David Cameron has transformed the SNP’s long game of Scottish independence into a penalty shootout




David Cameron has hugely raised the stakes over Scottish independence by planning to give the Scottish Parliament legal powers to hold a binding referendum, provided it takes place within a tighter time frame than that envisaged by the SNP government. See the chess analysis by the doyen of Scots commentators Magnus Linklater in the Times (£, unfortunately)

If this were a game of chess, the Prime Minister would probably be judged to have used yesterday the King’s Indian Defence, much favoured by high-risk players such as Kasparov and Fischer. Essentially, you allow your opponent to take the centre ground, giving him an apparently superior advantage, then, just as he thinks he is heading for victory, you close in and destroy him…So the game seems to be swinging back to Mr Cameron. But not so fast. Mr Cameron is taking the one gamble that cautious Tories have always argued against: the so-called Thatcher move. This involves an English Prime Minister appearing to dictate matters to the Scots, rather than leaving them to take the decision for themselves. It tends to go down badly.

.Indeed it’s hard to see how Cameron can win on the timing of a referendum but he may embarrass Alex Salmond over the SNP First Minster’s obvious desire to fudge the issue and include the option of devo max in the referendum questions. But no more than embarrass I’d say. All the same, it’s good that someone is stirring among the political class London, where an understanding of identity politics is a rare as hens’ teeth. Independence is surely more than just one alternative for Scotland.  Everybody can understand it, sort of.   Cameron for all the risks involved, is in favour of dealing with it aside from the arcane and unsexy issues of more devolution.

In the Speccie James Forsyth think the coalition have decisively ruled out devo max beyond the Calman report. We shall see. .  John Curtice in the Guardian argues that the Conservatives should make devo max their own alternative strategy to buttress the Union “but, at the moment at least, there is apparently little prospect of this path being pursued at all”

Certainly there’s more ferment and disagreement around over the fiscal provisions of the Scotland Bill than I can quickly digest – but for that Alan Trench is your man with his blog Devolution Matters.         

Up to now The SNP strategy has been gradualist, in four stages. First to legislate for an advisory referendum within the Parliament’s powers; second to hold the referendum; third, if the Scottish people voted Yes to independence, to negotiate the details of separation with Westminster which could be very complicated. The velvet divorce between the Czech Republic in 1992 and Slovakia required 30 treaties and 12000 legal agreements.    The big issues include: division of the national debt; division of North Sea oil; the future of the UK’s nuclear bases on the Clyde; the possible sharing of other defence capabilities; Scotland’s future membership of the EU.  The UK would be desperate to retain the submarine bases, since the Clyde is the only suitable deep water port with multiple entrances.  But Scotland would be equally desperate to remain in the EU, which would be heavily influenced by whether the UK supported Scotland’s application or not.  (The law is not wholly clear, but most international lawyers say that Scotland would have to re-apply).  Finally Westminster would pass a Scotland Act giving independence on the agreed terms.

This is a leisurely timetable, in which the SNP could gradually test Scotland’s appetite for independence, and then negotiate with the UK government. According to that timetable, the final vote and independence legislation would not happen until after 2015/16 – after the terms of the present Westminster and Scottish government have expired. But by bidding to bring forward the timetable by up to a year, David Cameron has jolted the politics of a Scottish referendum up the UK agenda.

Where are all the major Scottish figures at Westminster  when it comes to speaking out on the future of the Union? Isn’t it odd that they’ve all steered clear of it given all the gibes about a Tartan army in the former Labour governments, eg Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy? Might even Gordon  now start rumbling? For the Lib Dems, Danny Alexander and the old war horses Ming Campbell and Charles Kennedy? And even those who have no Scottish seats to lose, Tory Scots who owe much to both the Union and Scotland, like Michael Gove and Malcolm Rifkind – not to mention all the elders in the Lords, led by that bruiser and ex chairman of Celtic FC John Reid.


