When Alex Salmond and David Cameron jointly sign the Edinburgh Agreement, enabling a referendum on Scottish Independence to be held in 2014, it will be in a beautifully stage-managed display of statesmanship.
The ministers, First and Prime, will speak of respect and fairness as they welcome the prospect of a single question to decide Scotland’s future in – or out of – the United Kingdom.
The world’s media will, for a few hours at least, take an interest in the affairs of our peculiar little country. Later, Salmond will stride into SNP HQ like a Kennedy brother overdosing on Red Bull, and the word “quisling” will start to trend on Twitter in Glasgow.
But no amount of pomp and online passion will conceal the reality that tomorrow’s agreement creates. And that will be to give the Scottish people the unappealing choice between one thing most of us don’t want and another thing most of us don’t want. What kind of happy meal do you fancy, kids? Tripe or broccoli?
Poll after poll tells us that around 30 per cent of Scots are for independence. Another 30 per cent want nothing to do with it, remaining happy with the status quo. A larger group – 40 per cent – favour something in between: that sometimes hard to quantify “devo-max” solution. Those Scots have been denied the option they favour.
Alex Salmond’s hoped-for second question on more powers for the parliament appears dead now. But that 40 per cent of voters will have to go somewhere.
This is messy for those on each side of the Yes/No debate. Optimistic nationalists believe that those who back more powers for Holyrood can be persuaded to make the leap towards independence. But, like I say, that’s the view of optimists.
Focus groups tell both nationalists and unionists alike that this crucial 40 per cent is many things. For the Yes campaign, the good news is that they are politically engaged, take an interest in key issues like education, justice and health, and they’re already sympathetic to the idea that a more powerful Holyrood might conceivably mean a more prosperous Scotland.
The good news for the Better Together campaign is that these voters are also small-c conservative Scots for whom the leap towards the break-up of the UK remains daunting, perhaps impossibly so. They are not driven forward by ideological zeal, but slowed by political caution.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – an identifiable, aspirational figure to many within the 40 per cent – will have to play things gently as she tries to bring them a step forward. A gifted political storyteller, Sturgeon will surely dress the independence narrative alongside repeated reassuring words about the services that push voters’ buttons.
There can be no other strategy. A switch to the rhetoric of freedom will spook the 40 per cent, scattering them like skittish gazelles. (I have heard some talk that YesScotland may spin that; now Westminster has called the SNP’s bluff, a No vote would mean Scotland had no more cards to play. To me, that sounds a stronger line for Better Together.)
But at least the Yes camp clearly understands the task ahead. Things are less straightforward for Better Together. Simply, “yes” offers more than people want while “no” offers a damn sight less. In terms of a position from which to begin negotiations with the electorate, it’s far from perfect.
The No campaign would be reckless to think that a message of “nothing changes” will see them comfortably through to the referendum. There must be some dividend for supporting continued membership of the UK. Unionists may have wanted a simple single question, but that does not make the debate around independence any simpler for them. If anything, it does quite the opposite.
Three political parties who have always struggled to agree on key aspects of the devolution settlement will have to find a way of uniting around a tangible offer for more devolution that allows people to vote No while feeling a sense that progress is being made. I have no idea what this is and – from the evidence of calls I made throughout the past week – nor do many unionists. But while they might not know the detail, they accept an offer will have to be created. (Oh yes, and now the game’s on, can we have some detail, sharpish?)
A further responsibility falls, specifically, to Labour. The success of the Better Together campaign will depend on them appearing, again, to be a potential Scottish Government. Clever unionist politicians should remember that continuing to effectively do the important day to day stuff unconnected to the referendum will impact on its result.
Excellent campaigns from MSPs Jenny Marra and Kezia Dugdale – tackling the important contemporary issues of rising fuel prices and “payday loan” interest rates – seem to me to begin to answer Labour’s need to create a story that evokes and is inspired by the party’s traditions.
If other opposition politicians grasp that positive actions help their pro-union cause, then we should see more of this confident campaigning on issues where the word “independence” never comes in to play. The 40 per cent notice this stuff.
I wrote back there that Salmond’s hoped for second question appears dead. It is dead. As a second question, anyway. But might its purpose not come back to life, and this time with top billing? Might that not be the way to ensure the 40 per cent are satisfied, and for the First Minister to claim a politically important victory? We are going to have a single question referendum, that’s certain. So, why not ask the single question most people want to hear: “Do you want devo-max”? I suspect Alex Salmond wishes he could.