Wednesday, 11 January 2012

1001 Nights

Yesterday, we were told, was going to be a big day for Scotland's future. In the morning we were to get a statement from Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore listing a deadline for the referendum and setting out Westminster's terms. Well, the morning became the afternoon, the statement was more of a ramble and the deadline – well, Mr Moore has put that on hold for the meantime. At least, he tried to, before Alex Salmond stepped in and stole his thunder by announcing, whilst Moore was still mumbling, that the SNP have plumped for Autumn 2014. Does that mean it was an eventful day after all? I'm not so sure.

The thing is – and I suspect Salmond knew this from the start – all this angst about a date is really a bit beside the point. There's horrified talk at Westminster about how Salmond wanted his referendum to coincide with the anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, which just shows how limited understanding of the Scots is there, because I'm pretty sure I've never met one who would care in the slightest. But the distraction worked, stole away focus, kept the unionists from looking at the issues on which they might actually win hearts and minds. Moore, to be fair, could filibuster himself on virtually any subject even if you gave him all day, and his intervention – forced by David Cameron's – has made it difficult for other unionists to make their voices heard. The consultation produced by the Westminster government is a lightweight piece of fluff (though I would still urge you all to fill it in – you can find it here and it'll only take you ten minutes). Yesterday was noise, signifying next to nothing.

The emptiness of the much-hyped announcement is clearly embarrassing even Moore himself, who looked shattered by the end of a turn on Newsnight, poor thing. And there's one of his problems. If Westminster wants to lead the unionist campaign, it has very few people to do the talking. A Cameron speech on the subject means guaranteed gains for the SNP (which may be Cameron's plan, since his party could benefit nicely from losing Scotland, or so he is liable to think). There's Jim Murphy on the opposite benches, but he's lost a lot of sympathy in Scotland in recent weeks and seems to have his ambitions fixed on Westminster now. Margaret Curran has stepped in but isn't quite singing the same song. So we can watch Moore get increasingly exhausted as the SNP rolls out an endless line of fresh, energised opponents for him – and let's not forget that the Scottish Greens support independence too.

The real problem is that the shift of control over the unionist campaign to befuddled Westminster politicians means that all they really can talk about are things like the date and the legal technicalities (whereby they seem to have confused legal weight with political weight). In Scotland, every commentator I speak to and most of the politicians say they want a Real Debate on the issues. Salmond's date, at least, should allow for that – I'll admit I was confused by Moore's simultaneous demands that the referendum be held as soon as possible and follow deep and meaningful consultation. Yet today the Westminster unionists, in a misguided bid for relevance, continue to flap about how the date must be changed.

Then there's the issue of devo max. On independence, Scots have very different views, and many have yet to make up their minds. Yet a large majority evidence a strong interest in further devolution. If this devolution is to be relatively minor, there's no need to take it to a referendum; it can fairly be sorted out between the Holyrood and Westminster parliaments. But if it is to involve, say, a shift of control over defence sector issues or the provision of an element of fiscal autonomy, it would seem appropriate that the people get to decide. Since referenda are expensive (as several members of the current Westminster administration have emphasised), why not have a question about devo max presented at the same time as one about independence?

I don't believe that Scottish voters would find a two question referendum too complicated, and I wonder at the smugness of politicians who suggest they would. Neither do I care if no political party is pushing for devo max as its favoured objection. Plenty of individuals within those parties are, and, more importantly, so are plenty of ordinary Scots. This is not and should not be a referendum about party politics and petty political allegiances. It must be a referendum that allows the Scottish people to express their views in a simple, fair, and inclusive way.

I would hate to live in a Scotland that remained bound to the United Kingdom against the will of its people. Similarly, I would hate to live in a independent Scotland that the majority of Scottish people didn't really want. It is important that we get this process right not just for the sake of ideologies but for the sake of doing right by everyone affected. This must be a listening process, a responsive process. It must not be about polarisation, about pushing people to absurd political extremes. Because one way or another, within three years, this process will be over. And whatever happens then, Scotland must find a way to bring those who have been disappointed into the fold, to heal itself and move forward as a whole nation.

We have roughly 1001 nights to go until Salmond's promised referendum happens. I think I can speak for the vast majority of my fellow Scots when I say please don't force us to listen to the same soulless story on every one.


  1. Well, we managed to grapple with a two-question referendum in 1999. And it wasn't even legally binding. Must have been a lucky break.

  2. Great analysis. I agree that the focus on irrelevant issues and patronising politics from Westminster have a polarising effect, which really isn't helpful. And that the focus of the referendum must involve the people in a tangible way.

    I'd be very happy to have a devomax option on the ballot, which I suspect would be an sensible option to a lot of people.