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A vote for independence is not a vote for Salmond

Published on 23 March 2013

On the first day of January 1993, an individual by the name of Vladimir Meciar led Slovakia to independence.

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He had negotiated his country's side of the divorce from the Czechs – they didn't bother with a referendum – in the Velvet Revolution. Mr Meciar duly became Prime Minister of the new country. By March of 1993 he had lost his parliamentary majority.

You would not wish Mr Meciar on anybody. It would be profoundly unfair, equally, to compare his controversies – over corruption, misuse of state media and much else besides – with the ups and downs of ordinary democratic politicians. Think of this colourful character instead as the basis for a parable.

Mr Meciar was instrumental in the achievement of Slovakian statehood. Nevertheless, a little over a year after the great day he was kicked out of office entirely. Like a bad penny, he returned more than once, but in the end his historic feat counted for less than his record in office. Slovaks wouldn't have him as their President when he applied for the job in 2004.

Mr Meciar's career has gone downhill since. In last year's Slovakian elections his party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, failed to win enough votes even to gain admittance to the country's Parliament. Plainly, the thanks of a grateful nation were not forthcoming.

Sometimes, that's how it goes. In Mr Meciar's case, by all accounts, rejection has been richly deserved. The point would be, nevertheless, that no-one pauses over the laughable notion that an independent Slovakia is his independent Slovakia. No-one attributes the country's successes and failures – more of the former than the latter, as it happens – to Mr Meciar's party.

When Michael Collins was defending the Anglo-Irish Treaty (so called) in Dail Eireann in December of 1921, he famously said: "It gives us freedom. Not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it."

The creation of the Irish Free State would cost Mr Collins his life, but the statement is worth bearing in mind when someone tries to tell you what independence for Scotland "means". The reality is paradoxical: it means what the people who choose to be independent say it could or should mean. It gives the freedom to achieve freedom. Its meaning can't be decided beforehand, not by any political party.

Now we have a diary date for a Thursday in September, 2014, we will be hearing a lot about Alex Salmond's plans for independence. I'm sure the First Minister has his usual ample supply of those. What his opponents don't care to mention, however, is that even if Mr Salmond wins a Yes vote he will still have to face a General Election.

He might not win in such a poll. Who can really say? But were he to lose by some mischance, all those well-laid plans – and some not so well-laid – for resuming EU membership, for joining a sterling area, for Nato and the economy, for the Commonwealth and the monarchy and the rest, would be of no account. All that would remain, as Mr Salmond would be the first to point out, would be the right to decide alternatives without interference.

That can't be done, not seriously, within the framework of the British state. Each of our devolved administrations have been brought to understand as much. There is, always, a supervening London interest. The question for September, 2014, will be whether that is or is not desirable. Whatever you have been led to believe, no-one will be asked about "Alex Salmond's independence".

Still his opponents demand answers from him and from him alone. That's their job, of course. The belief is that if holes can be picked in SNP policies, the idea of independence itself can be pulled apart. The Nationalists can meanwhile only defend themselves on their own account. They are not in the business of volunteering to disappear if independence is won.

It would be interesting, for all that, to hear what plans the opposition parties would have to offer if, from their point of view, the worst came to the worst. This week, Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats was once again inviting Mr Salmond to work with him to extend "home rule" if the referendum is lost. No-one has thought to stand the proposition on its head.

What would the LibDems offer in the event of Yes vote? Surely they must have considered the possibility. What about the Tories? It would beggar belief, would it not, if Labour had not given a thought as to how it would conduct itself in the event of independence. Someone must have prepared a couple of policies. So when can we expect them to be shared with the voters?

The question is, at most, half- serious. We've all seen the polls. No politician offers hostages to fortune. Nevertheless, if you accept that independence is at least a possibility, and if you know the SNP has no automatic right to form a Government, it would be nice to know how the other parties would behave in Scotland's hour, as they would see it, of need. It is called "engaging with all the issues".

The last thing the No campaign wants is to have the debate framed in those terms. If they have their way, September 18, 2014, will be a simple vote for or against Mr Salmond. The SNP is not averse to that idea, given the First Minister's track record. It is no way, for all that, to conduct an argument over an issue of such high, historical, once in a generation – you can fill in the rest – seriousness.

Ultimately, the choice offered will be personal, not party political. Many, the slow learners, will still take their guidance from the parties and follow their loyalties. It seems to be the only way they can understand the casting of a vote. A referendum is different. This referendum, above all, is different. It is not, thank God, just another election campaign.

No-one, thus far, wants to hear that. In journalism, we are as guilty as any. "Poll blow/boost to Salmond", the story or the headline will say. In terms of strict accuracy, it should read "Poll blow/boost to Bell" (and a few million others). Mr Salmond's victory was in securing the referendum. The rest, in a strange but important way, is none of his business.

This ought to be elementary, but none of those in the trenches of the opposing campaigns wants to hear it. In effect, they are distorting the essential argument. The rest of us should be wondering about that kind of behaviour. After all the fraudulent fuss over the wording of the question, the disreputable game is to twist its meaning.

Slovakia, if you were wondering, has done very nicely in the 21st century. That land-locked country of 5.4 million people is these days reckoned to have one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe. Its multi-party politics remains messy, at best, but the centre-left coalition of Robert Fico have managed to oppose austerity and neo-liberalism while avoiding recessions. Foreign direct investment has been high, debt low.

Scotland is not Slovakia. Where national independence is concerned, all precedents are of limited use. It helps, though, if you have a proper understanding of the choice you are being asked to make.

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