Sorted. The great conundrum in Scottish politics – how to get the Liberal Democrats and the SNP to overcome their referendum difficulties – has been resolved, I can reveal.
Well, ‘resolved’, may be a little premature, since you can never over estimate the capacity of political parties to invent divisions. However, it is now possible to see how Nicol Stephen and Alex Salmond can get over the issue of a referendum on independence. If they want to.
First, the problem. Last week, in Brighton, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Nicol Stephen, appeared to shatter hopes of a Lib-Nat coalition when he re-affirmed that he would, on no account, accept a referendum on independence as part of a deal with Alex Salmond’s SNP. This is firstly because they are unionist and say they would do nothing to undermine it, and secondly because a referendum would dominate any SNP-Lib coalition to the distraction of everything else. With such a big event on the horizon – the possible extinction of the Union – Libs say it would be very difficult to get anyone interested in lesser matters like abolishing the council tax or promoting energy self-sufficiency.
Now, since the Scottish National Party is committed to holding a referendum within the first term of any SNP administration, that appeared to be the end of the coalition. Except that it isn’t. For it turns out that the LibDem reservations about a referendum are increasingly shared by SNP MSPs. Indeed, as we report today, the former chief executive of the SNP, Mike Russell, argues against an automatic referendum on independence in his new book “Grasping the Thistle”. Most MSPs I speak to seem to agree.
After all, what is the point of having a referendum which the SNP is likely to lose? If it fails to win a majority in a parliamentary election it assuredly will lose the referendum too, and could destroy itself in the process.
The SNP is committed to tabling a bill for its independence referendum within the first hundred days of their entering government. This would provoke a huge row with Westminster, if for no other reason than that the constitution is a reserved matter. The full forces of the unionist media would be directed at the “teenage madness” of a novice SNP, with no experience of government, trying to subvert the constitution. Prime Minister Gordon “bulldog” Brown would warn of the dire consequences of cutting Scotland’s financial lifeline, erecting customs posts at the border etc..
Westminster might even try to pre-empt the Scottish National Party by calling a referendum on its own account, perhaps adding a third option of ‘federalism’ to the ballot paper. The Liberal Democrats would support this. The result would be that no option gained an absolute majority, and the whole thing would descend into farce.
No, the more you go into it, the more self-destructive SNP policy looks. The referendum was anyway, a political device to stop Labour saying that the SNP would break up Britain on day one after winning an election. The referendum allowed the SNP to assure wavering voters that voting SNP did not mean an inevitable divorce with Britain.
But the SNP approach to independence has evolved in the six years since they agreed the new policy. Nationalists now talk of “completing the powers” of the Scottish Parliament, an incremental process, rather than a ‘big bang’ independence event. A referendum would still be necessary, but it is a long way off.
A very long way off, it appears. For, last week, when asked by a sunday newspaper whether an independence referendum remained a non negotiable condition of any coalition, Alex Salmond said: “Yes – if we win.” Hmm. So, what if they don’t win? Well, this is where it gets interesting.
What the SNP leader is saying – as I understand it – is that if the SNP wins the race, ie become the largest party in May, then a referendum will be a condition of any deal. However, it would NOT be a condition if the SNP fails to win a majority of seats. With one bound, the SNP is free.
No one seriously believes that the SNP is going to beat Labour at the next election, and it doesn’t need to win to be in government. If the SNP returned , say, 36 seats to Labour’s 46, and the Liberal Democrats came back with 20 and the Greens 10 – the possibility opens of a Nat-Lib-Green coalition, without the SNP winning anything at all.
Now, things start to look clearer. Nicol Stephen’s precondition can be met because the SNP’s precondition is shelved for the life of the parliament. Instead, the parties could look to form a coalition around the Liberal-backed Steel Commission proposals, published earlier this year, which, involve massive extension of the powers of the Scottish parliament in to broadcasting, tax, even immigration and welfare. The referendum would become a kind of post-nationalist Clause 4.
This may all sound like fantasy politics, and in a sense it is. But look at the arithmetic. With the polls putting the SNP level with Labour, and with more people than ever telling pollsters for the Electoral Commission that they want more powers for Holyrood, there is the real possibility of an alternative.
I’m not saying that the parties will seize it. Indeed, I fear that for their own essentially tribal reasons, the opposition parties would rather NOT have to form an administration. But for the first time, it is now possible for it to happen. That a start at least.