THE issue of Scotland did not feature prominently in David Cameron's speech yesterday.
It is not difficult to understand why. If the speculation is correct, the SNP administration has secured a deal that allows it to organise the referendum, give votes to 16-year-olds, and – in return – only have one question on the ballot. Not good for the Prime Minister.
First Minister Alex Salmond insisted yesterday that a referendum deal had not been done. But the concession that the Scottish Government will be allowed to organise the referendum, that its preferred question will be put to the voters – subject only to consent of the Electoral Commission – and that 16-17-year-olds will be allowed to vote are victories in their own right. I'm told these ideas were proposed only as bargaining chips that could be dropped for substantial concessions.
The vote for 16 and17-year-olds is curious. Apart from a referendum in Iran some years back, that age group has never been allowed to vote in referendums. The First Minister and the Iranian President may disagree on desirability of nuclear weapons, and – as far as I am informed – Iran does not want to join Nato, but on votes for 16-year-olds Mr Ahmadinejad and Alex Salmond stand shoulder to shoulder. Cheekiness aside, this is not the main issue. Votes for 16-year-olds might marginally increase the support for independence but are is unlikely to determine the outcome.
The far more important fact is that Mr Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon will be able to organise the referendum.
Much has been made of the apparent fact that there will be only one question on the ballot. This – according to the Number 10 spin doctors – ensures that there will be no maximum devolution, or devo max, option; Mr Salmond will not have a fall-back position if he loses. Or so the argument goes. This is not quite accurate. In fact, there is actually a different option few seem aware of. It comes from the Faroe Islands.
Back in the 1940s, after the Second World War, our northern neighbours had to decide whether they wanted independence from Denmark. The People's Party, which campaigned for independence, was aware that it might be difficult to win an outright majority for secession. So it came up with a referendum question with a twist.
In most referendums, it is an all-or-nothing question; either you opt for independence or you choose the status quo. It's a Hobson's choice, if you like; a take-it-or-leave-it choice. But in the Faroe Islands, they did it differently. The voters were asked to choose between "devolution max" or "independence". The choice was not all or nothing. A yes vote would mean independence but a no vote would mean devo max. By using this format, The People's Party could not lose.
Now that the SNP has been given the right to organise the referendum, there seems little that could stop it looking to the Faroes for inspiration.
The result in the Faroe Islands was a kind of devolution max, under which the islands were given all the powers over domestic affairs, except defence, and continued to send MPs to Denmark and to receive a considerable subsidy from the Danish treasury. Not a bad outcome from their point of view.
We don't normally want to be reminded about the Faroe Islands (remember the inglorious 2-2 draw in 2002?). But the model from their referendum might inspire the SNP.
The opinion polls suggest that it will be difficult for the SNP to win a majority for independence. But if the choice is one between devolution-max or independence, it seems likely that the SNP and the Greens at least get the second best from their point of view.
It is little wonder David Cameron made only passing reference to the referendum yesterday. The outcome of the negotiations appears far from impressive from his political perspective.
Matt Qvortrup is author of A Comparative Study of Referendums.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.