The decision by the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference to boycott the Scottish Government’s forthcoming referendum bill might seem about as momentous as Stephen Fry abandoning Twitter because someone said he was boring. (Oscar Wilde never had to put up with such indignity!) So why are people saying that it has made a referendum almost inevitable? And even that the campaign for the 2012 referendum on independence has already begun.. Let me explain.
The closed-door debate in Dunfermline last weekend was designed to get the LibDems out of the hole they dug themselves into after the Scottish elections in 2007, when Tavish Scott, the SLD leader refused even to discuss a coalition with Alex Salmond unless the SNP leader dropped his party’s policy of a referendum on the constitution - which of course he could not do. This was an act of unpardonable folly by the Libdems since there was never going to be a referendum anyway. It was a matter of simple arithmetic. The SNP had only 47 out of 129 MSPs, so as long as the unionist parties held firm, the referendum bill was never going to get to the statute book.
Salmond couldn’t dump the formal commitment to a referendum without being accused of betrayal, but a referndum was the last thing the leadership actually wanted at that moment anyway. The Nationalist game plan has always been to show that they could run a competent government at Holyrood before popping the question about leaving the UK. However, they did initially want a coalition and they wanted to talk. The SNP were even minded to make a raft of key concessions to the Liberal Democrats including a new Constitutional Convention and a promise that the referendum-that-wasn’t-going-to-happen would include the Liberal Democrat option of federalism. But it was not to be.
The Liberal Democrat opposition to the principle of an independence referendum never made much intellectual sense. The UK party has been calling for a referendum on Europe, a referendum on constitutional change in England and a referendum on electoral reform. But under a veto thought to have come from the UK party leader Sir Menzies Campbell, Tavish and his troops were not allowed even to go into the negotiating chamber unless the SNP ruled out its defining policy. So, the Scottish Liberal Democrats were left out of office and out of power after eight years. They had turned down the opportunity to introduce their local income tax, and to put their stamp on a whole range of issues of policies in their 2007 election manifesto from the climate change bill to the abolition of bridge tolls.
Meanwhile, Alex Salmond, with opportunistic genius, realised that he could make a virtue out of necessity and run a minority government. The rest is history. The SNP minority administration was spectacularly successful, while the Scottish Liberal Democrats have been left wandering in the wilderness with the other lost tribe of Scottish politics, the Conservatives. Losing office is like bereavement for some politicians, and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have been in mourning ever since. The conference at the weekend was an attempt to lay the past to rest and find away back to the land of the living. The leadership has signalled that, while they rule out a referendum before the 2011 Scottish elections, all bets are off after that. They will not require the SNP to drop its flagship policy before they sit down and talk after the next Scottish election in 2011 - that’s if the SNP win, of course.
However, the Nationalists have done very well under minority, and might be a lot less keen on coalition-making than they were in 2007. Which means that the terms for any 2011 coalition might be stiff. The Liberal Democrats will have to agree actively to support a bill for a referendum, which means Alex Salmond will almost certainly get his ballot. But does he really want one? The great mystery of Scottish politics is why the SNP are so determined to hold a referendum on independence that they will almost certainly lose.
One of the constants of Scottish political opinion over the last quarter century is that, in opinion polls, only around a quarter to a third of Scots actually want to leave the United Kingdom. The vast majority want ‘devolution max’ - a Scottish parliament, with more powers, within the UK. In a three question referendum, there seems almost inconceivable that independence would prevail. Just think: if you are offered, the status quo, a leap in the dark, or a better Holyrood, which would you choose?
So, why does Alex Salmond want a referendum that would rule out independence for a generation (he has said there would no recurrent ‘neverendum’). Some cynics say that the SNP doesn’t want independence any more and is quite happy getting rave reviews for running the devolved Scottish parliament. This is plausible. But in my many discussions over the years with SNP leaders I have never once had any of them nudge me in the ribs and say: “forget independence, we like this fine”. Alex Salmond genuinely seems to want a referendum, even if it means that independence is off the agenda as a result.
I suppose the way to look at this is that a referendum is a game the SNP cannot lose. If they win, fine - negotiations begin with Whitehall about leaving the UK. But if they don’t win, the chances are that they will still be in a parliament which acquires tax raising powers. So long as the SNP keep winning elections to the Scottish parliament, and it looks as if they will win next time, the nationalist project is being fulfilled. Scots are being given confidence in their ability to run their own affairs, and the UK is getting used to thinking of Scotland as a separate country. Independence is a long game- they’ve waited three hundred years, so what’s another generation or two.
The task for Labour will be to prevent them remaining in charge of the Scottish parliament, which is why, Labour will become very much more nationalistic after the next general election - assuming they lose office in Westminster - and might themselves decide to opt for a referendum on their own terms to pre-empt the Nats. With the SLD moving in that direction also, you can begin to see why this weekend’s non-event in Dunfermline may have altered the course of Scottish history.