Scottish independence referendum: at long last the phoney war comes to an end - Spectator Blogs

15 October 2012

7:34 AM

15 October 2012

7:34 AM

So now’s the day and now’s the hour at which, if you will forgive the mixed allusions, we may discern the beginning of the end of the beginning. Eight months of often tedious wrangling ends this afternoon as David Cameron and Alex Salmond agree some kind of “deal” to fix the terms and conditions of Scotland’s independence referendum. At long last the phoney war is coming to an end.

And not before time. There is talk of this being a historic day and, well, I suppose you can think it that if you want to. Most Scots, I hazard, simply want the warring parties to get on with things. (I fancy this sentiment is likely to be held even more strongly by Englishmen already tired of all this Caledonian wrangling.)

Still, it’s a good start to the SNP’s conference week. David Cameron slinks in to Scotland almost as though he were the leader of a foreign country already. You would not think he’s merely visiting territory for which he presently holds some responsibility. The optics – as the media handlers say – will favour Mr Salmond today. Why, there will even be signing and swapping of papers further bolstering the impression this is a meeting of equals.

That, of course, is how the SNP would like today’s meeting to be seen. How much any of this really matters is another issue entirely. I fancy it’s the sort of thing to which commentators attach too great importance. Nevertheless…

Similarly, many of the arguments have bordered on the futile. I see no good reason for depriving those 16 and 17 year old Scots who wish to vote the opportunity to do so. They will have a stake in the consequences of the outcome for rather longer than will, say, today’s crop of pensioners. Nevertheless, there is little reason to suppose the teenage vote will be decisive. Polling suggests there’s not – or not yet – an “independence generation” and, anyway, many of the blighters won’t even bother to vote.


Salmond’s more substantive “victory” is that the Scottish parliament – that is, the SNP – will set the question subject to it being approved by the Electoral Commission. As Fraser says this may make a difference though the examples of how it may do so that he cites do more to undermine the validity of referendums than of any of the actual alternatives he lists.

For what it is worth, it is possible for Do you agree Scotland should be an independent country? to be both the question the Nats desire and a reasonable one. It is, after all, the issue to be answered.

This whole process, mind you, has been a queer one. The SNP pressed for a two-question referendum even though adding a “More powers but not independence” option would, most probably doom the nationalist cause while Unionists, for their own reasons, opposed a two-question referendum that would, most probably, have secured the Union in one form or another.

I had, initially, favoured a two question poll but I can see there’s some virtue to the clarity afforded by a simpler Yes/No plebiscite. The difficulty is that it is not yet clear what a No vote actually means. It will not necessarily settle the matter, not least since the Prime Minister is on record as being open to “more powers” for Holyrood after the referendum.

That, however, is a discussion upon which he may have little influence. The next Westminster election must be held just six months or so after Scotland’s referendum. David Cameron may – just may – not win that election. Which means that at some point we will need to know what Ed Miliband thinks about Scotland too. What a happy thought that is!

A No campaign that hints at looking again at devolution but that ends with no such second (or, to be accurate, third) look actually being taken is a No campaign that opens the door to accusations of a breach of faith. That way trouble lies. It would make it possible – not certain but certainly possible – that this will not actually be a once-in-a-generation-vote and that, Quebec-style, the matter will go to a replay sooner rather than later.

That’s only one of several possibilities, of course but it is one Unionist campaigners need to consider. In this contest winning is not quite everything; it also matters how you win. (This applies to the SNP too, of course.)

All the evidence suggests Salmond and the Yes campaign have some tough sledding ahead of them. But there’s this too: just holding the referendum unavoidably makes independence more feasible and probable. Good morning Mr Overton, your window is open.

Thirty years ago a prediction we’d be having this argument at all – let alone that it would be led by a majority SNP administration in Edinburgh – would have seemed far-fetched. That is has come to this at all is one mark of Alex Salmond’s achievement.

A Battle for Britain? Yes, I suppose so. But, first, a battle for Scotland.

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Show comments
  • Steven Syme

    Has no-one but me thought the question on the day might be (phrased better than this) Do you want Independence or Devo Max?

    ..with no option for ‘No’

    Ponder that. Its allowable in todays agreement.

    • Dusty

      But what is “Devo max”? As someone pointed out the SNP put that one out there knowing full well the unionist camp would see it as a “Salmond fall back” and rubbish it when they should have defined it.
      In or out is just not good enough.

