At times of constitutional turmoil, like last week, I'm often approached by researchers and producers from the London media looking for someone to explain the will-they-won't-they, devo-max independence-well-maybe referendum. They invariably use the word ”wily” when they're talking about Alex Salmond, as if the First Minister was a petty demagogue in some post-colonial banana republic. Isn't he 'playing games with the constitution', 'deviously delaying the referendum', 'picking a fight with Westminster'? Well, last week his wiliness was to play with a straight bat.
David Cameron believes he 'got a result' in that he finally “smoked out” Salmond on the referendum date last week. But there was really never any secret about the timing of the referendum, since it had been made clear in the Scottish election that the ballot would be held in the second half of the parliament. And for all the talk of imposing an early referendum, that's exactly what is going to happen. Similarly, as civic Scotland luminaries like Canon Kenyan Wright have argued, it really isn't up to Cameron or Salmond to decide if there are three options or two, but the Scottish people. The SNP's preference has always been to have a single question, yes-or-no ballot on independence, and for all the fuss and fluster, that hasn't changed either.
If an early referendum had been imposed on Scotland, it would anyway have been disastrous for David Cameron, since the SNP would have boycotted it. Rather like the Northern Ireland referendum in 1973, or the Keep the Clause referendum in 2000, it would have had zero credibility as a result. So, why did the Prime Minister propose it at all? Worse – why raise the prospect of an early referendum on Sunday, and then appear to back down within 48 hours? He must have realised that by intervening in this way he risked raising Scottish hackles at a Tory 'toff' trying to 'fix' Scotland's future.
But the feeling in Westminster on both Tory and Labour benches last week was that Cameron 'had to do something'. 'Wily' Salmond, it was said, had been getting away with murder, rigging the referendum so that he can't lose: adding questions, fiddling with the franchise and rejecting the UK Electoral Commission as an independent referee. Cameron had to seize the agenda if only to force Labour to back him in a campaign to save the Union.
The Tories were incensed when Labour's defence spokesman, Jim Murphy, a staunch unionist, said in September that he wouldn't stand on any pro-Union platform with David Cameron. The other top Scot in the Labour Shadow Cabinet, Douglas Alexander, has recently said in speeches in Scotland that Labour should offer, not the status quo, but an enhanced form of devolution. The idea is to colonise the “devo max” centre ground and avoid Labour becoming part of a Tory-led “No” campaign that includes Scottish hate figures like Lord Forsyth, the former Tory Scottish Secretary. So, David Cameron was well pleased on Wednesday when he received unequivocal support at Question Time from the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, in rejecting Salmond's “neverendum”.
But from a Scottish perspective, as the former Tory leadership contender, Michael Portillo pointed out on Thursday, Cameron's intervention was “cack-handed”, playing into the hands of the nationalists. With the memory of Thatcher still lurking in the Scottish political subconscious, it made littl;e sense for a Tory PM to appear to dictate the terms of a referendum in Scotland so soon after the SNP's landslide victory in the Holyrood elections. If this was the best they could do, god help the union.
There was, moreover, a perfectly valid reason for delaying the referendum. The Scotland Bill, offering some extra powers to Holyrood, has yet to complete its passage through Westminster and Holyrood. If Salmond had launched a snap referendum after the May election, as some now suggest he should have, the unionist parties would have surely attacked him for trying to “bounce” Scotland into independence before the Scottish voters had had time to understand and appreciate what the Scotland Bill offered. You can't start a consultation on independence before it is clear what the 'status quo' actually is.
The Scotland Bill has been the great unmentionable in the past week's shenanigans. Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats spoke only of their plans to supersede it, and offer a parliament with more extensive tax raising powers. Which raises the question: why do Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats want to keep their preferred option of devolution max off the referendum agenda, given that it is also the preferred choice of the vast majority of Scots? It's an odd situation when Labour and the Scottish Libdems, insist on keeping their policy off the ballot, while the SNP, the party of independence, wants to keep it on. There's a number of senior Nationalists who also think this makes very little sense.
My own view is that, on balance, it is wise to seek a clear, unequivocal decision by the Scottish people on the issue of leaving the UK and that a single question referendum is probably the best way of achieving this clarity. But those who support a federal solution, where Scotland raises its own taxes but leaves Westminster in charge of matters like foreign affairs, defence and currency, have a point when they say they are being disenfranchised. It isn't good enough for Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats just to say: 'vote No and get a better devolution'. We've been here before.
On the eve of the 1979 devolution referendum, the former Tory prime minister, Lord Home, famously advised Scots to vote No because they would be offered an improved form of devolution – which of course never materialised. The Westminster unionist parties will take a No result in 2014 as an affirmation of the status quo, and will likely halt further talk of “devo max” or any other federal scheme. If the supporters of fiscal autonomy don't want to be written out of history, they may have to demand a second referendum to ensure that there is no backsliding.
And Salmond's position? Well, no one really knows, and I suspect he doesn't himself, but is just waiting to see how events fall. He clearly has an interest in there being a 'second best' option as a fall-back if independence loses, as opinion polls say it will. Some believe that Salmond isn't really a nationalist at all, and would prefer to run the existing Scottish parliament albeit with a full range of tax powers. In many ways the incremental independence that the SNP has been advocating in recent years – seeking to add to Holyrood the powers of a “normal” parliament – itself implies a kind of federalism. For what is independence if it means keeping the Queen, the pound, the NHS etc.. Isn't that more devo max plus?
But the First Minister always insists he is above all a nationalist, determined to lead an independent Scotland. He is also a politician who never makes the mistake of being pinned down and offering his opponents a clear shot. He will move around, duck and dive on the whole referendum question, until he sees the way opinion is moving in Scotland. If a new version of the Constitutional Convention does emerge, campaigning for a Scottish parliament with full tax-raising powers within the UK, Salmond will certainly listen to it. The SNP leader is haunted by the mistake the SNP made in 1988 in boycotting the original Scottish Constitutional Convention on the grounds that it was a 'unionist plot', as the then deputy leader, Jim Sillars, saw it. The Convention went on to restore Scotland's parliament after 300 years.
Salmond knows that he has to maintain his close bond with public opinion in Scotland because this has been the source of his great electoral success. He never gets ahead or behind the argument, and he will bide his time, always seeking ways to take the “fear” out of independence. Presenting it as simply the most sensible outcome for a small nation in Europe with a wealth of natural resources and an educated and adaptable work force.
The result? Well, I suspect that, in a single option referendum, the SNP will still lose in 2014 because the Scots are essentially conservative and don't like taking more risk than they have to. They clearly want more autonomy, but if a gradualist approach can be offered - one that doesn't involve having to “break up Britain” - they are likely to opt for that rather than formal independence. The canny Scottish voters know that if even if they vote No they can still vote for the energetic SNP to run the Scottish parliament, just as before the referendum.
Salmond has the almost impossible task of making independence look like remaining in the Union. But he's done pretty well so far, and I wouldn't rule out the possibility of him winning the referendum – especially if the UK parties continue to perform as badly as they have to date. Salmond conceded nothing of substance last week. He is still in charge, on course and confidently counting out what he believes are the Union's last thousand days.