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David Cameron and Alex Salmond are locked in a high-stakes game of constitutional poker

David Torrance: A game of constitutional poker

I have a feeling part of Alex Salmond will have grudging admiration for David Cameron’s high-stakes intervention in the referendum debate. For the First Minister, having made quite a few himself, has always liked political gambles, and the Prime Minister’s move is certainly that. As a “senior” Whitehall official told the Mail on Sunday, we’re now in the midst of what amounts to a “giant game of constitutional poker” between the two men.

But as in any game, there are strengths and weaknesses on both sides. While the UK Government may have the political and constitutional right to attach conditions to any independence referendum (and indeed hold one itself should it so desire), there is a risk of it being seen to lack legitimacy. This was the classic paradox of the 1980s – Mrs Thatcher had the political and constitutional right to govern Scotland, but she was perceived to lack legitimacy in doing so.

The UK Government, or rather Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore, is also guilty of inconsistency. Consider Moore’s words shortly after last May’s election:

The First Minister has made clear his intention to proceed with [the referendum]. He has the majority and the authority to proceed on that basis. It’s for him to determine when he wishes to do it, and what order of priority he gives to it. As a UK government we will not be putting obstacles in the way of any referendum.” (My italics)

Now, of course, the UK Government could argue that it isn’t putting any obstacles in the way of a referendum, but it is certainly seeking to influence its timing. That said, inconsistency has also been a hallmark of the Scottish Government’s approach. Not only has its stance changed radically from minority (hold it as soon as possible) to majority (there’s no rush) government, but its oft-repeated claim to have a “mandate” for holding a poll in the “second half” of this Parliamentary term doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny.

First off, it’s arguably the case that the SNP has no mandate to hold a referendum at all, for – as laid out in the Scotland Act, 1998, which was supported by the SNP – constitutional affairs are reserved to Westminster. Just because the party put a referendum pledge in its manifesto doesn’t get around that problem. And talking of the manifesto, let’s remind ourselves what it actually says:

We think the people of Scotland should decide our nation’s future in a democratic referendum and opinion polls suggest that most Scots agree. We will, therefore, bring forward our Referendum Bill in this next Parliament.”

No mention of it being in the “second half” of the Holyrood term, in fact no mention of timing at all – merely that a Bill will be brought forward in the “next Parliament”. The SNP does, however, argue that it was made clear during the campaign that this was the planned timing. But was it? Alex Salmond actually changed his position at least twice before polling day. Initially, he said outlining a timescale (as he’d done in the previous Parliament) had been a mistake he wasn’t going to repeat; a few weeks later he started mentioning the “second half” qualification and, finally, just days before polling, he let it be known it would be later still, “well into” the second half of that term.

So claiming to have a “mandate” specifically for a referendum in the “second half” of this Parliament is tenuous at best, while the manifesto – arguably the more binding contract with voters – is pretty vague. Nevertheless the SNP is sticking to that line, the implication being that they’ll refuse to support a Section 30 Order giving the Scottish Parliament the legal authority to hold a referendum. But this is where things get tricky for the SNP. On what basis could they argue against getting more powers to hold a referendum? Tellingly, Salmond’s official spokesman has refused to comment on that very point.

Another weakness, on both sides, are the stated reasons for both the UK and Scottish Government’s preferred timescale. Westminster says delay causes uncertainty which is bad for business (but won’t say who’s raised it with them), while Salmond’s official explanation for not holding it sooner rather than later is that his “priority” is jobs and the economy. But given that he also argues independence is crucial to boosting jobs and the economy, that isn’t terribly convincing. 

So what happens if the UK Government holds its own referendum and Salmond boycotts it? Well, boycotts require public support and I’m not convinced this will necessarily come. It brings to mind Tony Blair’s U-turn in June 1996, when he decreed that a two-question referendum would be required before a future Labour government created a Scottish Parliament. Then, Salmond accused Blair of planning a “rigged referendum”, but by September 1997 everyone had forgotten about it and even Salmond had thrown himself into campaigning for a “yes” vote in the very referendum he claimed was “rigged”.

Blair’s referendum commitment also put Salmond in an uncomfortable position. With his party not yet formally committed to devolution, he was continually asked: “How will you urge SNP supporters to vote in the referendum?” And if push comes to shove and the UK Government organizes its own independence referendum by the end of 2013, that question will apply again.

Would Salmond really be prepared to tell not only his own supporters (many of whom want a single-question referendum) but also the Scottish people not to take part in a referendum he himself proposes, just at a different time? I’m not sure that would wash. This debate is a Holyrood/Westminster bubble issue and a highly technical one at that. I can’t help feeling that most Scots, come the crunch, won’t much care who’s “controlling” the referendum. But in this particular game of poker, Mr Salmond has yet to reveal his hand.

Posted by David Torrance

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