  • Perks

    After the decision to allow 16 and 17 years olds to vote in the referendum
    for independence, Alex Salmond has also decided to give nursery school pupils a
    seat on the board of governors. This will give them the opportunity to decide
    school policy based on who promises them the most deep fried chocolate

    ‘These three year olds should have the right to decide how their teachers can
    create a healthy balance between play and learning, and on what day they make
    potato prints’ Mr Salmond told us. ‘Let’s be honest. there’s nothing unusual
    about having someone with a very low IQ and a mental age of three dictating
    education policy. Look at Michael Gove.’

    Sam Tiler, age 3 years and 7 months and who’s brother is in year 2 explained
    his input into his school so far. ‘On Thurnesday, we now have to jump like frogs
    to the sky and run in circles and call the teacher poohead’ he told us whist
    spinning himself in the curtains. ‘We will also make sure that the teacher to
    pupil ratio are held at acceptable levels ensuring enough one-to-one time whilst
    still maintaining a positive group learning environment’ he continued before
    adding ‘I’ve just done a wee-wee’.

  • EnglishWarlord

    Westminster has made a dog mess out of England. The Scottish people will have the good sense to leave this disgusting Union.

  • DougDaniel

    “at some point we will need to know what Ed Miliband thinks about Scotland too. What a happy thought that is!”

    We already know – “One Nation, One Nation, One Nation, One Nation…”

    Let’s be honest, the independence question will never go away until it is answered affirmatively. As long as Scotland remains in the union, there will be people who think it should be independent. That’s part of the problem of being a half-country – as long as we have our own judicial, health and education systems and other Scottish-specific areas of governance, there will be a question over why we can’t have full self-governance.

    Even Devo-Whatever would do nothing more than put the need for an answer back a few years. This is a one-way street. We can slow down, we can stop, or we can press ahead – but we can’t go backwards.

    Here’s how I see it going if 2014 is a NO vote:
    – 2015 election results in either a Tory party with no intention of increasing devolution, or a Labour party that seeks a Calmanesque fudge winning a majority. People who voted NO expecting tax and welfare powers to be devolved afterwards realise they’ve been taken for mugs
    – this allows the SNP to fight the 2016 election on a platform of “they lied about further powers” and a promise of a second referendum
    – SNP does the unthinkable and actually increases its majority in 2016, thereby giving it an even greater mandate than last time
    – we have a referendum almost immediately, no mucking about with a Section 30 order, and there is an overwhelming YES majority
    – Westminster declares the referendum null and void because there was no Section 30 order, so the Scottish Government just declares UDI
    – Scotland goes on to follow the path to becoming a progressive, socially just nation, while rUK, having spurned the chance to remain in a Sterling area with Scotland, becomes bankrupt

    Well, it’s possible…

  • Gav Johnstone

    An excellent piece by Alex with only one small flaw – the statement that the SNP preseed for second question. Perhaps I missed this but at no point have I seen them argue FOR it, they have simpy not ruled it out – most probably a strategic gamble to force their opponents to concentrate thier efforts on a non-starter or perhaps as a bargaining chip today. That could be one reason for the non-publication of the consultation (I’d be a bit disappointed in them if this is the case).

  • Richard Gordon

    Do Scots living in the rest of the UK have a vote in their country’s future?

    • Alex Massie

      RG: you have two years to get on the electoral roll in Scotland.

    • Mike_docherty

      No. Just as with elections to the Scottish Parliament (and all other official elections) it is those on the Scottish electoral roll who will be eligible to vote.

  • JohnMcDonaldish

    Having denied the Scots the choice of more powers, Cameron has left most thinking Scots no option but independence. Some “victory” for the Unionists. Salmond and the SNP never wanted the second question but could hardly fail to ignore its popularity with the voters.

    And that’s why the SNP will win, because most people will trust them to do best by Scotland.

  • JohnMcDonaldish

    Having denied the Scots the choice of more powers, Cameron has left most thinking Scots no option but independence. Some “victory” for the Unionists. Salmond and the SNP never wanted the second question but could hardly fail to ignore its popularity with the voters.

    And that’s why the SNP will win, because most people will trust them to do best by Scotland.

    • Struan MacSatellitedish

      Take every penny you have & visit your local bookie then.I’m sure he will be happy to accomodate you.Somehow,I doubt you will.

    • Bluesman

      Brussels for Aye!