WHEN the Prime Minister David Cameron and First Minister Alex Salmond meet to sign up to the referendum tomorrow, it will signal the start of a new phase in the great debate.
There won’t be a guard of honour, nor any troops to inspect. Yet. But the red carpet will be rolled out for David Cameron when he turns up at St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh tomorrow. Despite being described by one SNP MP as a “Westminster Eton toff”, the Prime Minister can expect an effusive welcome when his Jag rolls up at Alex Salmond’s gaff.
Ever conscious of the importance of the visuals, the SNP government wants people to see, in this meeting, a glimpse of the future.
Salmond has said he envisages the rest of the United Kingdom (rUK) as being Scotland’s “best pal” after independence. Scotland will no longer be a “surly lodger” in the UK house – having decided to move to a two-up, two-down next door. And so, when the Prime Minister of the UK turns up to meet the First Minister, the aim will be to show how this new “bilateral relationship” will work. Conscious of those Scots who hear warnings of divorce, and barbed wire at Gretna, the SNP is keen to ensure the new neighbour is seen as a friendly sort, who lays out jam tarts and scones for the first visit.
“Scotland is already looking and feeling like an independent nation,” notes one of Salmond’s advisers. “Monday sets a template for the relationship that would exist after independence.”
The event will culminate in the agreement of a deal to enshrine in law a historic referendum on Scottish independence, to take place in two years’ time. The holding of that referendum may have been pencilled in ever since the SNP won its extraordinary election victory last summer, but tomorrow will finally put it into ink. It will climax in the First Minister’s fifth floor office when, in front of the TV cameras, the aim is for the FM and PM to sign and exchange documents before a ritualistic shaking of hands.
The SNP desire to use the meeting as a glimpse of the future is not shared by the opposite side. “What a pile of nonsense,” retorts one pro-Union figure. While the SNP may see tomorrow as its historic moment, Team Cameron heads to Edinburgh in an equally content frame of mind. Last week, Salmond got a special mention in the Prime Minister’s keynote speech to the Conservative conference, as the only man in the UK who “didn’t like” the fact that Scots Olympians were draped earlier this summer in the Union Flag. At a reception at the conference in Birmingham, Cameron said it was “hard to think of anything more important” to a Tory than the battle for the United Kingdom.
Downing Street aides now insist that, second to the over-arching issue of the economy, the big question of Scottish independence is now at the top of the pile of papers in the Prime Minister’s Red Box. The belief is that, finally, after 40 years of unease, this government has the chance finally to put to rest the question mark over Scotland’s place in the UK.
All sides agree that the phoney war is over. The deal was finally agreed on Friday afternoon by Scottish Secretary Michael Moore and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. The last sticking points, over campaign finance and the question of the franchise, finally resolved. Just to show that the real business begins immediately afterwards, Salmond will, having waved farewell to Cameron, turn his thoughts straight away to the SNP conference in Perth, which begins on Thursday, with the party preparing to hold a key debate on whether to reverse its opposition to Nato membership. Then on Saturday, he will – to what is sure to be a rapturous reception – address his fellow Nationalists on the two-year fight to come.
So, where has the tortuous negotiating period left the two sides? And what might it tell us about the future?
As the fountain pens are prepared for tomorrow, one thing is certain: both sides are already claiming victory. For the coalition government, the victory is that the one line drawn by Cameron and Scottish Secretary Moore – that there be just a single, simple question on independence – has not been crossed.
Privately, those who have been around the campaign over the past 18 months are breathing a sigh of relief at the way things have turned out. After the SNP’s victory last year, they note, and with different views flashing back and forth between three different parties, the anti-independence cause was all over the place. The danger was that, in accepting the SNP offer of a middle way option, the pro-Union parties ended up divided and incoherent, fighting among themselves.
Liberal Democrats are naturally keen to praise Moore for steadying the ship. At least now, pro-Union figures argue, their side has a holding position, with all of Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives examining a reformed devolution settlement. “It means the contest is between independence and what’s contained in the Scotland Act, plus something,” says one. That “something” will be tested, they agree. But so too, thanks to the Yes-No formula, will independence – and to destruction, they hope.
