This System Three poll, the first since the election to show a slim majority for independence is a wake up call for Labour. But in truth the alarm has been ringing for over a year now, had they only ears to hear it. Scots voters clearly like Alex Salmond’s assertive government, and they are now minded to listen, perhaps, to the SNP’s call for a sovereign Scotland.
This question, put by System Three, is the simple yes/no that the Scottish government proposed in the white paper that launched the national conversation. No multiple choices here; no second preferences allowing independence by the back door. Wendy Alexander accused Alex Salmond of seeking a multi-option referendum because he was afraid of putting the hard question. Not any more he isn’t.
This is only one poll, of course, and other polls conducted in the past year suggest that most Scots do not want formal separation. I am not entirely sure myself what independence actually means in this integrated world of credit crunches and common currencies. The SNP propose Scotland remaining within the European Union, retaining the Queen as head of state, and keeping the pound sterling, at least for the time being. Independence with the Bank of England and Brussels still calling the shots.
But perhaps it is this very vagueness about the meaning of independence that is the SNP’s strength. To paraphrase Herbert Morrison, independence is now whatever Alex Salmond does. The danger for Labour is that Scots may be getting the message that independence is not a big bang event, after which border posts would be erected at Gretna and English people ordered to pack their bags. It could be a process of incremental change leading to a quasi federal destination where Scotland is functionally independent but acts in concert with the UK on common issues like climate change, financial regulation, employment law etc.. Not so scary.
However, there is one way Labour might be able to halt this constitutional drift. It would mean calling Alex Salmond’s bluff and holding an early referendum on the future of the Union. Force the SNP to define independence, and force the Scottish voters to choose. Well Gordon, do you feel lucky?