Former SNP member and columnist Duncan Hamilton has an interesting article in the Scotsman on the coming referendum on Scottish independence. Or perhaps we should say referendums?
‘Scotland is heading towards a referendum at which the country will almost certainly vote for a more important change to the way we are governed than anything we have seen in 300 years. The coming referendum will be more important and more radical than that which established the Scottish Parliament. Why? Because the Scottish Parliament was essentially the powers which were already under the control of the Scottish Office with the addition of a layer of accountability through a democratic Parliament. This time, there will be a referendum on full independence. There will also, crucially, be a second question which will allow some version of fiscal autonomy whilst remaining in the Union. Either will be a massive step forward for Scotland.
And yet, there is something missing from this debate. The SNP will, and must, define and explain independence.
By contrast, the gaping hole in this debate is the second option – that of fiscal autonomy. If the polls are to be believed, the majority of Scots want such control whilst many remain wary of full independence. That can change in the years between here and the referendum but is it not startling that no leader, no party and no campaign is yet voicing the majority view? Modern politics is usually about a rush to capture the middle ground. Yet in this referendum, the vast middle ground is deserted.
It is all the more remarkable when you consider that there is a strong case for each of the other major parties to champion a positive case for fiscal autonomy.
The Liberals are the most obvious candidates, not least because the Steel Commission which backed the idea remains their party policy. Has the Clegg stranglehold on the Lib Dems reached the stage that the Scottish Liberal Democrats cannot stand up for their own position? With the Lib Dems nearly extinct in Scotland, wouldn’t fronting that campaign be the obvious place to start in rebuilding a Scottish Lib Dem identity?
And what about the “Scottish” Labour Party? Now that the Calman Commission has been largely forgotten, isn’t it time for that party to ask why it is now the most vociferous voice of unionism in Scotland?
What of the Tories? Again, opportunity knocks. Murdo Fraser will presumably become the next leader and has for years been in favour of fiscal autonomy. Like the Lib Dems, don’t the Tories need a radical pro-Scottish agenda in order to get back in the game? What on earth do they have to lose after yet another election delivering no progress whatsoever. The Tory brand remains toxic to many – why not make the bold step and outline a low-tax, high-growth vision of what fiscal autonomy can deliver? The Tories might find themselves making a case favoured by the majority in Scotland.’
I believe Hamilton has summed up in general terms what will be at least two of the questions in the plebiscite promised by the SNP government in Scotland, and some of the potential policies or strategies that may be pursued by the main parties leading up to it. Certainly there are those in the Scottish wing of British Labour who find it somewhat uncomfortable being defenders of the Union in the same company (sometimes literally) as the Conservative Party. But then again many Labour members in Scotland loathe the SNP more than the Conservatives and regard them as their true political rivals. Defeating the SNP, or any policies of the SNP (and Alex Salmond in particular, Labour’s number one bugbear), has become so ingrained in the party faithful that cutting off their nose to spite their face now seems entirely rational in a party that is increasingly becoming the embodiment of irrationality.
Meanwhile many in the Conservative Party are so eager to wrap the Butcher’s Apron Union Jack around them that they too seem unable to see the wood for the trees. Having being politically marginalised and ostracised in Scotland for some three decades now martyrdom has almost become second nature to them and a glorious political death for queen and country seems more palatable to some stalwarts than any amount of savvy compromises. For many a Scottish Tory it really is a case of, ahem, no surrender.
If one is looking for a little sense and logic in British or Scottish politics one normally turns to the Liberal Democrats. But these days you’d need a magnifying glass to discover them north of the border. The one-time king-makers of Scottish politics have seen their alliance with the Tories south of the border bring an electoral cooling that has left their numbers in the Scottish Parliament heavily depleted. Though the Lib Dems favoured a federalisation of Britain in times past that particular policy no longer receives the prominence it once did and many in the party are increasingly sounding more Unionist than Federalist. In fact, it is hard to find a senior Lib Dem outside of Scotland who still seems passionate about devolving further powers to the historic nations that make up the UK.
No surprise then that some Lib Dems in Scotland are thinking outside the London-HQ diktats and talk of a split with their southern compatriots and a go-it-alone Scottish Liberal Party are doing the rounds. Supporting the full fiscal autonomy (FFA) option in any multi-option referendum on independence would be one way of staking out a distinct identity in Scottish politics again, and one with the potential for a real return in terms of support if the FFA option was the one chosen by the electorate. After all everyone wants to back a winner.
Meanwhile in other Scottish news, this time from the Belfast Telegraph:
‘Scotland’s eight police forces are to be merged into one following an announcement next month, it is understood.
Although a vote would be needed to introduce the legislation, the SNP government’s majority in Holyrood is expected to see it approved.
A draft business case for the Scottish Government, obtained by The Sunday Herald newspaper, has also revealed the potential savings from the merger.
A single force would cost around £207 million to deliver during five years but save £390 million over that time. It would also save around £1.9 billion over 15 years.’
While the financial and organisational benefits of the move to create a single national police force for Scotland seem entirely sound there is more to this than meets the eye, for note the most important word in the sentence: national. Alex Salmond and those advisors around him know more than anyone else that for Scotland to want to be a nation it must first feel like a nation. Distinct, separate and different. In recent years we have seen the SNP embrace the Scottish language (Scots Gaelic) from a previous stance that ranged from vague interest to complete indifference. For a distinct, separate and different nation must have a distinct, separate and different national language. We have also seen SNP minsters (and supporters) focus on the need for an independent, national Scottish broadcast media, a public service television and radio service solely for Scotland. For a distinct, separate and different nation must have a distinct, separate and different national television service.
I have stated before that Gerry Adams is the grand, long-term strategist of Irish politics. However, in Celtic politics he has a close rival in Alex Salmond, a man who has led the transformation of his party – and perhaps in time of his country.