It’s a powerful argument: let the people decide.
So you can see why Alex Salmond and the SNP are attracted to it; less clear is why the opposition parties are so agin’ it.
Bypassing Parliament with a referendum bill seems like the obvious thing to do. Time is running short and the opposition parties are implacably opposed. But while there are some fairly meaty bills to get through the legislative sausage machine before April, Holyrood is hardly stowed out with business. Bills have whizzed through the legislative process at breakneck speed before, so logistics are no real reason to duck out. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. In any event, keeping opposition MSPs busy at Holyrood gives them less time to spend campaigning in their constituencies.
While it seems fairly certain that all the opposition parties, save the Greens, would unite to defeat the bill, who knows what might transpire during the process. Parliamentary politics is all about the art of compromise and making a deal. I’m not so convinced that the Lib Dems couldn’t be attracted if the wording and the offer was right. But the SNP will never know unless it tries.
Moreover, who is harmed most from the bill being voted down? Not the SNP. A vote in Parliament is hard evidence – talk after all is cheap – to present to the voters that neither Labour, Conservatives nor Liberal Democrats, trust them enough to have their say on this issue. And frankly, nothing annoys the chippy Scots more than assumptions being made and taken. Even folk who don’t support independence support the people’s right to decide. At the very least, voters identifying with one of the naysaying parties might become stay at home voters, enabling the SNP to whip up the righteous indignation of those who are prepared to swap their vote in order to have a referendum. Best of all for the SNP, nothing will fire the activists more than a David and Goliath battle against the Unionists. The SNP is always emboldened when it feels up against it.
Nor does a defeat for the referendum bill necessarily prevent the SNP staging its election campaign around independence. But the focus has to shift from the process to the result. Too often, the SNP has projected independence as an end in itself rather than a means to an end. That has to change if the SNP is to win a much coveted second term in government, and start winning over vital missing voters, such as women.
There’s a separate post to be made about the SNP’s problem with women voters but it is not unrelated generally to the shift in strategy that the SNP must make for 2011, and which Salmond has hinted at. People won’t vote for independence unless they know what it can deliver. Not in big meaty macro-economic terms nor on the visionary nation state basis. It’s neither a heart nor a minds thing, but needs to appeal to both. Frankly, there is no better election in which to make such an appeal. Although it would have done the SNP no harm at all to have rehearsed some of the arguments, if only to have flushed out the opposition and moved the campaign on to its terms, during the recent UK government elections.
Britain is broken and broke. Necessity can indeed be a powerful engine for change and now is a good time to make the case for being different, for doing different and for taking a different direction. People, at long last, are prepared to listen. The status quo, promising ten years and more of unrelenting insecurity, loss, pain and fear, is no longer the attractive option it was a few years ago. But voters want to know what change would mean.
Scottish people aren’t stupid. They know the welfare state as currently designed is no longer fit for purpose. They know that Scotland no longer has a world leading education system. They know that an economy built on the service industry is on very shaky foundations indeed. And they know that there is far too big a gap between rich and poor, yet no one has any fresh ideas on how to bridge it.
For the first time ever perhaps, they are up for it; but they want to know what “it” is. So, in bread and butter terms, it’s not about having the powers in themselves, but what those powers can achieve. What does “growing our way out of this situation” actually mean? The SNP has to devise a campaign around what independence can do to fix some of these issues and problems, not around the semantics of constitutional change.
Before it gets that far, the SNP also needs to sort its prebuttal tactics. Make no mistake: Douglas Alexander is already dusting off the divorce is a costly business posters, and Wendy is busy toting up the millions and billions needed to fuel the deficit argument. The SNP needs to be ready, not to trade the debate on these tired and cliched terms, which will only play into opposition parties’ hands, but to re-imagine the narrative so that such arguments are played out before they really start.
The burd is glad others are having to make this decision. It’s not one to be taken lightly but then Alex Salmond has made big, bold – some of them brilliant, a few of them wrong – decisions in the past.
For what it’s worth, here’s my advice. Go for broke, Alex, go for both.
But just remember to fight the campaign on the Scottish people’s territory, not the SNP’s. Fight on what matters to them, not what matters to the party and its members. It’s a subtle difference but an important one.