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  • Dewi

    In all the mystery and intrigue that surrounds this decision one thing stands out starkly. The UK Government have not talked to the Scottish Government before revealing these proposals.
    That’s bizarre. I think an agreement on when and what to ask could have been reached – but maybe not now.
    What is really funny is seeing the Unionist parties, having blocked a referendum throughout the last Scottish Parliament, are falling over themselves to get one called.
    I’m beginning to think the good guys could win this – there’s only so much hypocritical bull that a country can put up with…

  • Greenflag

    Mystery ?Intrigue ? Hardly Dewi -it’s just Cameron -having got himself into a hole over the EU and isolating Britain he’s now appealing to the little Englander’s showing them that he can play tough with the Jocks too .Salmond was gearing for 2014 the eh 700th anniversary of Bannockburn and it seems Cameron would prefer to pick the time of battle .

    From here it looks like another Tory own goal to add to the ever lengthening list .Chaps a disaster as leader and it ‘s only a matter of time before the Lib Dems jump . Heres the latest on the UK economy from Max Keiser .Not a pretty prospect with one in seven Brits now in thrall to pay day lenders 🙁 while Cameron and his ilk continue to pay homage and fealty to the City of London the capital home as Keiser would put of financial con artists and hedge fund dissemblers of the ilk of ex Goldman Sachs Chairman Corzine etc .

    ‘ there’s only so much hypocritical bull that a country can put up with…’

    Indeed but alas Labour who are also in game of ‘banker protection ‘ can’t win on this one because they are equally culpable if not more for buying into the neo con deregulation nonsense during the Blair /Brown . Even young Milliband seems to have lost his teeth if not appetite for what needs to be done -imo.


  • Mick Fealty

    Jeff on Better Nation makes a similar point. The game has started and it’s Labour who have not got their boots on!!


  • GoldenFleece

    If Salmond has his way it wouldn’t be a fair shootout.

    He knows there is a good chance that Scotland will vote to stay in the UK therefore he is trying to dilute the pro-union vote with a 3rd option – that way a minority can vote for independence and still win.

    Of course this shouldn’t be allowed.

  • Gerry Lynch

    Cameron is arguably correct on constitutional substance – the SNP made no mention of the timing of a referendum in their 2011 manifesto and the Union is a generally reserved matter under the Scotland Act 1998.

    Politically, it feels rushed and poorly thought through. I would say ‘panicked’ except there really doesn’t seem to be any reason for the ‘No’ camp to panic. Yet. On the other hand, maybe Cameron has given up on Scotland politically and this is all aimed at the English base. But I don’t think so – I’ve always got the sense that Cameron genuinely believes in this stuff, if in little else.

  • Cameron’s intervention has been a media disaster for him and unionist supporters today, and has catalysed Scottish support for independence. If only IpsosMORI could poll right now!

    Why are there no senior Scottish figures willing to front the ant-independence campaign? Because no one wants to go into the history books as the Scot who opposed the indpendence of his country – and lost.

    Her are the key facts, as I see them –

    A significant number of Scottish voters want to be independent of the political system called the UK. The political party committed to Scotland’s independence, the SNP, was re-elected as the government of Scotland last May with a massive, decisive majority.

    In that election campaign, the SNP made it clear that, if elected, they would call a referendum in the second half of the Parliamentary term, i.e. in the period November 2013 to May 2016. The indications have been probably mid-2014.

    Only registered voters in Scotland at the time of the referendum, i.e. those on the voters roll, will be eligible to vote in that referendum. The referendum ballot paper will have a a YES/NO question on independence. It may have one or more other questions, e.g. a question on maximum devolved powers to Scotland while remaining in the UK.

    The Scottish electorate understood clearly the position of the SNP on these matters and re-elected them with a decisive mandate to structure the referendum on this basis, including the number of questions, the formulation of questions and the timing of the referendum.

    The referendum will determine the will of the Scottish people, and will either result in no action if there is a NO vote to the question or questions, or will deliver a mandate to the Scottish Government to negotiate with the UK Government, based on a YES vote to one or more questions.

    The UK Government has already accepted that, although the referendum outcome is not regarded by them as constitutionally binding, they will accept it as the settled will of the Scottish people.

    There are historical precedents for nations achieving their independence by various means, ranging from violent revolution and war (American independence), negotiated independence after a period of either violence or passive resistance (India and Pakistan) and velvet revolution, i.e. unilateral secession without violence (Slovenia).

    Independence has never required the consent of both parties, only the determination of one party to leave a political union or empire. The details of the settlement may be negotiated, but the fact of independence depends not on law, treaty or contract but on the will of the people.

    Saor Alba

    Peter Curran

  • I wonder if some are missing the essentials here.

