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Thursday, 28 June 2012

Inside Salmond's Mind: It's Obvious

We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men. (George Orwell)

It is, perhaps, a measure of the gaps in my reading that I only came across this quote from Orwell yesterday. Almost immediately before I settled down to watch Newsnight Scotland last night, in fact, which featured a round-robin on whether Alex Salmond would attempt to insert a second question into the Scottish Government's 2014 Independence Referendum. Those involved - John Curtice, Lorraine Davidson, Kate Higgins and Alex Massie - embarked on tortuous journeys, filled with 'ifs' and 'buts', in an attempt to decipher what the First Minister's plans might be in this regard.

As I watched, Orwell's words continually nagged at me and, while I would never claim to be more intelligent then the panel assembled by the BBC, some self-evident and obvious truths are available for anyone to make a sensible determination on what Salmond's game-plan could be.

I should, in fairness, state at the outset that the conclusion that emerges has been my view for some months so it is possible that I have adapted the 'obvious' to fit my worldview but follow the logic and make your own mind up.

1. Taking Scotland's Temperature

Give or take a few percentage points, it seems clear that the electorate breaks down into the 20% who want to retain the status quo and the 35% who want Independence. I think we can assume, for the most part, that these represent the hardcore support on either side who won't waver.

That leaves the largest group as the 45% who want to see some increase in powers short of independence and which comes in a variety of flavours - Devo Max, DevoPlus, Independence Lite, Full Fiscal Autonomy (FFA).

This is 'good news' for Salmond in the sense that 4 in 5 Scots reject 'more of the same' and want more power for the Holyrood Parliament. If the maxim holds that 'an electorate never demand less democracy', then those that advocate the status quo have more of a problem in converting those in the middle ground than a campaign demanding change....

2. Converting The Middle

In the context of the last 40 years of political chicanery around Devolution/Home Rule for Scotland, how many voters are going to be convinced by the promises of 'jam tomorrow'? Put starkly, the Unionist camp have to convince two-thirds of the 45% to trust them to deliver meaningful new powers to Scotland following a 'No' vote in 2014. Is that conceivable in an atmosphere where trust in politicians is eroded daily? Politicians, primarily, of the Westminster kind that is, with a recent poll showing less than 20% of Scots trust London to make decisions in the best interests of Scotland.

Those on the Better Together ticket could, of course, counter this problem by producing proposals for further devolution that are enticing enough for Scots to reject independence. And therein lies the real problem. The constituent parts of that campaign do not have a unified vision of a post-Referendum settlement. Whilst there is a slim possibility that Labour and the Lib-Dems could come up with a mutually acceptable prospectus, it is unlikely to appease Tories.

The outlook, then, is that there is unlikely to be a counter-proposal before the 2014 vote. If there is, it is likely to fracture that uneasy alliance who, two years out, don't even want to be filmed together...

3. Maintaining the Facade

Is there a real prospect of Better Together retaining any semblance of unity as late as October 2014? 

Cracks are sure to appear. As austerity really bites, there are bound to be Labour figures increasingly uncomfortable about a political campaign in league with the Tories. The Party, as a whole, may stay the course but who can seriously suggest that splinter groups will not emerge. Labour for Independence anyone? 

New scandals will have emerged in Westminster. The SNP will, of course, exploit these ruthlessly and Scotland will listen.

The 2015 UK General Election will be approaching. Will the Coalition survive the internal bickering? Perhaps, but all parties will be endeavouring to put clear water between themselves and their rivals and will inevitably lead to more problems in the No campaign creating opportunities for Yes Scotland to convert the one in three they need to entice from the 45%...

4. Salmond's Tactics

Salmond will continue to talk up a second question; not because it is his preferred option but because he knows it is the lure with which to tempt those who might be wavering on the Unionist side. Even if this causes small fractures within the No camp this will create internal pressures, making it increasingly difficult to maintain unity of purpose and consistency of message.As the 2015 UK election approaches even small disagreements will be exacerbated.

