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independence, Mark MacLachlan, referendum, SNP., St Andrews Day, Universality of Cheese

Questions, questions. Just how many options does the SNP need?

 Er, just how many questions is that again?  Once upon a time independence was a simple matter – you just asked people whether or not they agreed that: “The Scottish Government should negotiate a settlement with the government of the UK so that Scotland becomes an independent state”. That’s how it was  in the original draft bill published by the SNP in 2007.   Now, anything goes.
   Today’s St Andrews Day surprise from the SNP government, we are told,  is that there are going to be four options presented in today’s White Paper.  There will be Independence (see above); ‘Devolution Max, or fiscal freedom short of independence; a Calman Commission option of shared income tax; and our old friend the Status Quo – whatever the hell that is.  
  But why stop there?  Why not have a full federal option, whereby there is a formal separation of powers with Westminster, as favoured by the Liberal Democrats?  What about an Iceland option, where you become independent but stay out of the European Union. Many people might favour a Republican question, whereby Scotland is no longer subject to the arbitrary influence of a constitutional monarch.  An Alaskan option might also be considered whereby Scotland remains in the union, as a federal state, but retains control of oil revenues and has diplomatic ties with Russia. Or a Ruritanian option where Scotland declares itself independent, and then does nothing at all except march up and down. 
 This is all getting a little silly. You can’t have a meaningful referendum with four options. The results would be so various that it could be almost impossible to achieve a consensus. Mike Russell, the Constitution Minister, insisted yesterday that there will not be four actual questions on the ballot paper,  which will not be published until next year.  But if there are four constitutionally valid options, I don’t see how you can avoid putting them all before the people. 
   The great virtue of the 1997 devolution referendum was that the questions were very clear and transparent.  You could see what you were voting for, and as a result there was an overwhelming affirmation of the favoured constitutional option: a Scottish Parliament with primary legislative powers.  That three to one majority in 1997 ended the constitutional debate for a generation.  Having four options would simply create a huge argument,  not so  much a national conversation as a national rammy.
  Presumably, this option-inflation is an attempt by the SNP to confuse the issue – to turn the debate into a kind of constitutional soup into which all the constitutional options dissolve, allowing the SNP to get along with governing under devolution which, until now, they had been doing very successfully.  The ‘multi-option’ option is a also a distraction from the inconvenient truth that Scots really don’t want to be bothered with constitutional change, at least not now.  The latest Ipsos/Mori poll suggests that support for independence is down to 25% and that only 20% of Scots want an early referendum. 
   This stands to reason.  Asking people in the middle of a recession whether they want to tinker with the constitution seems slightly  indecent – like asking an unemployed man whether he would prefer to be in an English or a Scottish dole queue.  There are more pressing matters – which doesn’t mean the issue has gone away.  In the Mori poll, 50% agreed with having a referendum “in a few years”  In present circumstances, with the SNP government in mid term difficulties, that’s not at all bad.  Maybe Alex should quite while he’s ahead; maybe that’s exactly what he is trying to do today. Lay the independence question to rest for a few years while they sort themselves out. 
  This St Andrews Day is turning into a bit of a nightmare for the SNP.  These disappointing polling returns follow defeats on key policies like minimum alcohol pricing and local income tax, Labour’s crushing majority in Glasgow North East by election, and an epic bust up with local authorities over class sizes.  Alex Salmond is beginning to look a little like Gordon Brown.  There’s even a nationalist sleaze scandal – Universality of Cheese-gate – where a nationalist aide to the Constitutional Affairs Minister, Mike Russell, has been caught spreading abusive and highly offensive hate mail over the internet.  Shades of Labour’s Damian MacBride and his vile smears from Number Ten. The rebarbative behaviour of the cyber-nats is hardly news, but it is a shock to discover that one of them was under the wing of Mike Russell, one of the most enlightened figures in the SNP.
    When things start to go wrong in government they all go wrong together. It will take extraordinary skill to get through the next six months with the government’s integrity intact.  Alex Salmond faces defeat of the referendum  bill in parliament, defeat at the general election and the disintegration of the “historic” concordat with Scottish local authorities.  Press commentators are poised to declare the beginning of the end for Alex Salmond and the end of the end for independence. We will no doubt be reading soon how Nicola Sturgeon – who performed with her usual effortless competence on Question Time last week – should be taking over from Shrek before the SNP lose the plot entirely.  But I wouldn’t write of the big man yet. 
   And we shouldn’t write off independence entirely yet either. Or rather we should, but for a reason. What we will see today, I believe, is the SNP coming to terms with reality – which is that formal independence is becoming increasingly marginal to Scottish constitutional politics.  Everyone knows that the referendum on independence isn’t going to happen.  The debate is now all about extending home rule – how far and how fast.   
  The Calman Report, for all its faults, is a tribute to the success of the SNP in office. All the unionist parties now support giving Holyrood, greater tax powers – something that would have been inconceivable only three years ago.  Whoever wins the next UK election, something like Calman is going to be introduced and this will require the active co-operation of the SNP government.   This will be an opportunity for the SNP to turn Calman into something workable: to convert devolution min to devolution max. 
  That’s if they remain in office – and that’s not looking at all certain any more, after this St Andrews Day nightmare.  Alex Salmond needs to get a grip, put aside multi option metaphysics and focus on winning the Scottish election in 2011.   

