Three things about the independence referendum scrap
First: let’s get one thing straight. Nations have a right to self determination in international law. David Cameron may quibble about the devolved powers of the Holyrood Parliament under the Scotland Act. He may even, if it came to a battle in the international court, win. In my experience the arc of judicial rulings bend towards power. But the principle remains. It is up to the people of Scotland if we wish to be independent. And it is up to us to decide how we make that decision.
And however we plan to vote in the coming referendum, I suspect there is one poll question to which the vast majority of Scots would answer with a firm “yes”:
“should David Cameron fuck off, shut up, and stop telling us what we can and can’t do?”
At some point soon there will be a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future. Whether it’s the three options proposed by Salmond, or the two by Cameron, we will be asked about independence. And, as I’ve written before, those who look at polls today and write off a yes vote are too hasty.
One of the many reasons for this is the characters involved. In the blue corner, we have Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney. I am not fond of much of their economic program or many of their policies. But they are three of the most wily political operators in the UK today. Salmond alone is by a head and shoulders Britain’s most impressive politician. They have just won a supposedly impossible majority under the Additional Member System and they are in the fight of their lives: the campaign they have prepared for since they were children.
In the red, white and blue corner, we have, erm, David Cameron? The man who couldn’t beat Gordon Brown. Only this time, he’s in Scotland, where no one even liked him in 2005. Or perhaps, the Scottish Labour party. Which, post its 2011 routing, is about as comic a proposition as this: maybe the “no” campaign will be led by the Scottish Secretary – a Lib Dem no one’s heard of.
And if you’re Alex Salmond, how would you want to start this campaign? Perhaps, maybe, you’d like the people of Scotland shouting with one breath: “David Cameron: fuck off, shut up, and stop telling us what we can and can’t do”.
So, round one to the blue corner. Ding ding.
Second: the spilt between Cameron and Salmond is significant. Cameron is trying to exclude maxi-devolution from the referendum. The vast majority of Scots want maxi-devolution. Cameron, and Miliband, are picking a fight on Scotland’s constitutional future not just with Alex Salmond, but with maybe two thirds of the Scottish people. These people may not care much now. But as the referendum approaches, these differences will start to matter.
Other than democracy there are three good reasons that those of us who support independence should support a maxi-devolution option in the referendum – and therefore that unionists shouldn’t. The first is obvious. We’d almost certainly win at least that. We might as well take what powers we can. The second is that this situation is intrinsically unstable. Once we have fiscal powers and control benefits – once the only decisions made in London are about when and for what the Blackwatch should be sent to kill and die, whether William Hague gets to represent us at global summits and what interest rates our currency should have, it will take little more than a couple of foolish foreign adventures to find the final answer to the West Lothian Question.
The third reason is perhaps more contentious. When the independence debate is about national identity, it isn’t clear who wins. If it’s a simple yes/no, then this is the staid conversation we risk having: harking back to either 1314, 1745 and Auld Lang Syne or Queen Victoria, the Beatles, and “We will fight them on the beaches”. If the independence debate is about powers – about who should make which decisions on our behalf, it will perhaps be a different story.
The referendum will take place just at the point that Cameron is auctioning the final powers of the British state to his mates in the city – just as the economic union of these isles collapses, just as the death throws of social democracy slash the main remaining tie many have with Westminster – their tax credits, their giro. Some might like British Bulldogs, but who will back Ango Saxon British Government at its zenith of brutality? And a second question herds the debate in that direction. It forces discussion of the difference between maxi-devolution and independence, and so pushes conversations into questions of powers. Ultimately it helps make independence about who we trust to make specific decisions for the Scottish people. It will mean the question is this: do we trust ourselves. In any election, you want to be asking the public to vote for themselves. That’s rule one.
So, Cameron is perhaps right to try to exclude such an option. ‘Right’ in the sense that any crook is ‘right’ to fear democracy.
Third, on dates – Cameron wants an earlier vote. Salmond a later one. Every Holyrood election ever has seen Labour explain the case against independence* – to the extent that they are much more UK nationalists than the SNP are Scottish nationalists. The SNP used these elections to talk about what they would do with the powers Holyrood had. The result is case for independence is yet to be made for a generation. The more time to now make it, the better. ‘Better to rush it now, whilst the polls say no’, thinks Cameron. It’s a gamble. 18 months is still a long time. If Salmond calls his bluff, The Maximum Eck could still win. He turned the Holyrood vote around in the space of a few weeks. And if he does, the week Cameron becomes the last PM of the UK will surely be one of his last in office. Tory grandees won’t much like a PM who’s lost a swaith of his country. But I suppose that was the risk he took when he announced in May that a referendum could take place.
Former Scottish Labour Leader Wendy Alexander lost her career over three words: “bring it on”. Will Cameron’s attempt to adopt the same strategy end the UK and, incidentally, his career? Let’s hope so.
*this point is stolen from Bright Green co-editor Peter McColl
update – I’ve now written another three things about these shenanigans.