I don't often give much thought to Scottish politics, as it doesn't often give much thought to me. Even rarer is it for me to feel much sympathy for David Cameron. But both these things happened yesterday, so I thought I should write something down before I forgot to mark it on the calendar.
Despite being blessed with a Scottish name, Cameron is not blessed with many Scottish supporters. So more or less anything he says on the topic of the independence referendum north of the border will be swatted away by the native Big Beast of the SNP, Alex Salmond, with an ad hominem swipe.
Cameron came apparently bearing divisive gifts: reject independence, he cooed to the voters, and we'll see what we can do about extending devolution. This was the political equivalent of stuffing a roll of banknotes into the electorate's bra and telling them to go Up West and treat themselves to a new dress. Salmond said such breezy promises were worthless because they'd been offered something similar in 1979 that never materialised. I was promised a PlayMobil knight in 1979 that I never received, but I've rebuilt my life since then. Salmond obviously remains scarred. I'm surprised he didn't bring up the Highland Clearances.
The point Cameron had gone all the way to Scotland to make seems a fair one to me: for the referendum, the ballot should contain only the yes/no option on independence. By contrast, the SNP seems intent on building a menu of options to cover so-called 'Devo-Plus' (or 'Devo-Max') - extra powers for future Scottish administrations if the independence vote goes a bit Rangers FC on them. Would sir like fiscal separation with his devolution? How about a sprinkling of military autonomy?
I think there's good reason not to muddy the waters. Say the ballot does give multiple options: What happens if 55% of Scots choose independence but 65% choose 'Devo-Plus' (which I reckon is quite likely)? Does that mean independence trumps all, and subsequent questions are redundant? Or does it, in fact, undermine the case for full independence by saying more people prefer devolution over full separation? As anyone who's designed even a basic questionnaire will tell you, the answers to multiple related questions are dynamic: the responses to some will impact upon the outcome of others. Hypothetical questions about aspects of Devo-Plus are built upon an assumption of the failure of a full independence vote, which will build in a predisposition toward that failure. The act of answering the question will affect the result you reach. It's Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle as a political instrument.
It begs the question why Salmond would want to jeopardise getting a mandate for political independence for Scotland - something that has supposedly been his lifelong political dream. Maybe now it's within touching distance, the prospect of the reality of grubby day-to-day politics for an independent, not-quite-so-rich nation in a recession is making him think twice. Maybe the prospect of a bit more power without the responsibility for underwriting it is, in fact, far more enticing for a career politician. If the people of Scotland suffer a decline in living standards as a result of independence (or even as a perceived result of it) they'll be looking for someone to blame. It's nice to have an independently wealthy Old Etonian English strawman to blame for preventing Scotland from reaching its destiny, instead of someone closer to home.
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