And, as everyone knows, Autumn 2014 has been chosen as the culmination of a 'feel good' year for Scotland - Homecoming 2014; the Glasgow Commonwealth Games; the Gleneagles Ryder Cup; and, yes, the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn. On such factors, votes can be decided...

5. The Clinchers: Ego, Ambition & Risk

Even the First Minister's staunchest supporters concede that this is a man partly driven by ego and burning ambition. Is this a politician who will be satisfied with the obituary 'the man who secured new powers for the devolved Scottish Parliament'?

Those who know politicians know that Alex Salmond could easily, when deciding to enter politics, have chosen a career within the Labour movement and he would have risen to high office - perhaps even the highest. His politics, on a whole range of subjects, could have been pursued within Labour. But he is consumed with a passion for Scottish independence. His ambition (and ego) will not allow him to throw that prospect away.

Clearly, offering a second question - based on polling figures - is almost resigning the prospect of that being the 'safe', 'fall-back' choice of the electorate. That would be a poor second choice for Salmond; a very minor victory. And would almost certainly end his leadership of the Scottish National Party.

Fundamentalists in the SNP - who have maintained discipline on a range of policies based on the prospect of winning independence - would revolt if, having taken them to the verge of independence, Salmond and his ministers chickened out at the final hurdle. This is not the legacy that Salmond wishes to leave.

The one question Referendum is, of course, riskier but it is a calculated risk and - as 2014 gets closer - I believe it will become less of a risk. More importantly, it is a risk Salmond's ego and ambition will not allow him to forego.

It will be one question. It's obvious. And now, it's been restated.


  1. Surely Salmond already has chickened out? He's redefined "independence" to mean a shared head of state and a monetary union, and he's in the process of rowing back even more into shared institutions across diplomatic, defence and administrative functions. If there isn't a second question it could well be because there doesn't need to be - the choice may be between the status quo and Devo Max - he'll just be calling Devo Max "independence".

    1. Is it really still necessary, at this advanced stage of proceedings, to explain the very fundamental difference between devolution and independence?

  2. All of this is fine as far as it goes. It is certainly true to say that the idea of Salmond WANTING a second question is nothing more than a concoction of the unionist media. But part of the cleverness of Salmond's strategy lies in his early realisation that it might become politically impossible for him to deny a second question. And he has planned for that eventuality.

    Already there is significant clamour for a "more powers" option on the referendum ballot. The lie - and there is always a lie - is that Salmond is part of that clamour. Why would he be? Even if did secretly want a second question, there is simply no need for him to risk alienating a sizeable chunk of his support by actively pursuing a second question. He knows that others will do that for him. Just as he knows that he can rely on the anti-independence campaign to press for his favoured option of a single question. He calculated that they would do so. Their own other option was to remain ambivalent about it. And Salmond occupied that ground by the the simple expedient of calling devo-whatever a "legitimate proposal".

    The deciding factor will be the results of the consultation. If there is overwhelming support for a second question Salmond can be seen as listening to the people by firming up his offer to include a "more powers" option on the ballot. The NO campaign meanwhile find themselves pushed into the same situation they were prior to the 2011 election - opposing the thing which almost everybody wants and proposing the thing which almost nobody wants.

    It will be all but impossible for the anti-independence parties to do a U-turn and formulate a proposal to be put to the people in the referendum as an alternative to independence. Salmond will therefore have two options. He can go for a single question saying that, given the failure of unionists to come up with a firm offer, independence is the only way to secure the "more powers" that people want. Or he can devise his own second question couched in such vague terms that it will appeal to nobody except, perhaps, a few who would otherwise have voted NO.

    The whole point here is that the second question issue is NOT a problem for Salmond as the media would have us believe. He has all the options. There is no lose scenario for him. There are only big wins and bigger wins. It's the anti-independence lobby which has the massive headache of having been deftly manoeuvred into supporting the untenable status quo with no "more powers" fall-back. Salmond stole that from under their noses.