Friday, January 13, 2012

 

Salmond Better Political Hand to Play than Cameron

The stand off over Scottish Independence is intriguing and compelling. The initiative of David Cameron in suggesting his government might intervene to ensure clarity is achieved on the subject of an independence referendum, seems to me to be wholly political. Salmond, who won a huge majority in the 2007 elections for his SNP nationalist party, knows majority public opinion is currently against independence, but thinks it will swing that way by the second half of his four year parliamentary term. He hopes to hold it on the anniversary year of the famous Scots victory over the English at Banockburn (24th June 1314). Is this a sensible political strategy? Well, opinion has swung markedly since 2011 from something like one quarter of Scots’ polled to a figure closer to 40%. Salmond is one of the cleverest politicians in the United Kingdom and, given his immense popularity, one cannot rule out the chance that he will succeed.

It seems logical that the UK should have a say in the issue and all kinds of problems need to be clarified if the issue is to be resolved in an effective fsshion: what share of North sea Oil would go to Scotland? What would happen to the Nuclear sub base in Scotland? and what share of the national debt would Scotland have responsibility for? These are mega questions on which the future of both countries to some extent depend.

One might interpret Cameron’s intervention as a sign that he is nervous, his stated aim not to preside over the break up of the Union is going to be frustrated. If the referendum is held earlier, according to the polls, it is more likely a negative judgement will be returned. Professor Robert Hazell, one of the leading experts on the constitution, says Cameron holds most of the legal cards. The Scotland Act of 2008, which established Holyrood, also makes clear that constitutional powers remain with London. The SNP cannot stage a binding referendum on independence without Westminster’s imprimatur.

Interesting that on this question all the big parties in Westminster are united and key roles seem to be offered to Darling, ass well as Charles Kennedy. So Cameron has full legal authority to ‘stage manage’ a Scottish referendum, but where does the power advantage lie? My view is that it lies with Salmond and the SNP. Firstly, he has made clear from the start that he aims to pitch the poll in the second half of the parliament. Secondly, he may not be able to hold a ‘binding’ poll, but if he gets a majority for independence, using, crucially, his own wording, it will be very hard for London to deny its legitimacy.

Speaking with the authority of ‘the Scottish nation’ Salmond would have an immensely compelling argument to knock down Cameron’s legal defences. Thirdly, by intervening, as he has, Cameron has both confessed his nervousness and given Salmond a potential stick with which to beat the Coalition government: that of resisting an attempt to ‘interfere’ in legitimately Scottish affairs. Cameron might win in court but lose in the ballot box. At the moment Salmond appears to hold all the key political cards.

Comments:
You'd have to get up v early in the proverbial morning to out politic Salmond.

The unfolding saga should provide some fine entertainment (and a welcome distraction from the plight of Labour under its charisma-lite leader) for the next couple of years.
 
Salmond is an effective political operator I grant you, but Cameron is on safer ground here than you suggest.

Meaningful surveys have consistently shown that Scottish people are not remotely interested in independence. The balance of probabilities would suggest that Salmond is highly likely to lose any sort of referendum...as effective as he is, what then for him? By intervening, Cameron is associating himself with a campaign that is highly likely to succeed (like with AV). There is little prospect of damaging the Tory vote in Scotland, since what little support we have there will probably approve anyway.

Furthermore it is a timely reminder of the legal and moral unionist position. Westminster retains the right to control any referendum. And ultimately, in the unlikely event of a Scottish vote for independence, then the English, Welsh and Northern Irish (some of whom have defended the union so valiantly for generations) will have a right to be heard before their country is dismembered. A little bit of populist flag waving won't do Dave any harm with his core vote.
 
Michael
Fair points, I agree, it's more evenly balanced than my post implied.
 
I also think this is on a knife edge, but for different reasons. Salmond has the mandate for a referendum but can't control the European dimension to this question. For example, it was always assumed that 'independence in Europe' would take care of all those irritating issues like: post-independence currency, defence and foreign policy. But the euro crisis threatens this assumption, because there is no guarantee that France and Germany have any interest in helping Scotland given their other concerns, or that voters will see Europe as the panacea it once seemed.
 
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