About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.


6 thoughts on “Questions, questions. Just how many options does the SNP need?

  1. Hardly seems worth leaving a comment Iain as you never respond but you say;"Asking people in the middle of a recession whether they want to tinker with the constitution seems slightly indecent – like asking an unemployed man whether he would prefer to be in an English or a Scottish dole queue." Giving people a chance to vote for independence is hardly 'tinkering' with the constitution. There will NEVER be a right time for the unionist parties. The whole point of independence and the contention of those who support it is that it will change Scotland's prospects. It's not about swapping a UK dole queue for a Scottish one at all.The UK recovery is lagging behind many other western European economies – even much maligned and ridiculed economies. And, in the midst of this, Scotland is fairing worse than the UK as a whole.I cannot think of a time where it is more important to offer the people a say in their constitutional future.You seem determined to turn the SNP into just another conviction-free election winning machine.I simply don't see the point of that.

    Posted by voiceofourown | November 30, 2009, 12:19 pm
  2. There are sopme who say that because being a part of the UK has put us in a situation where we are far worse off in this admittedly world wide recession than we would have been otherwise.Brown has consistently variously told us that we didn't have a recession, when we did; that it started in America and spread everywhere else in the world before coming to Britian, which was a lie; that we were better placed than any other country to come out of recession, which is patently a joke; that he had saved the world's banking system, which he didn't; that our neighbouring countries, Ireland, Iceland and Norway were as good as basket cases, which they weren't as it is predicted that they will come out of this far better than we will.Being as we are a small and unimportant part of a country that is governed in such a completely cack handed way by someone I wouldn't put in charge of the tea fund, is this not the perfect time to get the hell out of this damned union before we all starve and freeze to death?

    Posted by tris | November 30, 2009, 8:18 pm
  3. Iain ,like most of the media this weekend which have been putting out negative stories about the SNP you have joined in .Whether the reports are as bad as it is being made out to be, we the public will never know ,because just like the little boy crying wolf,the media in Scotland yourself included have reached the point where we the public cant read your opinion for an unbiased view of the political landscape in Scotland,it is a shame that you have allowed yourself to loose the high ground that you once held.

    Posted by Conway | November 30, 2009, 8:26 pm
  4. So this is all you have to say about the White Paper? Do you think maybe you should have read it first before commenting?Macwhirter, the tone of this article is quite alarming – you are attempting to trivialize the debate and clearly don't care the you don't have anything to offer towards it.Pathetic.

    Posted by jonathanlindsay | November 30, 2009, 11:10 pm
  5. "The latest Ipsos/Mori poll suggests that support for independence is down to 25% and that only 20% of Scots want an early referendum."In fact it's the other way round – indeed, it's usually the case that more people support having a say in a referendum rather than independence per se.But you have perhaps been slightly vindicated in your view, Iain, of bloggers being 'nasty', 'sociopaths' and 'ejaculating' rather than writing, at least in the case of Montague Burton!!

    Posted by Stuart Winton | December 1, 2009, 4:00 am
  6. well, boot's on the other foot here is it not. Seems you wrote this one in green ink & capital letters.Also – this argument that's been doing the rounds, and you faithfully parrot here – that "…asking people in the middle of a recession whether they want to tinker with the constitution seems slightly indecent – like asking an unemployed man whether he would prefer to be in an English or a Scottish dole queue. There are more pressing matters…"- isn't really borne about by longstanding & unequivocally Unionist 'researcher' Matt Qvortrup in today's Herald (which I'm sure you've read…) where he says:"Without taking sides in the debate about the pros and cons of independence[sic]…evidence from referendums elsewhere in western Europe suggest that, in nine out of 10 cases, such polls are won in times of economic recession…Winning the independence referendum is not impossible for the SNP. Unionists beware."And I'm sure that in 10 out of 10 of those cases the peoples of those democracies would have been nonplussed to be told they weren't even allowed to have a referendum. But not here, according to Unionist opinion. Who knows what might happen.

    Posted by ratzo | December 1, 2009, 6:25 pm

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