Comment: Labour boo-boys may ultimately be silenced

IF the referendum question boils down to a straight Yes or No, then Alex Salmond could yet have the last laugh, writes Ewan Crawford

IF the referendum question boils down to a straight Yes or No, then Alex Salmond could yet have the last laugh, writes Ewan Crawford

FOR most normal people, such as, I assume, the readers of this newspaper, the parade through the streets of Glasgow on Friday to welcome home Scottish Olympians and Paralympians was an opportunity to applaud elite sporting achievement and endeavour. But from some political obsessives, another, odder, contest was unfolding on the social networking site Twitter.

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You may have thought the purpose of the event was to welcome home Sir Chris Hoy, Katherine Grainger, Neil Fachie and the other Scottish athletes, but for the No campaign in the forthcoming referendum there was a much more pressing sport to pursue: that of denigrating Alex Salmond.

The First Minister, it was reported, was booed by some in the crowd. He’s a politician, it happens.

But various prominent Labour figures, including ex-Scottish Secretary, Jim Murphy, and current Scottish deputy leader, Anas Sarwar, were soon tapping away at their smartphones to spread the joyous news.

By doing so they revealed that the Labour leadership’s strategy still amounts to no more than convincing themselves they’ll be swept back to power when voters start to see the error of their ways and begin hating the SNP leader as much as they do.

This, I suspect, comes across to people as a bit weird and confirms the remoteness from their lives of much of what passes for political debate.

The all-consuming dislike for the First Minister and the doom-laden prophecies of the disaster that would befall an independent Scotland now largely characterise the joint Labour-Tory campaign to maintain Westminster’s economic and political control over Scotland.

Last week’s big Scottish political news neatly combined these two elements with the Labour leadership accusing Mr Salmond of deception in his attempts to cover-up the apparently inevitable expulsion of Scotland from the European Union in the event of independence.

The fact that it is plainly ludicrous to think other European countries would take a political decision to throw Scotland out of the club for the crime of voting one way in an internal referendum is therefore pleasingly obscured by a tortuous argument over legal advice.

Meanwhile, the No campaign, so concerned it seems about the consequences for Scotland of being outside the EU, is curiously silent on the real threat: the growing prospect of the Tory right securing an in/out referendum on the UK’s EU membership.

The biggest danger in all this – and one I assume the No strategists are hoping for – is that the whole independence debate is written off as one between politicians, and now lawyers, with the voting public excluded. But this is where a major opportunity presents itself for the Yes side.

This week the First Minister will hold discussions with the Prime Minister, David Cameron, during a meeting of the joint ministerial committee. Negotiations on the conduct of the independence referendum are not expected to be part of the agenda. Instead a further substantive meeting on that topic will be held later this year.

There has been much speculation that the Scottish Government has more or less conceded there should just be the one question with the option of devo-max (essentially transferring tax and welfare powers to Holyrood but keeping others, 
such as foreign affairs, at Westminster) no longer under serious consideration.

My impression, however, is that there is still a lively internal debate going on among senior members of the SNP and that the issue is far from being resolved.

There are good reasons for continuing to pursue the prospect of a second question on more powers for the Scottish Parliament, not least the fact that a big majority of people in Scotland believe Holyrood, not Westminster, should control tax and benefits policy.

At first sight it might seem curious that the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats are so hostile to this transfer of power, supported as it is by so many. But for the Labour leadership at least the reason for its opposition lies in its obsession with the SNP and Mr Salmond.

Hence, there is much talk of not letting the nationalists off with “a consolation prize”.

Notice here how the views of people are simply not a factor in the calculation: it is all about what is good or bad for the hated First Minister and his party. For the SNP the situation is different. First, and most importantly, those of us who believe in independence understand that the people best placed to make decisions about Scottish tax and welfare policies are the people who live here.

Further devolution is not therefore a tactic – for me, it goes to the heart of what we are about: attracting the powers needed to make a difference and build a better country.

In this context, an interesting feature of recent SNP statements has been the focus on the welfare state, a policy area in which right-wing Conservative ideology is being brought to bear on some of the most vulnerable in Scottish society.

Secondly, by seeking to involve the majority of people who say they want these important powers transferred to Scotland, the argument is immediately widened and becomes much more inclusive.

Ultimately in his discussions with the Prime Minister, Mr Salmond might discover that the Westminster parties intend to put so many legal obstacles in the way that it would be just too difficult to put a second question on the ballot.

At that point the decisive factor in the referendum may be whether those who currently want more devolved powers believe the status quo, with a George Osborne-style economic and tax policy, matches their views, or whether the full transfer of powers represented by independence, is closer to their thinking.

I suspect it may be the latter.