The Strange Case of the Missing Scottish Independence Bill
The Guardian Comment, January 26th 2010
The SNP are driven by one over-riding factor, the restoration of Scottish statehood and independence. More than left versus right, this is what matters in the party. It is woven into its DNA, and provides the soul of the nationalist movement.
The SNP government has undertaken a ‘national conversation’ and published a White Paper on independence, ‘Your Scotland, Your Choice’. All of this was meant to lead to the publication of the referendum bill yesterday – on Burn’s Night – and then if parliamentary votes allowed it to a public vote.
Something strange has happened to this smooth process. The bill was not published on Monday, and has now become subject to indefinite delay.
The SNP wanted a public vote on November 30th – St Andrew’s Day – to be specified in the bill. Then Alex Salmond said he was ‘not absolutely fixed’ on that date. The thinking here was that being unspecific about the date, would make the bill more about the principle of a vote. And so the logic goes this would make it more difficult (or costly) for Labour and Lib Dems to vote the bill down. Both parties are not against the principle of a referendum, just against one now.
There is an element of Russian roulette here as no one expects Salmond to be able to muster the parliamentary votes for his independence bill. Instead, what the SNP manoeuvres are driven by is leaving the unionist parties, Labour, Lib Dems and Tories, with the poisoned chalice of having voted down a bill promising a popular vote.
This would leave Alex Salmond as the unchallenged defender of the people, and the unionist parties as looking anti-democratic. Thus the Nationalist logic goes this would play into the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections and the SNP maximalising their vote posing as the true democrats and the unionists as not trusting the people. From this position they surmise, with the prospect of a David Cameron government, elected with few Scots Tory MPs, open to the charge of ‘no mandate’ and presiding over savage, deep public spending cuts, next stop independence!
That’s the Nationalist thinking. Whether it could work, or David Cameron provides such a willing accomplice, remains to be seen. What is beyond doubt is that Scots single-mindedly refuse to see independence as the crucial issue facing them compared to jobs and the economy. Yet the same was true of devolution before. The difference is devolution enjoyed consistent majority support; independence never has (so far).
Then there is the perception that the Lib Dems are slowly inching towards embracing a referendum as their policy in the 2011 elections, opening the door to the possibility of an SNP-Lib Dem coalition government. The choreography towards this would be aided by the SNP being unspecific about the date of any vote in a bill.
Rumours abound about the reason for delay. One is that the SNP government could not deal with the budget being passed at the same time as the independence bill. This is spurious as the budget was always timetabled for now, and the independence bill put into the same timescale.
Then there has been spin that the SNP will concentrate on recession and belt-tightening rather than independence. This can be dismissed as spin, given independence is what the Nationalists are about.
One possibility is that the SNP have encountered difficulties in how to frame a question which now looks more like a complex multiple choice rather than a simple Yes/No.
Four possible options: independence, ‘devolution max’ or full fiscal autonomy, ‘devolution lite’ based on the Calman proposals, and the status quo, are identified in the SNP White Paper. Asking a referendum question on the above choices which would be meaningful and decisive politically could be difficult.
Combine this with the SNP’s lack of thinking or interest about the detail of independence, and this amounts to a significant loss of momentum both for the SNP and its raison d’etre.
Even more inextricable, the non-appearance of the SNP’s clarion call has occurred with nothing but a murmur from the party’s political opponents and most of the mainstream media. This requires some explanation in a political culture which is often shaped by a Holyrood goldfish bowl and jockeying for position is everything and rated as more important than dealing with serious policy issues.
This lack of public debate is the second situation which requires investigation and explanation. What after all would Scottish politics be without the ritual dance of unionists versus nationalists, Labour versus SNP? And yet all of this could lead towards an eventual realignment of Scottish politics and an SNP-Lib Dem government.