.” And she cited research showing that it only takes 10 per cent of the people in a society to be convinced of an idea for it to spread and turn around the majority.

Fortunately for the 90 per cent, we have a democratic system requiring majority support to protect us from government by fanatical clique and transitory spasm. The image of inexorable tide also glosses over the different forms and shapes of political outcome. Along that long front – between full integration, through devolution, through “devo-max” to independence, there are many stops: a house of many mansions.

The unionists fear that the inclusion of a “dev-max” option on the ballot paper is a ruse by Alex Salmond to construct a safety net should he fail to win a majority for independence. But it is at least as much of a safety net for those who wish to remain within the Union.

Indeed, the danger of a unionist insistence on a straight vote on independence may be to force many hitherto undecided Scots offended by such intervention to vote for independence.

This would deliver to Mr Cameron the very opposite of the outcome he seeks.

Under the option of “devo-max” Scotland would enjoy substantial new powers but stop short of the “full Monty” of a separate army, security policy, foreign embassies, border controls and a separate currency and central bank. Scotland would stand in relation to the rest of the UK rather like the Channel Islands. And this would seem to be the option of preference for many.

Professor John Curtice, writing on the results of his detailed poll research last summer, noted: “While Scots still appear to be reluctant to embrace independence, they do appear to think that Holyrood is the place where most important domestic decisions should be made.

“Slightly less than a third believe the Scottish Parliament should be making the key decisions for Scotland about defence and foreign affairs. But about three-fifths think decisions about taxes and welfare benefits, both of which are still largely reserved to Westminster, should be made by Holyrood. ”

If “dev-max” is thus the preferred option, why should it not be on the ballot paper – rather than forcing voters to choose between one extreme and another? For a party philosophically opposed to extremes, Mr Cameron might consider that in this house of constitutional futures, there are indeed many mansions.