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.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London