(Updated below 12th January) No doubt some Westminster wonks – aka juvenile ‘policy advisers’ who’ve never had a proper job - were thinking gleefully that the choreography the Prime Minister and the Scottish Secretary danced yesterday and today was going to bedazzle and undermine the Scottish First Minister.
The move was to stress the legal pre-eminence of Westminster in in running ‘legally binding’ referenda, then generously ‘offer’ to ‘let’ Holyrood have the power to run its own referendum on Scottish independence – and attach strings – conditions only under which they would be prepared to grant this concession.
The key condition was that such a referendum would have to be held within 18 months – by the summer of 2013. Otherwise the legal permission granted to enable it would become a pumpkin.
Did no one think that this stunt was simply playing the role in which the SNP have cast the UK government, confirming the stereotype of the imperialist control-freak?
Scotland’s First Minister was quick to capitalise on the ‘strings’ attached to the ‘offer’, saying that there was no way Scotland would tolerate Westminster’s attempt to pull its ‘strings’.
Then, within hours and after a Cabinet meeting in Edinburgh called to finalise a public consultation paper to be issued by the end of this month, Alex Salmond announced that Scotland would be holding its independence referendum in the autumn of 2014. So now we know. And that’s it.
It was telling that the national news media carried the Salmond statement upfront and quickly sidelined Moore’s announcement to the House of Commons this afternoon, on the primary legal authority of Westminster.
Salmond’s was the game that counted – and where does his untroubled setting of his chosen date for the referendum leave the Prime Minister?
The answer is that David Cameron is now in some difficulty – self-inflicted difficulty.
It is not irrelevant that Alex Salmond is an experienced tipster on the geegees. He’s putting his and his party’s shirt on winning the independence referendum. He knows and understands brinkmanship and plays it with the ease of familiarity and confidence . He simply swatted away the Westminster bid and slapped down the winning docket.
Constitutionally, as we understand it, the Scottish Government – an unimagined majority administration in the devolved Scottish Parliament, is quite entitled, without any referendum, to ask to start talks with the UK government to pave the way for and move to independence.
Mr Salmond, however, believes that a decision of this scale is one which needs to be directly made and fully owned by the electorate whose efforts would be crucial in fuelling an independent Scotland.
Scotland is already in a place where the world expects it to opt for independence. The reality of this is that disappointing those expectations would damage external confidence in the country as well as puncturing the marked self belief that characterises it today.
But it will be the electorate who decide and that will now be done in the autumn of 2014.
If the answer is a ‘No’ to independence, it will not matter much to Mr Salmond and the SNP whether that decision is legally binding or not. They will have lost and Scotland will be in the hands of some sort of coalition headed by Johann Lamont, Willlie Rennie and Ruth Davidson.
If the answer is an unequivocal ‘Yes’, the fact that it might arguably not be legally binding is irrelevant. The SNP, elected with its emphatic majority, can start negotiation on independence as things now stand. But with a clear ‘Yes’ vote in a referendum of the people behind them, it would a terminally foolish action for the health of future relationships if the Westminster government were then to refuse to cooperate on the grounds that the referendum was ‘only advisory’. And the Scottish Government would also come to the negotiating table with the ratification of the Scottish Parliament behind it.
It is also interesting to consider the implications of a move said to be part of the Westminster Government’s scenario in the ‘strategy’ opened up yesterday and today by the Prime Minister and the Scottish Secretary.
They say they are considering running the referendum themselves within their preferred timescale, should the Scottish Government refuse their ‘offer’ of temporary legal powers to run it under the conditions dictated.
Leading experts in constitutional law, like Professor Robert Hazell of London University’s Constitutional Unit, are uncertain as to whether Westminster has the legal right to dictate timescales.
Setting that aside though, supposing The UK government did run such a referendum itself…
It would do so without any competent invitation to do so.
By doing so, it would take the initiative in inviting Scots to leave the union.
Such a referendum would be very likely to face a significant boycott with the humiliation and destruction of credibility that this would produce.
But consider the situation that would arise supposing, rather than being boycotted, the alien referendum were such a galvanic that droves of undecided voters opted, in anger, for independence, with a majority ‘Yes’ vote?
This would mean that the union was responsible itself for precipitating the loss of its second largest economy.
Conversely, look at the situation following the UK government hypothetically running the referendum itself in the summer of 2013 – and achieving its intent in seeing a ‘No’ majority.
In this case, the SNP would certainly live to fight another day (and soon) where, should they lose in a referendum of their own, they would have bet all and lost all.
The level of political and constitutional thinking in and around the coalition government at Westminster is quite shockingly inept and is another attraction in independence. In this context it is worth noting that the astute (?) Ed Milliband has given Labour Party support to the UK Government’s moves.
The Salmond schedule
In the light of the First Minister’s announcement that the independence referendum is planned for Autumn 2014, the BBC’s Political Editor, Brian Taylor, has noted in his blog the details of Mr Salmond’s schedule from now to then.
- ‘a consultation document on how to run the referendum by the end of this month;
- ‘a consultation period;
- ‘preparation of the necessary Bill and accompanying material;
- ‘introduction of the Bill in January 2013;
- ‘passage of that Bill by the autumn of 2013;
- ‘then the “cooling off period” between legislation for elections and the ballot itself, prescribed following the chaos which attended an earlier, ill-prepared Holyrood election;
- ‘then moves to avoid the European elections in June and the Commonwealth Games;
- ‘adding up to a referendum on independence in the autumn of 2014. ‘
12th January update
If proof were needed of what a good job David Cameron is doing for the independence movement, we have just had information that the SNP got 150 new party members on the night of Monday 9th January. This was directly after the Prime Minister’s intervention, ‘allowing’ the Scottish Government to run the referendum and ‘lending’ them the ‘power’ to do so ‘on condition ‘ that it was done by summer 2013.