Friday, 10 June 2011

Salmond the Union's saviour?

One (baby) elephant in the room during the most recent days of discussion on that referendum was the omission of any mention of a third option on the ballot paper, since that alternative was included when the SNP Government published its Bill during the last parliament. The most recent debate has generally assumed a simple choice between the status quo and independence, with the big unknown being precisely what the latter would amount to.

But today's Scotsman lead story is highlighting the possibility/probability of a third option again, this based on comments made yesterday by Alex Salmond. Thus Scots could chose to lead the country towards either independence-lite or the full monty. And according to Tom Peterkin's article. the middle way would represent something a bit closer to the status quo than my understanding of what independence-lite amounted to:
However, most analysts agreed that independence-lite would be a settlement similar to what used to be known as Home Rule, with Scotland remaining in the Union yet having power over domestic affairs including the vast majority of tax-raising powers and benefits. Policies such as defence and foreign affairs would remain with Westminster.
Which seems closer to my perception of full fiscal autonomy or devo-max than independence-lite, but it's not clear from the article whether this interpretation is based on Mr Salmond's remarks, or merely what the analysts think it will amount to. On the other hand, if the third option is to be proffered as an alternative to full independence then presumably it would have to be demonstrably distinct from it, hence pushing the option towards FFA or devo-max.

Of course, rebranding these latter two options as independence-lite would allow Mr Salmond to continue to associate himself with the i-word. But while this third way would certainly make a referendum more winnable for the SNP (in view of the established desire of the Scottish electorate for more Holyrood powers), on the other hand it would probably be detrimental to support for the full independence option.

Which would be consistent with Mr Salmond's gradualist agenda, albeit that assuming it paved the road to full independence this presumably would only happen once the first minster had relinquished control of his party.

But this interpretation of independence-lite would see the Union remain intact, thus however Mr Salmond dressed it up there would be a considerable element of discontent within the Nationalist movement.

Thus his essential problem is a delicate balancing act between the public and the fundamentalists. He has to water down independence sufficiently to attract public support, while if he takes this too far then he could split the hardcore Nationalist movement, which would in turn not impress the electorate more generally. Hence in trying to win the public round in one way, he could end up alienating them in another.

Meanwhile, in this regard it's interesting that the Telegraph reports that David Cameron is considering the possibility of a more straightforward Westminster-organised referendum if Mr Salmond "tries to confuse voters with a complex series of choices", and the prime minister's move is presumably what the first minister refers to as an "imperial seizing of questions" in the Scotsman.

Which indeed might explain why Mr Salmond has highlighted the possibility of three options on the ballot paper: perhaps he thinks that if Mr Cameron was goaded into organising a referendum then that would play into pro-independence hands.

Of course, if the issue continues to dominate the agenda in the way it has in the last couple of weeks then the public could perhaps start to get a bit fed up with it all - after all, this wasn't really what the SNP's mandate was all about, despite what many Nationalists think - and the whole thing could backfire on Mr Salmond and his party.

This is all getting very messy, but at least things should become a bit clearer in, oh, five years time perhaps?

No comments: