Alex Salmond could be said to take the St Augustine line on Scottish independence: “O Lord, give me a referendum, but not yet.” Aware that there is no majority for separation (the latest poll puts support at just 29 per cent), the First Minister has consistently sought to postpone a vote until 2014, when he believes that discontent with Westminster’s austerity coalition will be at its height.
But then, on 8 January, David Cameron made his move. Determined not to be remembered as the prime minister who lost Scotland, Cameron raised the stakes hugely in his confrontation with Salmond by offering him a binding referendum on independence, on condition that it be held by 2013 and that it feature a straight Yes/No question on Scottish secession.
As well as forcing an early vote, Cameron wants to prevent Salmond including a second question on full fiscal autonomy or “devolution max”. Fearful that he may fail to turn the polls round, the SNP leader has been eyeing the consolation prize of devo max (for which the polls consistently show a large majority) as a stepping stone to independence. Scotland would win complete control over spending, borrowing and taxation, leaving Westminster in charge of only foreign affairs and defence. With one more heave, the Union would end.
Open to challenge
In practice, Cameron’s intervention may change little. The SNP announced its intention to hold an advisory referendum in 2014 (though even this would be open to legal challenge), in the hope of securing a clear mandate to negotiate for independence.
At the insistence of Westminster, this would probably be followed by a second referendum asking voters to pass judgement on the final deals that Salmond strikes on Scotland’s share of the national debt, North Sea Oil and the armed forces.
For now, Cameron’s move has succeeded in focusing attention on a subject that has often seemed distant from our legislators’ minds. Ed Miliband’s interest in Scotland is so limited that, when questioned, he was unable to name all three of the candidates for the Scottish Labour leadership. Yet it is his party, not Cameron’s, that has most to lose from an independent Scotland. The Tories have just one MP north of the border; Labour has 41. For reasons of principle as well as pure-self interest, Miliband’s party can’t afford for Scotland to go it alone.