David Cameron has blundered into the ongoing argument over the timing of a Scottish independence referendum, threatening to set a time limit within which one must take place before backing off.
Talk from the UK government was of “ending uncertainty”, of “clarification”, of “calling the SNP’s bluff”, and a statement will be made today to clarify the position. But will this intervention, or interference as the SNP is calling it, backfire?
First Minister Alex Salmond has repeatedly said that the referendum will be called in the second half of the current Parliament, with speculation that the Bannockburn anniversary in June 2014 is his preferred date. That gives him an additional two years to build from a position where around a third of Scots voters are thought to favour independence to, he hopes, a clear majority.
Cameron clearly feels that he can best defend the UK by pushing for a quick poll before this can happen. But can Salmond persuade Scots who do not currently support his position that this is exactly the sort of English Tory attempt to dictate to Scotland that independence would stop? That’s the gamble that the Prime Minister has taken.
Given the unpopularity of the Tory party in Scotland, the last thing that other pro-union parties would want is the Prime Minister to get too involved in matters that many people believe should be decided in Scotland. Alex Salmond however will relish a position where he can be seen to stand up to the coalition government on Scotland’s behalf.
A note on the legalities of the matter.
Power for public bodies in the UK stems from legislation and works in a top down fashion. Tiers of government generally have the power to do exactly what the legislation establishing them allows them to do. (This is a little simplistic I know, but it is pretty accurate in general terms. I’m not writing a thesis on government here.)
Local authorities, for example, have a duty to do certain things, like provide schools, and are allowed by statute to do others if they choose. But they cannot operate beyond the list of powers that they are given.
When the Scottish Parliament was established, things were set up in exactly the opposite fashion. It was allowed to act in all areas except those that were specifically reserved to Westminster, which include defence, foreign affairs, welfare and, crucially, constitutional matters.
So, technically, the Scottish Parliament cannot decide to run a referendum that could lead to Scottish independence. Only Westminster could do that.
But, as the SNP has pointed out, in practical terms could the UK Government conceivably ignore a referendum result that went in favour of independence?
There is a legislative method by which Westminster can grant the Scottish Parliament additional powers for a time limited period. And this is the mechanism that Cameron now wants to use. He will give the ability to run a binding referendum, but may set conditions in doing so.
OK, technicalities over. Back to the politics.
Another crucial matter that has still to be decided is the format of a referendum. Most times referenda are formed around a single clear question with a yes or no answer. But it is possible that there could be a third option: Scotland to remain part of the UK but to have far greater powers to raise and spend money. This is generally known as either independence lite or devolution max.
If Cameron has his way there will only be two options: independence or the status quo. He, and many others who oppose independence, believe that this is the fundamental issue and that a referendum should therefore offer a clear choice on the issue.
But while Salmond would clearly like full independence it may also be in his interests to have a fall back option of more power for the government that he heads. It is likely that one of these two options would come out ahead, meaning that he wins on some level. (Let’s leave any discussion of how you decide which option wins in a three question vote for another time).
Back in the days when a Scottish Assembly (as it was initially envisaged) was just a campaigning aim there was a discussion about how it might affect the SNP. There were Nationalists who backed the campaign, believing that some powers for Scotland were better than nothing, and those who opposed it, arguing that it had to be independence or nothing.
I remember many in the Labour Party arguing that the successful delivery of devolution would end talk of independence. The Scottish people would be perfectly happy to have some additional powers while remaining part of the UK.
But there were a few who saw what Alex Salmond clearly did: that giving some measure of power to Scotland might whet the appetite for more. The First Minister now believes that he can use devolution as a springboard to independence, building on the support his party currently has to form a majority in favour of separation from the rest of the UK.
There are clearly a number of matters to be decided before any referendum can take place. Who organises it, when does it take place, what options will be on offer and who oversees the process? And it will take a while for these to be resolved.
Michael Moore, the Secretary of State for Scotland, has been very quiet in the last 24 hours as the Prime Minister has made his intervention. But today he will get his chance, making a House of Commons statement for the government. Perhaps this will clarify things a little, although it is more likely to raise issues for further discussion than to provide the answers.
For now it is unfortunate that debate is focused on the technicalities of exactly how to find out the views of the Scottish people and not on the best possible form of government for our country.
Just what would independence look like? What are the economic arguments? How would an independent country be defended? What currency would it use? How does the international dimension fit? These are the matters we should be debating as a nation.
The sooner the politicians, on all sides, can agree on the mechanisms the better. And then we can concentrate on an informed debate about the real issues surrounding the future governance of Scotland.