Buoyed by his party’s historic victory in May’s Holyrood election, Alex Salmond has confidently predicted that independence for Scotland is now ‘inevitable’.
The state of the union has been left in a perilous position following the SNP’s overwhelming triumph. But while they are riding high in the opinion polls, there seems to be no purpose in the unionist camp beyond political point-scoring and isolating the Nationalists.
What has been the secret of the SNP’s success over the past four years? In part, it has been populist policies like free prescriptions and the abolition of tuition fees. But people are also attracted to the swaggering confidence of Alex Salmond.
While his popularity cannot be underestimated, he has not yet faced an able challenger since his return to the forefront of Scottish politics. The rival parties have suffered from a lack of direction, a lack of charisma and a lack of ambition. May’s election descended into a popularity contest precisely because of the lack of distinction between the rival parties’ policies.
Salmond is dominant, and canny
Salmond’s personality and dominance of Scottish politics could potentially help push a ‘Yes’ vote through. For this reason David Cameron is reluctant to force the issue of independence and has played down the chances of a snap referendum.
While no date has been set for the historic vote, the First Minister has made clear it will happen during the second half of this parliament – between 2014 and 2016. Similarly, the Scottish government has not yet explained what it wants to define as independence.
Before then Salmond wants the Scotland Bill to be strengthened with control over corporation tax, revenue from the Crown Estates in Scotland and excise duty to be devolved to Holyrood. He argues that the ability to set a lower corporation tax in Scotland would help attract investment and protect jobs.
Should Westminster balk at these demands, the SNP will use that to strengthen the call for independence.
There is growing determination within the British government to prevent Salmond’s administration building momentum for independence or further sweeping constitutional change. The pro-union lobby, comprising Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, are determined to demonstrate the benefits for Scotland of staying within the UK.
John Reid, the heavyweight Labour peer, has emerged as the early frontrunner to lead the fight against independence. He is widely respected and campaigned alongside the Prime Minister when they successfully defeated the bid to introduce the alternative vote (AV) for Westminster elections. Conservatives recognise that putting a Tory in charge of the campaign would be counterproductive, because of the deep-rooted hostility towards David Cameron’s party here.
Of course, it is entirely plausible there never will be a referendum. Salmond is canny and will not sanction a plebiscite he is not certain he can win.
Despite the SNP winning a historic majority in the Scottish Parliament, the first party to achieve this feat, there is no clear appetite for independence in Scotland. Polling rarely puts support for independence much higher than a third, and the last poll, taken just before the SNP’s election victory, put it at only 28%.
Independence is not the people’s priority. The vast majority of people in this country are fiercely proud of their identity. But most Scots don’t want Scotland to be removed from the UK. In fact, there has been no real increase in support for independence since the SNP came to power in 2007, with opposition remaining firm.
The more likely outcome is that Scotland would say ‘Yes’ for Holyrood to gain some degree of financial autonomy, with full tax and spending powers, but to keep Scotland within the union.
This is a problem for the SNP. It is the party calling for a referendum on independence and it is Salmond, not anyone in Westminster, who needs to resolve it by setting out his vision in detail.
Half of Salmond’s battle, though, is convincing the public of the referendum’s inevitability and the unionist parties are fulfilling that role for him.
Nobody in the British government has come up with a coherent policy on the independence issue or how to fight against the separation of Scotland. Michael Moore’s bungling intervention where he proposed his own “two referendum” strategy simply adds up to a Westminster establishment still struggling to understand quite what is happening north of the border.
For all that, there are risks here too for the SNP. Alex Salmond still has much work to do if he is to convince Scots they should go it alone.
David Cameron has so far taken a measured approach to the idea of independence. Many right-wing commentators have argued that the Prime Minister was wrong to be so accommodating on the issue. However, the Cameron plan is plainly to try and present this as a stark choice: a yes or no to independence.
While only one in three Scots generally backs full independence, it would be far more difficult for unionist parties to mount a successful campaign against the more limited option of financial autonomy – if voters do not regard it as a threat to the union.
All parties should support a referendum
The unionist parties should embrace the referendum, not fear it. They can no longer shirk the issue now that the Nationalists have an overall majority in Holyrood, and they should not allow Salmond to take the moral high ground.
If Cameron has any sense, he will stop unionist politicians speculating publicly about the referendum. The real danger is the damage the speculation may do to the efforts to recover our economy in the meantime.
This election has undoubtedly changed the face of Scottish politics. So far we have seen competent governance from the SNP. But if Scotland fails to make progress with the extra powers proposed in the Scotland Bill then the case for independence will be weakened.
Alex Salmond is constantly accusing opponents of dismissing Scotland’s potential. Yet here is his chance to fulfil his vision of a stronger, more prosperous Scotland.
The Catch 22 of independence is that there can be no negotiated settlement without a referendum. But nobody can be expected to vote for an independent Scotland without knowing how it is going to function.
But first, the SNP need to explain what the question is that independence is supposed to be the answer to.
Photograph of Scottish Parliament by ajnabeee on Flickr (Creative Commons licence)