Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Scotland united

So there we have it. After three days of political posturing.

Round one. Salmond one. Coalition nil. With 1000 days to go.

And all we have so far is a rough date for the Scottish referendum.

If you think that a legally binding, clear cut referendum, to be held as soon as possible, asking ‘should Scotland become independent?’ is everything Salmond desires, think again.

This referendum is far from certain. The process: how it is held, by whom, when, and what questions are to be asked matters both to the result and the position of the main players in the aftermath.

At the beginning of the 1995 Quebec referendum campaign, polls were broadly similar to Scotland with over two-thirds of people seemingly in favour of Quebec remaining in Canada. By the time the motion – that Quebec should secede from Canada – was held, it was defeated by the narrowest margin. ‘Yes’ 49.42 per cent to ‘No’ 50.58 per cent.

If he gets the questions he wants, at a time he wants, with the debate he wants, Salmond stands a good chance, at the very least, of moving Scotland much closer to full independence.

The Scottish 1997 devolution referendum was held four months after Labour’s general election landslide. Labour knew Scots were convinced about devolution and Labour were anxious to capitalise on the national mood for change. Even the death of Princess Diana 10 days before did not stop the referendum taking place.

Salmond, on the other hand, knew if he held an independence referendum within months of his 2011 election landslide he would lose it. Scots are not, perhaps not yet, convinced about independence.

Devolution was successful because it was never about killing nationalism. It was to protect Scots from Tory governments they didn’t vote for. The more ways Salmond can find to remind Scots that in 2010 they returned one Tory MP but are, once again, governed by a Tory government, the more he will persuade them that independence is the only answer.

Salmond needs time to shift Scots from devolution to independence. Time to create divisions between Scotland and England. Time for the coalition to become even more unpopular as the cuts dig in and recession hits. And time for Scots to realise that devolution, in its present form, can’t protect them from the Tories.

His opponents know this too.

Salmond will not have liked conceding a date for his referendum in response to the first bit of pressure from a UK Tory prime minister. Nonetheless, he won the first battle. He will hold the referendum at the time we all suspect he wanted. Autumn 2014

This is more than a desire to hold the referendum to coincide with the 700th anniversary of a Mel Gibson film.

In the summer of 2014 the Scotland national team will compete, with equal status, with all the other countries that have won their independence from the UK. At the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

In September 2014, we will be on the world stage again when the Ryder Cup returns to Scotland to celebrate the game Scotland gave to the world: Golf.

And, stranger things have happened, Scotland might even qualify for the 2014 Brazil world cup. Brazilians play our national game like no one else. Brazil v Scotland games have been some of our proudest national moments. If our players do well expect a national homecoming like no other, with a big walk on part for Alex Salmond.

The next question is the question. The SNP are yet to declare their preference but remain ‘open’ to a multi-question referendum.

In the 1995 referendum in Quebec the question was: Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?

As long as he can show progress on the long march to independence a question like this suits Salmond. In Quebec, federalists complained that 28 per cent of people who voted ‘yes’ in 1995 thought they were voting for Quebec to get a better deal within Canada.

Salmond thinks Scots are gradualists. Less Scots voted SNP when they were an independence party. More did when they became the referendum party. A Quebec style question has a better chance of winning. As long as he can keep the ‘neverendum’ on track, finding more to rail against, he will prolong his political life and – who knows – maybe, eventually, even get that elusive yes.

The legal status of the referendum is, therefore, not important to Salmond. If Scots know they are voting in a consultative rather than binding referendum, to give Salmond a mandate to make more demands of the UK government, they are more likely to vote ‘yes’. Arguments about legalities are just another chance to rail against a ‘Thatcher-esque Tory government with a London knows best attitude’ which is bound to play well with the Scottish electorate.

Chuck in an argument about 16- and 17-year-olds getting a vote (SNP says yes, everyone else says no – draw your own conclusions from that) and there lies the battlefield.

The UK coalition and Labour call for a clear, decisive and quick, legally binding referendum on independence. Which Salmond rails against for all he is worth.

So it is astonishing to see the UK coalition government play brinkmanship on these very issues. It’s an open goal. Salmond’s claim that this recent three day spat has increased support for him, his party and independence is probably right.

He knows Labour’s difficulty. They call devolution a ‘process’ but can’t say what that process is. And Scots have been sold something that doesn’t do what it says on the tin: protect them from a Tory government.

So to Labour’s frustration, while Scots still want more of Labour’s devolution in the UK, they think Salmond is best placed to deliver it.

Civic society – which was with Labour in the Scottish constitutional convention which brought devolution – is already siding with Salmond on this one. The STUC, churches, and Scottish voluntary organisations say they will define what further powers Scots need, and are calling for a question on more powers for the Scottish parliament to be included in multi-option referendum.

To stand a chance, Labour must break ranks with the coalition and show how much it has changed. Piling in against Salmond only cements his position making it more difficult for Labour to get back on the side of the people. Surely it is all of us, against the Tories.


Danny Phillips is an independent writer and researcher for campaigning organisations in Scotland. He was special adviser to first minister Jack McConnell 2003-2007


Photo: Ronnie Macdonald

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Danny Phillips

is an independent writer and researcher for campaigning organisations in Scotland. He was special adviser to first minister Jack McConnell 2003-2007

1 comment

  • It took to the final paragraph to acknowledge the likely big losers here – Labour. Cameron has nothing to lose defending the English/Union while bashing the Scots. If he riles them up and they vote for independence then once we have come to terms with the decision it’s hard to see how Labour can ever achieve a majority in an English, Welsh & NI Parliament. For Salmond it is like Christmas come early. He knows he would never win an SNP initiated referendum so fighting an aggressive, southern Tory imperialist might help swing it in his favour. Let’s be honest despite SNP huff and puff – 2013 or 2014 makes little or no difference.

    Labour are damned if they do and damned if they do not. A responsible national party cannot support the break up of the union. At best it can argue that “devo max” is an option but as soon as it does that it will be ejected from its position as a party participating formally in this constitutional process. Labour will then neither be a defender of the union nor an obvious defender of the Scots who will punish them yet again in national elections. On that basis I do not agree Labour should break away from the coalition on this. Politically the defence of the union is a non-negotiable for Labour. To act otherwise would be electoral suicide.

    During the election for the new leader of Scottish Labour I tweeted all the candidates suggesting they stand on a platform of calling for a referendum, with a date and a policy of opposing independence. No one replied of course. Now that particular horse has bolted.

    It’s bad news for Labour.

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