Monday, 9 January 2012

Cameron's gamble on a Wheneverendum

They say fortune favours the brave, and Cameron has certainly taken a bold gamble on the future of the UK by trying to wrest the independence referendum back from Alex Salmond.

The plan to offer the Scottish government the power to stage a binding legal referendum was discussed at cabinet this morning. The catch, of course, is that this would be a limited, once only offer, lasting 12 or 18 months after which the Prime Minister would be forced to consider staging his own, simpler Yes or No referendum.

Because the cabinet was was held in the Olympic Park the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman, who was in Downing Street with us, wasn't able to give a read out of the discussion.

We learned only that the proposal was put to cabinet by Chancellor George Osborne, who chairs the ministerial group on Scotland. (I admit, I didn't know he did but it indicates how seriously the UK government takes the issue).

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore and Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander also spoke on the proposal - a read out of what was said later, we hope.

Meanwhile any questions on the implications of Westminster limiting the timing of a referendum were batted away, pending a parliamentary statement on the matter, probably this week.

Asked whether the Prime Minister was "meddling" in Scottish democracy, as SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon has it, the Prime Minister's spokesman reminded us: "In the Scotland Act 1988 it is clear that the constitution is a reserved matter."

There's the iron fist inside the consultative glove which Cameron has promised. Fully aware that Salmond will reject his offer Cameron must then be prepared to move to the next stage, and organise a Yes-No referendum from Westminster. That's when the game get's risky.

I imagine Alex Salmond must be quite relaxed about the latest twist in the game.

A fractious argument with Westminster about the mechanics of a referendum, instead of the substance of independence, plays right into the territory he has been fighting on for the last three decades.

Endless, niggling arguments about Westminster "disrespecting" Scotland will dominate the next year, which makes for a wearisome time for all, instead of a proper debate about whether Scotland would be better in or out of the UK.

(That's to say nothing of the normal political debate in Scotland about health, education, the environment and the economy - all of which is being played out through the prism of the indy referendum)

SNP members are already tweeting that the choice is between an SNP referendum and a Tory one. Given a choice between a referendum rigged by Cameron and one rigged by the Salmond, people would be expected to side with Salmond.

That said, I do recall that one of the questions in a recent poll asking people if they would boycott a Westminster-organised referendum - only two per cent said they would. (I can't reference that at the moment but I'm sure Angus Robertson, who does far more reading of tea leaves on that question than I do, will clarify. Now found the poll, added at bottom of this piece).

Anyway, talk of a boycott, respect, rights and questions are far better news for Salmond than talk of Scotland leaving the UK.

The last thing that Salmond wants is a definitive referendum on independence before the next Scottish election. He knows he would lose, and that that loss would make it more likely he would lose the election itself as well.

Either a legal challenge against his own referendum, or an extended row with the Coalition over their referendum (are you still with me?) is just the way he wants to go into the 2016 election for a third term.

Which brings us neatly, if we put the Lib Dems to one side, to the losers. Scottish Labour could be minced in this wrangling on a referendum.

Johann Lamont is-calling for a referendum as soon as possible but refusing, correctly, to back Cameron's bid to force one. We need to hear from Miliband on this one, and pretty soon, it's the future of the UK we're talking about after all. We also need to hear politicians making the case for Scotland in Britain.

Scotsman poll showing just two per cent of Scots would boycott Westminster referendum.

From The Scotsman - Tuesday 22 November 2011

"More than half of Scots are opposed to Scotland becoming independent, according to a new opinion poll.

A total of 53 per cent of those questioned by Progressive Scottish Opinion were against such a change, while 28 per cent were in favour of it and 17 per cent were unsure how they would vote in a referendum.

A total of 1,233 adults were questioned on the issue last week, with only 2 per cent stating they would not vote in an independence referendum if it was organised by Westminster rather than Holyrood."

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