Margo MacDonald: SNP must change its tactics on referendum

THE Deputy First Minister and I don't know each other very well. We didn't get off to a good start, as we disagreed fundamentally in our first conversation. But I do know one thing about Nicola Sturgeon . . . she's dead keen on the SNP's referendum commitment.

Ten years on, she and I have a perfectly reasonable working relationship in which attempting to reach agreement on a course of action would be taken for granted by both of us. But were we to re-run our "referendum" conversation, I suspect we would be as far apart as we were before we were elected to the Scottish Parliament.

The SNP had always said that when it won a majority of seats or votes in an election, it would treat that as a mandate to negotiate independence. Before the first Scottish Parliament election, the SNP leadership changed this to a promise to hold a referendum. Supporters of the idea, and some intellectually lazy journalists, referred to the referendum as "strategy" or as a "policy".

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I was judged a fundamentalist wrecker and trouble-maker when I insisted that a referendum was not a policy, or strategy, but was a tactic that might be, or might not be deployed in the campaign to achieve independence. I pointed out way back then, and with no sense of triumph or pleasure I still believe it a bad idea to let your opponents know your tactics in advance.

As Scotland might find to its cost, having been legitimised by the SNP, the tactic might be used by the party's unionist opponents to outmanoeuvre it.

David Cameron is being urged by a small, but growing, number of Tories to call Alex Salmond's bluff and have a referendum ASAP during his post- election honeymoon after he's elected . . . in England. Alternatively, he could promise in the General Election campaign to hold a referendum on enhanced powers for Holyrood on the same day as the next Scottish Parliament elections. Either way, the tactic could put Alex Salmond's gas at a peep.

Varying the use of the same tactic, Gordon Brown could decide to hold a test of Scottish opinion on the constitution on the same day as the next election.

Maybe neither of these possibilities will see the light of day, but they introduce yet another factor outwith the SNP's control over the political agenda. Even without opportunistic referendums staged by the opponents of independence, this is one promise the SNP can't keep without the support of the unionist parties of one or other persuasion. Holding a referendum in advance of a steady percentage of the Scottish electorate, closer to 50 per cent than 33 per cent, having an understanding of how constitutional issues are separate from, but impact on, party political policies is unlikely to win independence.

Although some members of all parties represented in Holyrood favour independence, and others favour everything except defence and foreign affairs being the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, they dislike and oppose the SNP more strongly than they support the idea of wide-reaching constitutional change. They're not whole-hearted unionists, but they have ties of loyalty, friendship, self-interest, and maybe even philosophy or ideology, that bind them to their parties.

In the SNP there are people who doubtless see themselves as good nationalists, and who're thirled to the idea of Scottish independence, but who nevertheless show no sense of urgency in getting to grips with the economic and diplomatic challenges of the 21st century's global marketplace and environmental concerns.

Even with a reasonably competent, and sometimes sparklingly attractive, SNP government, there is too big a gap in the knowledge about the difference independence could make to life in Scotland for men and women who have grown up in a culture that can accommodate Britishness, no matter how Scottish they feel, to do otherwise than opt for the devil they know. That could introduce the distraction of "neverendums" into our politics during a period when our political, creative and entrepreneurial focus should be on carving out our place in the world.

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Alex Salmond has said referendums should only be held once in a generation, but who's to say his opponents won't use them to further their case?

The First Minister also believes Scots will ignore party politicking, and won't be influenced by parties' popularity when it comes to voting in a referendum. I think he's wrong. The SNP has failed to explain the nuts and bolts of independence, the keepers of the nationalist conscience have not explained that independence is the best delivery mechanism for government policies, whether Labour, Tories, Lib Dems or Greens are voted into power.

Once the SNP has carried out an information and educational campaign that differentiates between sovereign independence and support for the SNP, maybe a referendum would be the right tactic, at the right time.