Pyrrhic Victory

Alex Salmond is pinning his success on the high-risk gamble that the EU will accept an independent Scotland as a full member. It won't

David Cameron is not renowned as a negotiator. His motto seems to be that of Talleyrand: surtout pas trop de zèle. His famous veto of the EU fiscal pact achieved nothing but a subsequent climbdown, and his dealings with Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland, over the Scottish independence referendum due in 2014, demonstrate no greater backbone. According to what is known so far, Salmond has been allowed both to dictate the timing of the referendum and the question to be asked, albeit with the (presumably automatic) approval of the Electoral Commission. Cameron’s supposed triumph is to have ensured that only one question will be on the ballot paper, demanding a straightforward yes or no vote to independence. 

The calculation behind this “triumph” is that a no vote is somehow inevitable: Scots would never dream of voting for independence since opinion polls consistently predict a preference for the Union. Hence the referendum will put the Scottish Nationalists in their place once and for all. Can this really be taken for granted? After all, their present place is in government in Edinburgh, even though the electoral system incorporated into New Labour’s Devolution Act was designed to make that impossible. 

The alternative to a one-question referendum was a ballot paper including an alternative choice of “devolution max”—very extended fiscal and political home rule. (The status quo ante or rule from Westminster was never discussed as a third option, since even the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party no longer supports it.) Even Salmond is secretly supposed to prefer “devo max” and there is little doubt that a plurality and probably a majority of Scots would vote for it, if it were on offer. It would also allow a massive rejection of independence. So why did Cameron refuse to accept it? Why the need for only a single question? He is on record, after all, as telling Scots that if they reject independence, he will grant Scotland more powers. So why not kill off independence with a two-question ballot paper and then argue about the terms of “devo max” later? Cameron’s negotiating stance does not add up. 

So we are now faced with a referendum that offers Scotland independence, yes or no, pure and simple, with no apparent fear of the risks, no discussion of the possible terms and conditions, far less of the consequences. My fellow Scots, moreover, have been told that 16-year-olds can have the vote. Indeed, forms from local election registration officers in Scotland are already asking householders if there are any 15- or 16-year-olds living at home. Meanwhile, Scottish adults who live and work in other parts of the United Kingdom are being deprived of a vote. Why? After all, this is not an issue in which there are constituency interests at stake. The issue is a purely national one. So why should not Scots who can produce birth certificates showing they were indeed born in Scotland not all get the vote? They, more than anyone else, will be affected by the outcome. And it would be a simple matter to arrange voting centres throughout the UK. 

Better still, why not give everyone in the UK over the age of 16 a vote? We will all be affected by the outcome. We cannot postpone thinking about our future options until Alex Salmond tells us the time is right. 

Salmond has staked success on the presumption that the EU will accept an independent Scotland as a full member in possession of a euro opt-out. Yet the European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, stated last month that Scotland would have to reapply for membership. The EU could prove to be Salmond’s Achilles’ heel. But does Cameron have enough diplomatic sense or influence to manipulate Brussels against Edinburgh in order to defeat him?    

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