The referendum no one is talking about

While Westminster is fixated on the EU, Scotland is moving ever closer to independence.

While the Tories have been warring over whether to hold a national vote on EU membership, Alex Salmond has been quietly devising his strategy for a different referendum. As the SNP leader confirmed at his party's conference last weekend, the ballot paper will contain two questions. The first will be a straight yes/no question on Scottish independence, the second will be on full fiscal autonomy or "devolution max" (devo max).

Aware that he may not be able to win a majority for independence, Salmond is attempting to ensure that the SNP ends up with a consolation prize. But no one should underestimate how radical a step fiscal autonomy would be. Scotland would win complete control over spending, borrowing and taxation, leaving Westminster in charge of foreign affairs and defence. In an ingenious move, Salmond is attempting to turn the SNP into the party of independence and the party of devolution. The distance between the two is smaller than some imagine. An independent Scotland would retain the Queen as its head of state, British military bases (although the Trident subs would go) and the pound until, in Salmond's words, "it was in Scotland's economic advantage to join the euro" (in other words, indefinitely).

However, there is every reason to believe that Scotland will vote for full independence in the second half of the five-year Holyrood parliament. The SNP has already amassed a £1m campaign war chest and the polls are moving its way. A ComRes survey published on 15 October showed that 49 per cent of Scots now favour independence, with just 37 per cent opposed. Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie posed the question: "What if devo max got 99 per cent 'yes' and one per cent 'no' in the vote while the independence option got 51 per cent 'yes' and 49 per cent 'no'?" But Salmond has already confirmed that a slim majority for independence will trump a large majority for devo max. A brilliant politician and strategist, he will wait until discontent with the Westminster coalition is at its height before calling a referendum.

Labour and the Tories, leaderless as they are in Scotland, are not even close to devising a strategy to combat Salmond. After the SNP's remarkable victory in May, David Cameron vowed to defend the United Kingdom with "every fibre in my body". But we've seen little evidence of that so far. As for Ed Miliband, he has largely avoided the subject since forgetting the name of one his party's leadership candidates (Ken Macintosh), even though Scottish independence would automatically strip his party of 41 seats. For now, all the momentum is with Salmond and the SNP. This must change. And soon.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.