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100 weeks to go and everything to play for

SO, who won the referendum phoney war?

There was an air of quiet satisfaction among senior Tories at their conference in Birmingham last week. "Wily" Alex Salmond had been put back in his box, I was told – forced to drop his devious plan to turn the ballot on Scottish independence into an each-way bet in a two-horse race that he couldn't lose.

But 300 miles north, members of the Yes Scotland campaign were also expressing quiet satisfaction. They claim to be more than content with a single-question referendum. Nationalists think Salmond pulled the wool over the UK Government's eyes and that he wanted a single question all along. They can't both be right.

Actually, this is one of those rare occasions in politics when both sides can claim victory. David Cameron can legitimately say that he insisted on, and got, a single straight in-or-out question and that the Electoral Commission will have a say on the wording. Alex Salmond can say that he has won on the 2014 timetable, giving people aged 16 and 17 the vote and ensuring that the referendum is legally binding. The FM will say that he always favoured a single question himself, but didn't want to be accused of disenfranchising supporters of "devolution max". Opposition politicians will say: "Aye, right ..."

Perhaps the real winners are the people of Scotland, who will not only be given the legal power to secede from the UK state – a power denied only last week to Catalans by the Spanish government – but will be allowed to give a straight answer to a straight question along the lines of: "Do you wish Scotland to become an independent country?" This is infinitely preferable to the obfuscatory nightmare formulations that were put to the people of Quebec in their "Neverendums" of the last century.

The ground rules for this referendum have been negotiated with honour, intelligence and some grace on both sides. Neither Cameron nor Salmond resorted to histrionics, threats, megaphone diplomacy or manipulation of public opinion. Well, just a little around the edges maybe. But they made their positions clear and then came to a reasoned compromise. Salmond has said that this is a once-in-a-generation issue and that the referee's decision is final.

Let's not underestimate the significance of this moment. The United Kingdom, which has been in existence for three centuries and once held dominion over a quarter of the planet, may have signed its own death warrant by giving Scotland the legal right to secede. If Scotland votes Yes, it could have huge implications, not only for the continuance of the nuclear deterrent, but also for Britain's status on the United Nations Security Council, and in international forums like the European Union.

How France and Germany would laugh if "Great" Britain were to lose a third of its land mass, most of its oil and all of its strategic weapons. How Brussels bureaucrats would relish the sight of a rump "rUK" (rest of the UK) negotiating its continued membership of the EU. Mind you, if Scotland does vote to secede, I suspect Tory eurosceptics would demand and get their referendum on Europe. We might find that it is not Scotland that leaves the EU, but England.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. If the opinion polls are right, the UK will remain united. Only around a quarter to a third of Scots say they want to leave the UK, and if anything, opposition to independence is hardening. A quarter of Scots say they want to stay in the UK and the remainder, the largest group, want a parliament with greater powers. The task for Yes Scotland and for the "Yes minister", Nicola Sturgeon, who has cabinet responsibility for the referendum, will be to translate a proportion of those in-betweeners to the cause of independence.

Salmond has already made it easier for them by abandoning many traditional independence themes. Scotland would retain the Queen as head of state, the pound as the Scottish currency and the Bank of England in charge of interest rates. Salmond has talked of a new "social union" with England and even former fundamentalists like the Health Secretary, Alex Neil, insist that Scots will still be able to call themselves "British". It's left many observers wondering if we need a referendum at all.

But remember, the SNP only need to win once. If they can persuade enough Unionist waverers to say Yes, on the grounds that this is the only way they can ensure that the Scottish Parliament gets more powers, then that will be enough.

Salmond will be able to claim that Scotland has voted for independence, and begin negotiations with Westminster on division of the national debt, offshore oil reserves and other common assets. Independence means whatever Alex Salmond says it means and it might mean something rather more radical after the referendum than it appears to mean now.

So, the Unionists' task will be to make clear this is a vote to leave the UK, and not some half-way house. Yes means yes. Independence is for keeps. If Scotland votes yes, Scottish MPs will have to withdraw from Westminster; the British army will pull out of Scottish bases; the Barnett Formula subsidies will cease; and the Bank of England will no longer be lender of last resort to Scottish banks.

But the Unionists are not in a good position right now. The Olympics and the opinion polls have been a shot in the arm, but there are deep political divisions between the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. "Better Together" has yet to get its act together. Meanwhile, the SNP remain uncannily united. Indeed, the party looks remarkably relaxed given the state of public opinion on independence. Do they know something we don't?

Perhaps. Some Nationalists are saying privately that they could lose the referendum and still retain power in the Scottish Parliament.

Their historic victories in 2007 and 2011 had little to do with the policy on independence – indeed, thanks to the referendum, Scots were able to vote for the Nationalists secure in the knowledge that a vote for Salmond was not a vote to leave the UK. If, as seems likely, the outcome is something like 40% for Yes and 60% for No, the SNP could still dust itself off and go into the 2016 Scottish elections saying to voters: OK, we lost – but we're still better than the other lot at running Holyrood.

I'm not saying anyone in the SNPwould be happy to lose – that would be absurd. It would be a personal blow that would probably end Salmond's career. But perhaps under new management, with Nicola Sturgeon as leader, the SNP might still present the best case to continue in power in Holyrood.

Anyway, only a fool would predict the outcome of this epic battle for the future of the UK. There are 100 weeks to go, and there's everything to fight for. It's going to be a hell of a show.

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