Referendum on Scottish independence? Time to ‘bring it on’

How do unionists respond to the SNP's Alex Salmond? Perhaps the best option is to bring on an independence referendum sooner rather than later, writes Ed Jacobs.

When the former Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander called on the SNP minority government in Holyrood, to “bring on” a referendum on independence in 2008, it caused Alex Salmond and his party colleagues to panic. For the first time, a party committed to the union challenged the standard bearer of independence to bring forward the legislation needed for a referendum and have the argument they wanted.

In the end, the SNP failed to take that opportunity for a referendum, and ended the parliamentary term having been forced to withdraw their proposed legislation providing for one.

Fast forward to today, and the winning of an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament by the SNP has led to Westminster recognising the right of the Scottish people to vote on their future constitutional arrangements in line with the SNP’s manifesto commitment.

However, the battle now rages over when to hold the vote.

For the SNP, the plan, as things stand, is to have a referendum in the second half of the parliamentary term , with Alex Salmond arguing that his government’s immediate priority will be to increase the powers afforded to Holyrood within the Scotland Bill, currently going through Westminster.

But as the Liberal Democrat leader in Scotland, Willie Rennie, argued (column 90):

“The SNP is solemnly promising to spend the first two years of the session working on the Scotland bill, and it confidently expects to spend the last two years abolishing it. How absurd is that?”

The SNP’s case therefore is really premised not on prioritising greater powers for the Scotland Bill but on seeking to capitalise on the growing unpopularity north of the border of the Conservative-led government over the cuts being imposed on Scotland. And it’s not just political grievances that the SNP will be seeking to exploit, with news that the Scottish cabinet is to consider measures to prevent the UK Supreme Court ruling on issues in Scotland following the case of Nat Fraser.

So how do those in favour of retaining Scotland as part of the UK respond? On the assumption that the Cameron-led government is not going to undertake the u-turn needed on its economic policies, perhaps the best option is for those in favour of the union to do as many have now called for and bring on an independence referendum sooner rather than later.

While the SNP would no doubt cry foul over such a move as being somehow contrary to the expressed views of the Scottish people, the fact remains that their manifesto (page 28) pledged only for a referendum with no indication of timing. Therefore, their calls for a vote in the second half of the current parliamentary term in Scotland have no electoral mandate at all.

Such a move would have two distinct advantages.

Firstly, it would avoid the next four years in Scotland being dominated by constitutional navel-gazing at a time when jobs and investment in the public sector should be the priority; secondly, it would force Alex Salmond to make the case for independence, based not on grievances with London, but on a positive argument for an independent Scotland.

A positive argument for example, which at one point included his case that Scotland could form part of an “arc of prosperity” of smaller independent nations such as Ireland and Iceland, countries which have found themselves in the abyss of economic and financial crises.

But for those who feel the case against independence has yet to be fine-tuned, we have only to look at the arguments made by those outside the traditional pro-union movement for the reasons why independence is unlikely to work.

In an article for Scotland on Sunda,y for example, professor John Kay, a member of Scotland’s Council of Economic Advisers, (established personally by Alex Salmond in 2007), has argued:

“The SNP’s victory in the May elections… Means that the party can now fulfil its commitment to push for a referendum on independence. But independence, if achieved, would bring complications – both political and economic. The reality is that Scotland would gain little by full independence.

“In the modern world, economic sovereignty for small nations is inescapably limited, and political sovereignty is largely symbolic. There is very little possible autonomy for Scotland which is not potentially available to it as part of the United Kingdom.”

And equally, on the totemic issue of defence and foreign affairs – a key area to marking out any nation as being independent – Jim Sillars, the former SNP MP and long standing champion of independence, used a recent article for the Scotsman to argue for a sharing of Scotland’s defence and foreign policy with the UK.

And while arguing for an early referendum himself, the former Chief of the General Staff, Lord (Richard) Dannatt, used an appearance at the Hay Festival to argue:

“I can understand the Scots’ desire for a greater degree of independence but when you really stare down the barrel of complete independence and providing for their own security, I am not sure they would want to do that.

“They might go to some half-way house whereby defence and security of the British Isles remains on a UK-wide basis. I think anything else would be most unwise and I think even the Scots would realise that. If I were David Cameron I wouldn’t wait until Alex Salmond decided when the right moment was to hold a referendum, I’d call one in a year’s time and call the Scots’ bluff.”

In essence, therefore, both economically and from the point of view of defence, a clear case can be made against independence on areas of policy that go to the heart of what independence for Scotland would mean; arguments far more complex than the simplistic message that Scotland would be better off without the Tory-led government in Westminster.

But for a campaign against independence to work properly, it will be crucial to identify someone with the stature and credibly to lead and take on the politically astute Alex Salmond. While reports in the Daily Mail following the devolved elections that Gordon Brown was being lined up to lead the campaign against Scottish independence have received short shrift in some quarters, in many respects it would be an astute move.

Firstly, although politically shallow, his unpopularity with Mr Cameron could prove an asset in any campaign in Scotland; secondly, and probably more potently, it would provide the platform needed for him to make a simple case, namely that it was the UK government, led by him, that bailed out and prevented from going bust the Scottish banks HBOS and RBS, something which could not have been achieved by an independent Scotland.

As he recently said of the prospect of independence:

“In these fragile economic times, this distraction risks the recovery, risks investment, risks jobs, risks prosperity and risks the wellbeing of the country we all love. When the banks failed, Labour stepped in to protect the jobs, the homes, the mortgages of millions.

“The SNP would have left Scotland floundering like Iceland and Ireland. Once again, they are the job wreckers when Labour are the job creators.”

Whilst the choice of Gordon Brown would no doubt prove controversial and draw criticism from much of the Westminster elite, that, in many ways, is the point. A fight against independence cannot be led or controlled by London. It must be a Scottish campaign, led by a well established and well known Scot and being portrayed as being slightly aloof and outside the Westminster mainstream would be unlikely to do him any harm whatsoever.

And so, with support for such a move from those as far apart politically as Alistair Darling and the last Conservative Scottish secretary Lord Forsyth, an early referendum on independence could prove the best option to address the Queen’s recently reported concerns over the break up of the UK.

Yes it might face the wrath of Alex Salmond’s anger, but ultimately if an early referendum were to be called, he would be forced to spell out a positive case for Scottish independence rather than simply capitalising on grievances with London. If independence for Scotland really is such a good idea, what would he have to fear? After all, he spent much of the last parliament preparing for the publication of a detailed White Paper which outlined the SNP’s case for independence.

It is time for those who support the union to have the courage and the unity to embrace a debate on Scotland’s future and call on Alex Salmond to “bring it on”.

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