Time to call SNP bluff on UK split

HOW can Scotland become independent? Alternatively, if, like me, you believe that the union between Scotland and England is crucial to Scotland's economic and cultural future, how can we settle this matter for the foreseeable future?

How can we prevent constitutional uncertainty becoming a running sore that eats away at the relationship with our biggest and most important neighbour?

If there is a general election and the SNP wins a majority of Westminster-bound MPs, there is a strong case for saying that any SNP leader would have the authority and probably a mandate to negotiate terms for Scotland's independence. Even so, there are many reasons that people vote for a particular party - and independence may be well down the list of why some people vote SNP. A referendum will be needed.

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It should also be remembered that the last time any party received a majority of the electorate's support (and seats) was in 1955 when Sir Anthony Eden's Unionist Party (as it was then correctly named) achieved 55 per cent.

Fortunately for the unionist movement, as the Unionist Party's support declined to the rump of 15 per cent that is called the modern Scottish Conservative Party, the three unionist parties have, together, never polled less than 70 per cent of support.

Even the high water mark of nationalism of the mid-70s only managed 30 per cent. Were there to be a nationalist majority of MPs, it is highly likely that the unionist parties together would still command a majority of popular support - probably between 55 to 60 per cent.

A referendum on the proposed terms of the separation - the who gets what out of the joint assets and who is liable for the various national debts, such as future pension commitments - cannot be avoided. It has now become the way of handling constitutional change in Britain and by signing up to a referendum for devolution in 1997, the SNP removed any possibility of moving to independence without one.

Only a referendum can focus the electorate's attention on a single issue and so a referendum it has to be. The same would apply with next year's Scottish Parliament election. Due to the nature of Holyrood's proportional voting system it is difficult, if not impossible, for any party - even the "stand a donkey and he'll get elected in Lanarkshire" Labour Party - to win an overall majority of members or popular vote.

Were the SNP to be the largest party next year, it would still need to win a referendum to have any authority to negotiate the terms of a divorce - and so far all other parties are saying they won't agree to a referendum.

While I think Alex Salmond's cockiness, some would say insufferable arrogance, is the main obstacle to the Liberal Democrats entering into any coalition agreement with the SNP, there is no doubt that Salmond's demand for a referendum, even it were to happen in four years time, presents a seemingly insuperable hurdle for him to take power.

But what's the problem? Why won't the unionist parties not agree to referendum. Indeed, why don't they say that they'll offer a referendum regardless of next May's election? What have Jack McConnell, Nicol Stephen and Annabel Goldie got to be scared off? To use Margaret Thatcher's Lincolnshire dialect, are they frit? Do they lack confidence in the case for the union?

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Let's face it, no matter what the Holyrood or Westminster election results are, the SNP is always going to argue the case for independence, even if some of its members don't think its leadership is putting the case strongly enough. Its MSPs will always seek to argue against the devolved parliament as they do not believe in it. The very purpose of the SNP must be to constantly raise doubts about its effectiveness and ability.

Even if in power, the media and the public would never hear the end of the SNP's constant gurning about the lack of powers for ministers and the so-called impotence of the Scottish Executive, the Parliament and its MSPs.

The one way to end all this destructive and negative politics is to call the SNP's bluff. Let's have it out! Let's have the referendum. We can even include three questions and make the choice transferable - an independent Scotland, home rule within the United Kingdom or a return to a British Parliament for the whole UK.

Voters would record their preference in a one, two, three - the SNP believes in proportional representation after all.

Although it's difficult to tie future governments in any parliament to a particular course of action (they can always change the law), I think the result of any referendum would become morally binding for at least ten, if not 15 years.

For the sake of ensuring an economically stable and relatively harmonious Scotland, the issue, once decided, should not, cannot, be returned to every couple of years.

If we were to become independent there would certainly be no point in going back if it wasn't working out a few years later. If unionists can accept this, then nationalists should accept the result as binding for a generation also.

If the Scottish people voted for independence then fair enough. The standard of living would probably fall in the short term, but we would have to move on and make the best of it (it took Ireland 50 years to find relative prosperity). If the union was preserved, the SNP would not only have to concede the rejection of its core message, it would actually have to work for the success of Scotland within the United Kingdom, be it at Holyrood or Westminster. That would wreak havoc internally.

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For Salmond the prize is obvious, but for McConnell, Stephen and Goldie, the prize would be the likely collapse of the SNP. With its raison d'etre gone for the foreseeable future, it would likely implode, splitting into fanatics and pragmatists. Defections by ambitious politicians hungry for power would follow.

So what's keeping the unionist leaders? Are they frit? Do they think they might lose? I think we should be told.