No, the First Minister hasn’t actually been trying to outdo the Mayor of London in the crazy stunts stakes, entertaining as that might be to watch. It’s a metaphorical tightrope that Alex Salmond is walking. And it involves the seemingly endless argument over how many questions will be on the Scottish Independence referendum ballot paper.
It is likely that the whole technical debate about the mechanics of the referendum will be over within the next couple of months. And while political anoraks find the whole thing fascinating, even we are looking forward to its resolution so that we can get onto the real debate about the future constitutional status of Scotland.
Now let’s begin by stating the obvious. Alex Salmond is a nationalist. He leads a party whose primary purpose is to achieve independence for Scotland. And that is what guides all of his political thinking. He is not content to be leader of a devolved administration as part of a United Kingdom; he wants Scotland to stand alone.
But Salmond, love him or hate him, is an astute politician. He in many ways represents the split within SNP ranks between the fundamentalists who believe that independence is everything and must be achieved in one fell swoop, and the gradualists who believe that a longer term approach will eventually lead to the ultimate aim.
And that’s exactly why Alex Salmond is currently in the position he is in. His gradualist views are in the majority within his party and he lives daily with the paradox that his job is to make a devolved administration work well while arguing that separation from the UK is necessary. His supporters will argue that this tactic has been successful in gaining public support, as he has converted a minority SNP government into a majority one.
Salmond now has a mandate for an independence referendum. And in my view that means a simple, straightforward question should be put to Scottish voters: become independent or remain within the UK.
And if Alex Salmond thought that he could persuade a majority of Scottish voters to back independence then this single question is exactly what he would want to see.
But the polls show support for independence well below the levels where a win for Salmond is likely. Now I know that two years is a long time and a lot could happen before the likely 2014 referendum date. But Salmond isn’t one to leave things to chance.
That’s where the whole devo max/ devo plus/ independence lite argument comes into play. Now there is no worked up scheme for any of these terms that we hear about in the media so often. They have simply come to represent a position where the devolution process is continued and further (unspecified as yet) powers are given to the Scottish Parliament, but while Scotland remains as a part of the UK. And the polls suggest that, without knowing the details, a majority of voters would back this option.
So if Salmond agrees to devo max on the ballot paper he won’t get independence it would seem. But if he isn’t going to win a single question referendum anyway, would more powers for his government not be a nice consolation prize? And, to a gradualist, also mean another small step towards the long term goal?
But the leader of a pro independence party cannot publicly argue this position. It would be an implicit acceptance of defeat. He would be acknowledging that he cannot win a majority for independence.
And that’s where the balancing act comes in.
Alex Salmond has been very careful never to rule out a third option on the ballot paper. He, naturally enough, has continued to argue for independence – but not in the manner that the fundamentalists would like to see.
The longer the debate goes on, the less radical the SNP’s vision of an independent Scotland is portrayed. We are told that the queen would be head of state, we would continue to use the pound, be tied to Bank of England interest rates, remain in the EU and possibly NATO too, watch Eastenders and other British tv programmes and be part of some sort of “social union” with the rest of the UK, whatever that means. So the distance between full blown independence and a fudged solution is lessening as time goes on.
Now back in January the Scottish Government issued a consultation document called Your Scotland, Your Referendum. It asked for views on the organisation of the referendum, and this included consideration of a possible second question. The crucial sentence was:
“The Scottish Government’s position remains that it is willing to include a question about further devolution on the lines of “devolution max” if there is sufficient support for such a move.”
We are back to the tightrope. The Government doesn’t really want a second question but would concede one if the notion has support, it says. And if it is politically expedient, of course.
Over the summer the responses to the consultation document have been analysed. Some sort of summary will be published over the next month or so. And Alex Salmond will have to take the difficult decision about whether to support the inclusion of a devo max question or not.
A large number of consultation responses along those lines would give him an easy out. It might not be my view, he would argue, but we represent the people and so we have to listen … I could write the speech for him now.
I’ve always argued that referenda are for settling fundamental constitutional questions. That’s why we don’t have many and they are reserved for the most important issues. And this one should be about the basic question alone – should Scotland leave the UK to become an independent country or should we continue to be part of the UK? Any further consideration of devolving more powers is a discussion for another day.
Will Alex Salmond stand firm in his belief that he can win a one question referendum on independence? Or will he concede that is unlikely and include a third option to muddy the waters? We will find out over the next few weeks.