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
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.