The pro-Union side would have liked to hold the referendum sooner, but the deal agreed on Friday specifically puts a time limit on the powers, which means the vote must be held by the end of 2014. Barring an act of God or a sudden failure of nerve on the SNP’s part, the referendum will now go ahead.
But the SNP is also claiming the spoils. Back in January, Salmond’s team notes, the talk from Number Ten was of Westminster organising the referendum itself, on the basis the question would be “whether or not to remain in the United Kingdom”. Now, nine months on, everything is different, they argue. The SNP has won the prize of timing – a crucial factor, campaigners note, as they begin the mammoth task of persuading hundreds of thousands of sceptics. Subject to agreement by the Electoral Commission, the Scottish Parliament is able to devise the question. And it is the SNP-dominated Scottish Parliament which will now scrutinise the plans.
As for the fact the SNP has now accepted a straight Yes-No referendum, party figures insist – despite Salmond’s effusive previous support for the “attractive” idea of fiscal autonomy – that the plan for a second devo-max question was only ever an option they felt they needed to consider. They are now turning to tactical efforts to ram home the message that, while they were happy to include the middle way on the ballot paper, it is the UK government which is forcing people to make a choice.
The First Minister’s achievement is also one of timing. One usually acerbic SNP politician notes: “You have to doff your cap to the big man. We didn’t control the timing of the deal and yet he has managed to get a deal the week of SNP conference.” Tomorrow’s agreement now means there will be maximum publicity for Salmond as he heads to Perth, and it could strengthen his hand when he gets there.
Some believe the deal can only help the party’s attempts to achieve a policy U-turn on Nato membership. Defence spokesman Angus Robertson’s bid to support an independent Scotland’s membership of the military alliance has roused more opposition among grass-roots members than had initially been expected. Even some who back the move acknowledge they are doing so with little or no enthusiasm. But, they add, it may be that the Salmond-Cameron deal tomorrow helps Robertson get over the line, as the party concludes that, with the referendum now signed and sealed, they have to swallow the proposal in order to reduce attack lines against independence.
This remains hotly disputed by the anti-Nato side, who argue that the shift in policy will only alienate Scots voters who want something different. These people, as we report today, include YesScotland board member and leading chef Andrew Fairlie, who accuses the SNP of trying to be “all things to all men”. But, says one conflicted politician who is likely to raise his hand to back Robertson this week, “the deal will focus minds on the battle ahead. It’ll be a grudging hands up”.
If the Nato vote is won by the leadership, it will then be Salmond’s task on Saturday, when he addresses the conference, to set his party full steam ahead for the contest. His arguments are certain to focus on the economy, the over-riding issue. With the UK outlook remaining moribund and Chancellor George Osborne last week having promised little more than hard pounding ahead, the SNP believes it can convince people that an independent Scotland offers a way out.
This weekend, the SNP was already wheeling out downgrades in IMF predictions for the UK over the coming years – and contrasting them to figures for conveniently small nations such as Ireland, Iceland and Norway. Intriguingly, the SNP is also likely to develop the argument that the referendum has now brought an end to the old-style Scottish politics, which saw Scotland use the leverage of the threat of independence to extract cash and attention from London.
If Scotland votes No, the party will argue, Whitehall would be able afterwards to hack back at the Scottish grant in the knowledge that the political risk of kindling nationalist sentiment had gone.
It is a risky move, given that it is the SNP which has called the referendum. But the hope is that such arguments can persuade those who say they already incline towards devo-max to conclude they should make what the SNP likes to call “the short distance” from there on to independence. “That will determine the outcome of the whole referendum,” says one figure.
After a summer during which they have had to lump the sight of the Union Flags across the United Kingdom, the Nationalists will go into this week in the belief that it is their turn now. There are even claims that, with a summer of British pageantry and patriotism fading in the memory, the pro-Union side may have reached its “high-water mark”, and that – from this week on – the slow increase in support for Scottish independence begins. The search for the Big Mo continues. Waiting though, is an organised and disciplined pro-UK campaign which, for weeks now, has been eager to get onto the substance of the argument, with the issue of defence likely to be the focus of their campaign in the days ahead.
Tomorrow will be for pleasantries and platitudes. The ferocity and fireworks begin straight after.