How to Play Political Poker: The High Stakes of the Independence Debate

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, December 31st 2011

The Scottish constitutional debate will increasingly be the main, if not the only, debate in our national politics over the next year.

It is going to be a debate which not only has a Scottish interest, but for obvious reasons, a UK audience, alongside a wider European and international relevance.

It is crucial for many reasons that we conduct this debate in the best way possible. International attention, including the world’s media, will be on us. We have to rise above the schoolyard yah-boo politics of unionist versus nationalist, and aid a debate which engages with some of the serious issues.

Alex Salmond’s dominance over his Scottish political rivals, combined with his Scottish political awards, will continue to be one of the constants of our politics. But this isn’t going to be enough and the SNP will have to face some tough strategic dilemmas.

A large part of the unionist class are going to have to learn a new political lexicon of a reformed union, rather than reprise the hackneyed language of the 1980s, as increasingly the Lib Dems have done. Michael Moore, Secretary of State for Scotland may call in his new year message for an ‘open and frank debate’ about Scotland’s future, but if he is good in his to word he will have to change his ways.

Similarly, endless chatter about ‘devolution’ and ‘the settled will of the people’ is a dead end. These last two terms are empty and meaningless to the mass majority of sane voters.

The constitutional debate in Scotland is like a three way dance, having much in common with the complexity of one of those convoluted multi-dimensional chess games in ‘Star Trek’, or a very serious poker game played for high stakes.

First, there is the Nationalist conundrum. Will the SNP go for two questions of ‘devo max’ and independence? Or will they just ask one question?

All of this depends on whether the Nationalists think they can win. Many in the party leadership propose the two vote strategy because they think independence will lose, and want to park the SNP on the winning side, and continue the gradualist tide of more powers accruing to the Scottish Parliament.

It is either very smart, or too smart, depending on your thinking, and has caused some disquiet among younger, more radical Nationalists.

Second, there is the challenge to the unionist parties in Scotland. How will they step up and define ‘devo max’ or a reformed union beyond Calman’s narrow parameters? If they don’t define ‘devo max’ aren’t they in danger of posing as the defenders of an inflexible status quo, or should they stand and challenge unambiguously independence?  Are they walking into a trap of Alex Salmond’s making whatever they do, and if so, how if at all, do they make the political weather themselves?

Third, there is David Cameron’s approach. So far the UK Government has shown itself to be playing a long game, not calling, for example, a UK-led independence vote or anything so stupid.

But the moves afoot in the Lords to put a ‘sunset clause’ into the current Scotland Bill to give the Scottish Government the power to call an independence vote but put a deadline on such a vote, point to problems.

Cameron is not completely in control of his own agenda, and some of his colleagues may find the temptation irresistible to play party politics which may blow up in their faces. Plus Cameron hasn’t actually worked out a strategy which is always dangerous in a high stake game, as Europe has shown.

All of the above are about positioning and process, who thinks they can win and gain advantage. It always was thus in politics; but whatever comes about has to be able to stake out a higher moral ground and reasoning.

There has to be a clear, simple vote with an unambiguous result in which all sides participate and accept the people’s verdict. No one should be able to claim the vote was fixed or manipulated.

All things considered this would be aided by a one-vote referendum on either the principle of Scottish independence, or alternatively and more ambitiously, a vote on opening negotiations with the UK Government on independence (followed by a subsequent ballot later on the result of any deal). The vote has to be called by the Scottish Government.

We also need to have a debate with wider terms of reference than so far being offered by all sides. This is about the constitution, but even more it is about our collective Scottish future.

All of Scotland’s mainstream parties, as have all of Britain’s, have shown themselves remarkably acquiescent and silent to challenging the economic and social orthodoxies of the age, the grotesque imbalances in power and wealth which disfigure our land and most of the world. What is the independence vision on this? And that of the union?

What kinds of relationships across these isles would we like to see, what kind of pan-British arrangements in an age of flux and fluidity? Maybe all the parties could start from an acceptance that the British state increasingly only works for a narrow, self-obsessed elite concentrated in London and the South East.

Then there is the international dimension. Where do all the parties see Scotland sitting whether it is in or out of the union? And in what way would it be better than an increasingly truculent, isolated United Kingdom?

A political realist point. Some unionists say when can we stop this navel gazing? The answer is that Scotland’s relationship with England and in particular, the powerhouse that is London will always rightly be a part of our public debate.

Finally, if this debate is about Scotland’s future it shouldn’t be defined by myths about our past. What happened in our ancient past in battles and various grievances less and less define us; while what wrongs the Tories did to us from the poll tax to shutting Ravenscraig matters less and less now. Each of these ‘three Scotlands’ has to attempt to reach out and understand the legitimacy and concerns of the others.

This is a historic, defining debate, a generational defining moment. There will be pettiness, partisanship and positioning, but we have to try to ensure that at points enough of us rise to the occasion and demand something a little more noble. Scotland’s future is surely worth that from all of us!