9 Jan 2012

Battle of wills begins on Scottish independence

When Alex Salmond won his landslide victory last spring, a rather shell-shocked coalition government in London didn’t contest his assertion that he could call a referendum on independence when he liked. The coalition didn’t want to look like it was frustrating the will of the Scottish people. That’s now changed.

A battle of wills started today as the cabinet discussed plans to rein in Alex Salmond, try to reassert and amend London powers to call a referendum, and start calling the shots. The coalition now says it will let Alex Salmond have a referendum only if it happens in the next 18 months and only if it is a straight “in or out,” one question referendum.

Alex Salmond has been planning a cannier model of a referendum – one he says is based on the two question referendum ballot used in the devolution vote in 1997. Voters get to vote on “devo(lution) max” – giving Scotland powers over everything except foreign policy and defence – and on full independence. Opponents say this is a wheeze by the SNP to (a) try to lead voters to a position so close to independence that, on the day, they might just plump for the real thing anyway; and (b) make sure there’s a massive consolation prize for SNP supporters in the form of a big step towards independence and (c) call the whole thing in 2014-15 when the coalition cuts will have hurt and the SNP will have had ample time to set the stage for the vote. London is clearly worried it’s a wheeze that could work.

FactCheck: Who loses if Scotland goes it alone?

So what next? The coalition will start amending the Scotland Bill to implement its approach. Alex Salmond’s deputy Nicola Sturgeon said this morning: “We’ll stick to our plan” – i.e. the Scottish government is not intending to budge from the two question vote in 2014-15. Both sides will be focus grouping and polling like crazy to see whose version of events is convincing the Scottish people. This battle is only just beginning.

If – and it is still an “if” – the referendum happens to London’s timetable, what is the independence settlement that people are voting on? What are the economic, resource, division of spoils terms of independence? It appears that the referendum that London is talking about would not be a “will you give the Scottish government the right to negotiate terms of independence that then get put to the people?” sort of poll. It would be an “in or out” poll without, as things stand, clear numbers – bills, invoices – for what that would mean.

Happy New Year or Bliadhna Mhath √ôr to you all!

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