    Cameron cocked up with his daft poke at nurses at the end of last week. Memo to every politico: nurses are angels. Lay off.

    So we have had a whole stack of diversionary efforts ever since to cover up.

    This one was due, even overdue, but brought forward. Especially because the mid-December “veto”-which-wasn’t has lost traction.

    Hmmm … desperate stuff.

    And we’ve debated the timing, the wording, the purpose of the Scottish referendum previously, on numerous threads.

    In case anyone hasn’t spotted it, the long-term consequences remain the same. If the present SNP approach goes adrift (as it probably will), the salami-slicer will continue in operation, unimpared.

  • Frustrated Democrat

    The Prime Minister has got this exactly right, for too long Salmond has been cruising along unopposed, and he thought he could have it all his own way. The PM wants the UK to stay and he has taken two recent steps one here in NI and now part two in Scotland to ensure that happens.

    The sensible position is a Yes/No referendum based on history and facts and depending on the result we can proceed to independence or negotiate on what powers might or might not be transferred to Scotland. A No vote would obviously reduce the powers to be transferred.

    Why would the SNP not want a simple Yes/No referendum as soon as possible? Only one answer they know they will lose.

    So wanting to avoid a simple referendum will greatly reduce the appeal they have, Salmond done up like a kipper and the UK saved.

    Not a bad start to the year.

  • Cameron has already abandoned half his ultimatum – the timescale – and who know what volte face awaits us tomorrow from the deeply divided and confused Unionist camp.

  • What is left of Cameron’s bullying tactics is an offer to “legally legitimise” a consultative referendum. It is already legal, and the response to his ‘offer’? – no thanks, mate. Beware of the British Empire, even the sad rump of it, bearing gifts.

    Read or listen to Tom Paulin’s “All the Way to the Empire Room” to get the feel of what the UK are capable of.

    Saor Alba!

    Peter Curran

  • ayeYerMa

    Indeed GoldenFleece, by trying to add a 3rd option they are only using the psycholoical tactic of the fallacy of the false middle ( http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_to_moderation )

    A concept that many PC Alliance, BBC, and Dublin Telegraph (formerly known as Belfast Telegraph) types here in Northern Ireland often fail to understand.

  • ayeYerMa

    Also amusing that some are making out that someone with the most Scottish of names, “Cameron”, should be off-putting to Scots.

  • First, the SNP vote is not an independence vote. It gained a majoirty because it (in minority) showed it had a better handle on governing than Labour or any alternative. Polling has never showed a great love if independence.

    While a case may be made for more devolved powers, the yes/no sets the scales and relative strength of hands.

    Finally, Salmond is a magnificent politician who always seeks a win out of every circumstance, and has played an outstanding game of cat and mouse assisted by Labour (the former strongman in Scotland) too arrogant to call his bluff. Now, any reluctance on yes/no will be seen as an acknowledgement that he can’t win a straight vote, and reluctant to give the Scottish people the simple choice.

  • HeinzGuderian

    Alas I fear Slugger will be inundated with this until Al calls for for the vote that will put him,and his cheerleaders,out of their misery.

    Latest Polls,(which seem to being ignored by the aforementioned cheerleaders) have the NO Vote running at 72%. Now,I’m no mathematician,but I fail to see how,”a significant number of Scottish Voters favour independence” ?

    The “Good Guys” will indeed win the vote.
    The Unionists always do……….;-)

  • Obelisk

    “The “Good Guys” will indeed win the vote.
    The Unionists always do……….;-)”

    Except in the 1918 general election when they were comprehensively thrashed,and like good democrats they accepted the will of the people. Oh wait, they ended up partitioning the country instead.

    As an extension of this logic, should a majority of the people of Scottish border counties vote against independence but independence itself is passed, will those counties be hived off into a Southern Scotland?

  • GoldenFleece

    Obelisk, it was not the first time a partition had happened, and it wasn’t the last.

    If unionist were spread evenly around the island, partition wouldn’t have happened. But when you have two distinct areas each with their own views of destiny, seperation is inevitable.

  • JR

    Golden Feeece,

    Many areas ajoining the border wich voted to be in the South ended up in the North.

    What way did Fermanagh and Tyrone vote again? Not to mention Newry, Derry, South Down and South Armagh