As we waited in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle for the arrival of Moses, sorry, Robert Mugabe, sorry Alex Salmond, there was much chatter about Tuesday's now infamous Newsnight interview in which Jeremy Paxman compared Alex Salmond to Zimbabwean dictator and suggest that he wanted to set up a one party state in Scotland. The FM wisely refused invitations to criticise Paxo - since the interview has probably added a couple percent to the SNP's poll ratings. Instead he ticked off BBC Scotland for axing a lot of its political output, including the respected Newsweek Scotland programme.
This was as sure-footed a performance as we have come to expect from the First Minister on these occasions. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard Alex Salmond launch constitutional consultations, but this was Eck's Biggest Day Out ever. With the hall packed with international television hardware, and press from over forty countries, the political theatre couldn't have been more dramatic. As the winds howled around the Castle, Salmond confidently forecast victory in the 2014 independence referendum. Surrounded by massed weaponry of warfare in the frankly militaristic Great Hall, Salmond was right to assure the assembled international media, that Scottish nationalism - unlike say Quebec, Basque or Corsican separatism - has always been a peaceful pursuit. There has “not been so much as a nosebleed” in the last hundred years of home rule agitation. Though I notice the FM didn't mention injury to letterboxes.
The biggest gag was The Question itself. “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” Is that it? No dodgy phrases, no weasel words, no devious circumlocutions. And no second or third questions either, unless civic Scotland gets its act together to formulate one. Here was Salmond doing precisely what he had been urged to do by the UK government and the opposition parties: seek a straight answer to a straight question. No need to invoke the Canadian Clarity Act. The UK Electoral Commission will have its say on the question, Salmlond confirmed, and would oversee the referendum, reporting to the Scottish parliament.
Of course, it would still be illegal. As a chorus of constitutional experts insisted yesterday, Holyrood has no legal right to hold a referendum asking whether Scotland wants to be independent - only Westminster can do that. But never has constitutional law looked more irrelevant to this essentially political question. Having got a clear question, a sensible timetable, and a concession on the Electoral Commission, the UK government will surely now agree to this question being put under the so-called Section 30 order, which allows a referendum held by Holyrood to be legally binding. If it doesn't it can probably kiss the Union goodbye. And if anyone is daft enough to raise an action in the UK Supreme Court, as was being threatened yesterday by the media guardians of constitutional law, it would only boost the independence vote even more than month of Paxman interviews. So, bring it on.
By leaving it up to civic Scotland to come up with a devo max question - if it can - Salmond has immunised himself from the charge that he is trying to have it both ways. Of course, he probably will still have it both ways, since further constitutional change is almost certainly on the way for Scotland whether a third question emerges or not. If the 2014 referendum is lost, which the opinion polls say it will be, Salmond will dust himself off, and go into the next Scottish election calling on the opposition parties to come up with the “better devolution” they've been promising. He'll probably win too. The Scottish voters, remember, didn't vote for the SNP by that landslide in May 2011 because they wanted independence, but because they wanted a better government in Holyrood. And for all the turmoil and transition in the Scottish opposition parties, they seem no nearer to offering any serious challenge.
So, game and set to Salmond. But it is still a very long way from match in the independence game. Now that the question about the question has been resolved, all the other questions will now pile high on the nationalist in tray. How can an independent Scotland keep the pound, remain in Europe, get rid of Trident, pay its debts, have a credible defence force, pay for pensions? etc.. A number were raised yesterday, and Salmond, to be fair, did offer some answers.
No, the Spanish government has NOT said it is worried about the SNP fomenting separatism and is not considering a veto on Scotland remaining in the EU after independence. The dissolution of a Union between two countries, Scotland and England, who were the only partners in it, is “sui generis” and need not have any implications for other countries. And because Scotland is already in the EU, and its citizens already subject to EU law, Scotland would be a succession state not an accession state, the FM insisted yesterday. So we can forget the scares about an independent Scotland being told by the EU to go away and sit on the naughty step.
The pound? Well, sterling is a convertible currency so anyone can use it, said the First Minister, claiming that there are 67 successful currency unions in the world. Wouldn't we end up like Greece? No, because there is no gulf in productivity between Scotland and England in the way there is between Germany and the Club Med states. Doesn't entirely answer the sovereign debt question of how and independent Scotland would pay down debt and rescue the banks. But since Scotland's biggest banks are also England's biggest banks – RBS and HBOS/Lloyds – there will always have to be a joint rescue, and the Bank of England will have to be lender of last resort whatever Scotland's constitutional status.
But what would Scottish independence look like in practice? This is the difficult one because it is all hypothetical. But ianyone interested in finding out could do worse than catch up with the excellent Danish political drama “Borgen” currently running on BBC 4 TV. This is West Wing in a small nation, and traces the compromises and crises faced by a female First Minister of Denmark trying to manage a fractious coalition in an international environment where big countries like America behave as if they own the planet. It's fiction, of course; but who knows - by 2014 it could be fact.