On the prospect of a referendum on Scottish independence: initial thoughts

The first is that nothing has happened so far in the debate provoked by Cameron’s high-risk, and previously occluded, plan to play Call My Bluff with the Nationalists in Scotland to disabuse me of my view of referendums. I would suggest that the reason the arguments over the timing and the form of question are already overheated is because the actors involved understand perfectly well that plebiscites are exercises in manufacturing consent for projects that have already been chosen by political elites.

The second is that I’m in a minority in arguing that there is a certain logic to the position of the Westminster government. The situation as it stood was allowing the agenda to be set by Salmond & Co alone. “We the Scots” should decide the timing and question of a referendum, say the Nats. By “we” they mean of course the SNP who claim exclusive rights to determine when we should be asked, and what form of question – and why shouldn’t they extend the franchise if it is deemed useful to their purposes? Disagree and you’re lining up against Scotland.

However, my opinion of the Westminster attempt to seize the initiative doesn’t differ much from what numerous other commentators have been saying. For one, it’s too late. The unionist parties have resisted a referendum for too long to now say with any conviction that not only do we favour it but we’re now in more of a hurry than you.

Nor do the arguments for the urgency make much sense. It’ll be ‘legally-binding’ if it’s held within 18 months but merely ‘advisory’ after that? I wouldn’t know but I doubt it makes legal sense – and I’m absolutely certain it makes no political sense.

I doubt whether it makes much economic sense either, this idea that uncertainty is crippling confidence and deterring investment. I wouldn’t want to say too much about that because while the arguments both for and against independence are often couched in economic terms, the reality is the position on both sides of the argument are akin to the attitude of creationist believers to science.

And even if any of these argument did make sense, the intervention already looks unhelpful in the extreme. You can have your referendum but on our time-scale and only in a form of our choosing: so said the European Commission to the British government, arguing that continued uncertainty over British commitment to the EU was damaging economic confidence in the UK and the wider region. You wouldn’t want to push the analogy too far since Britain is not a member of the EU in the way Scotland is a member of the United Kingdom – but it helps, nevertheless, to catch a flavour of how such intervention might be interpreted north of the border.

Finally, Cameron et al need to get better advice on Scottish matters. I’ve thought, and not for the first time, that they could do worse than pay some heed to Alex Massie:

“Of course, were I David Cameron I’d accept that Salmond, bugger it, has the ball and the right to set the conditions for the game. This may be inconvenient or sub-optimal but there it is. And then I would ask just this: do you really wish to make foreigners of your English friends and relatives? I would trust the people to make their own minds up and I would do little to get in the way of that.”

Although whether referendums have much to do with trusting the people is an idea of which I’m highly sceptical.

Update: This post is perhaps looking a little out of date already given recent events. I’ll avoid commenting further except to record my feeling that if it is indeed the case that Mr Cameron’s penchant for high-stakes constitutional poker is unaccompanied by any apparent ability in this sphere, this is a matter of grave concern not only for Conservatives but to those of us who are non-Tory Unionists.