Ed Jacobs explains how the Unionist parties have been out-strategised by Alex Salmond, who is making the case for a referendum on his terms ever-stronger.
If we include David Cameron’s remarks on Sunday, today marks the fourth day that talk of Scottish independence has once again dominated the news headlines.
Alex Salmond will be licking his lips at the free publicity and platform that David Cameron’s opening salvo in the latest bitter dispute over the terms, time and process of a referendum has provided him. And make no mistake about it; Salmond will have anticipated every step along the way.
The unsurprising news from Scotland secretary Michael Moore yesterday that any referendum held under the current settlement and initiated by Holyrood would be open to a legal challenge explains quite clearly last year’s criticisms of the way the Supreme Court was intervening in Scottish affairs by both Alex Salmond and his justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill.
The Secretary of State’s remarks yesterday were designed to enable the UK government to regain the initiative after a shambolic day on Monday.
The deal on offer, Moore declared, was that Holyrood could have the powers to provide for a legally binding referendum in return for a straightforward yes/no question, ensuring the Electoral Commission oversees the process and not including 16 and 17 year olds within the electorate, as previously called for by the SNP.
It was, Moore claimed, all part of efforts to ensure any referendum is “legal, fair and decisive.”
Yet no sooner had the Minister sat back in his seat in the Commons, than Alex Salmond once again trumped Westminster, with an announcement following a meeting of the Scottish cabinet that a referendum would be held in Autumn 2014, the first firm date announced by any politician on either side of the border.
Then comes the news in today’s Guardian that despite hostility in Westminster to the so called “devo-max” option being included on the ballot paper, a group is being formed to campaign for this very option.
Writing for the paper, Severin Carrell, its Scotland correspondent, reports:
“The Guardian can reveal that a group of civic leaders, including senior figures in the Scottish voluntary sector, trade union movement, churches and business, are in the final stages of launching a new movement to campaign for a so-called “devolution plus” or “devo max” option for Holyrood.
“Their initiative, due to be formally unveiled later this month, could greatly increase the chances of Salmond’s referendum including a second question on extending Holyrood’s powers short of full independence if he presses on with the poll. He plans to publish a final bill setting up the referendum in January 2013.”
In a joint statement last night, David Cameron and Nick Clegg expressed concerns that the Scottish government’s proposals for a referendum would be subject to a legal challenge.
You can’t help but think that all the talk of legal niceties from the UK government is a sign that they realise they have lost the political argument and got their strategy all wrong. It’s akin to the coalition parties having been caught in the headlights of Scottish politics and not quite knowing where to turn.
After a remarkable few days, characterised more by heat than light, it’s time now to knuckle down to the substance of the debate. As an editorial in today’s Herald concludes:
“The battle lines have become clearer. But a stand-off is in no-one’s interest. Now is the time for both sides to engage in mature debate, starting with agreement on the transfer of authority to hold a referendum that is, in Mr Moore’s words, legal, fair and decisive.
“When there are so many other challenges facing Britain and Scotland, meeting these criteria must not be all-consuming. Once met, it will be time for Scots to decide their destiny.”
To achieve this, compromise will be needed on both sides of the border.
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• Scotland needs to get its transport infrastructure in order – Ken Macintosh MSP, October 27th 2011
• Salmond tells Westminster it’s time to end interference in Scotland – Ed Jacobs, October 24th 2011