Yesterday Scotland came one step closer to independence when Alex Salmond, the First Minister and Prime Minister David Cameron came to an agreement about holding a referendum in 2014 on the issue. The process and the referendum being offered to the Scottish people in two years time will be a surprisingly simple affair. There will be only one question asking whether or not one wants Scotland to secede from the Union and become independent. The First Minister wanted two questions offering two separate choices for Scotland’s future: independence or “devo-max”. The latter would have seen increased devolution of powers from Westminster to Holyrood in such affairs as taxation. David Cameron, a stern opponent of Scottish independence had refused two questions but to the consternation of his own party agreed to the referendum on the condition that there would be only one question that explicitly laid out the issue of independence or not.
There is no doubt that Alex Salmond and his Scottish Nationalist Party will be happy today and that getting Westminster to even approve a vote on independence will be seen as a crowning achievement. It is without doubt a seminal event but has the First Minister in his haste for a vote on independence doomed it? Scotland has had devolved government for close to fourteen years and in many respects it has been a very positive thing for Scots. The parliament in Holyrood has passed popular legislation such as abolishing prescription and college fees, the latter creating a huge discrepancy between the rest of the United Kingdom where students now could pay up to nine thousand pounds a year for their courses. To many politicians in London they snort that it has been only possible from financial transfers where Scotland gets more money than it creates by taxation and is therefore a blatant free-rider. The Scottish Nationalist Party scoff at such remarks saying that with North Sea oil revenues Scotland does the exact opposite with Westminster siphoning off money that are the fruits of its nation. Scotland in the opinion of nationalists will prosper if granted independence.
David Cameron would never have agreed to a referendum on independence if he did not believe it could be decisively beaten. Polls show only lukewarm support with the majority still in favor of staying in the United Kingdom. It appears people are more interested in the basic issues of the economy, education and welfare. Nationalists respond that once the debate gets kicking and the people begin to take an interest in the vote, things will change. Nevertheless the economic question of can Scotland be both financially independent and viable will be the decider. The prime minister was straight out of the gun after agreeing to the vote by visiting Rosyth and the shipyards where the next generation of British aircraft carriers are being built to emphasize that with independence such contracts could be in jeopardy and thus the loss of thousands of jobs.
The Scottish Nationalist Party was formed with the explicit intention of advocating for independence for Scotland. After winning a stunning outright majority last year in Scottish elections based on PR voting it seemed to Alex he had his mandate to ask for the referendum. But by placing all his cards on the table he has created a high-risk game. While already having control over certain aspects of Scotland through devolution, “devo-max” seemed a deeply unsatisfying option compared to independence. Considering the debate in Spain about Catalan independence, Scotland after winning from central government the right to a binding referendum has become the vanguard for regional independence in Europe. Although the Catalan President Artur Mas has advocated for Catalan independence, recently it has been more out of frustration with the government in Madrid refusing to devolve more powers such as independent tax raising to Barcelona, in essence “devo-max”. This is an issue seen even more egregious considering the other independence-inclined region of the Basque Country has that right. Artur Mas’s centre-right nationalist party Democratic Convergence of Catalonia would much prefer a process beginning with increased devolution for Barcelona to allow a stronger sense of independence to grow organically because to many right now a full jump to independence is somewhat unpalatable.
|Scottish Parliament Debating Chamber, Holyrood|
David Cameron firmly believes that many Scots are fearful of taking that jump to full independence, a new frontier that in light of the current world economic environment could be dangerous. Alex Salmond, who advocated for two questions took that exact jump. In 1979 Scotland voted in a referendum for devolution that failed on two accounts, a failure to win a majority of supporters voting and also the mandated quorum of registered voters. It took another generation to have another vote on the issue. While that issue was for basic devolution, it would be a lot harder to get Westminster to agree on another vote for independence in the future. A rejection of the referendum will be in the eyes of the government in London as a copper-fastened verdict and a mandate to refuse any other votes for a very long time if not forever. In essence the independence vote would in fact become the pawn of Westminster to prevent independence.
Alex Salmond and the SNP firmly believe they can win this debate but with rejecting a vote on “devo-max” in favor of a vote on full independence they could in fact doom the cause they were founded on for over a generation. David Cameron played hard-ball, pandering to that eager, genuine desire by the SNP for independence. Intoxicated by winning a strong mandate in elections last year more likely due to other issues than independence and a discredited Labour party, Alex Salmond has probably fallen for a Tory-designed trap to emasculate them. A failure to win a referendum could mean the other parties in Scotland against independence sense blood and advocate for a new Scottish election. It will at the very least hurt the SNP.
While I am personally a supporter of Scottish independence I feel that devo-max would have allowed a stronger sense of independence grow in Scotland and thus win over the sizeable minority firmly against secession. With greater control over all the important aspects of government bar currency and foreign affairs, Alex Salmond could then point to that success and call for outright independence. However he has never been one to take that path and has been consistently itching for a clear referendum on the issue. Alex Salmond is a surprising politician who has come back from behind countless of times to succeed at the end and he could very well win his cherished lifetime goal. But the stakes are high and in his haste he could have in fact sabotaged the entire cause for at least a generation.