I believe in independence for Scotland. That core belief has never wavered, though my understanding of what it should mean for a country and her people has changed and I would like to think, evolved.
So, as our Ministers First and Prime prepare to sign an agreement on a referendum on independence, am I thrilled? Sort of. Am I preparing, for the first time in a decade, to become an activist? Yes. Am I celebrating? Hmm.
In fact, I am dismayed that the people have lost and the parties have won. The agreement being signed to enable Scotland to determine and run a referendum on independence, with a single yes-no question, might satisfy the partisan, but it’s likely to leave a sour taste in the mouths of many voters. I might be one such partisan, but I also like to think of myself as a democrat (I acknowledge that I have an unhealthy conceit of myself) who believes that power belongs to the people and that in politics, all voices should have a say, particularly those whose views are marginalised, silenced and rarely sought.
The option of more powers just short of full sovereign, constitutional independence should have been a contender. Alex Salmond knew this, proving once again that he is the finest politician of his age, with an uncanny instinct for what plays and what might not in voters’ minds. He wanted some form of devo-max on the ballot paper, because it was a win-win option. Admittedly, for the SNP but more importantly, for the Scottish people.
But for once, he got the tactics wrong. Or rather, he over-estimated the willingess and ability of other players to help deliver a devo-max option and under-estimated the fundamentalist core at the heart of his party, running from top to bottom.
When the definitive history of Scotland’s constitutional journey in the last thirty years is written, Alex Salmond will of course be a central figure, not least because of how he shepherded his party to this moment. His leadership brought the SNP in from the cold, in the face of considerable opposition in the party, to participating in the devolution referendum in 1997. And under his leadership, the party’s position and approach to seeking independence changed, with the introduction of the need to hold a referendum rather than simply seeking an electoral mandate to negotiate. Both of these shifts, history will show, were the right ones for the SNP enabling the Scottish people to travel at a pace they feel comfortable with on the journey to full self-determination.
Which is what – I think, though I appreciate it is not shared by others – lay behind the attempt over the last year to create the opportunity for a devo-plus or devo-max option on the ballot paper. But he could not do that alone, and certainly not within his party. So he turned to civic Scotland and urged them to make the case. Sadly, it proved unworthy of the task for a host of reasons, not least because it could not agree on what that option should look like or consist of.
And for once, Alex Salmond lost the argument within his party. The gradualists might have reigned supreme over the SNP’s approach to independence, and the pace at which the ultimate prize was sought, in recent times, but the fundamentalists made a stirring comeback to seize the day, with some even rediscovering such tendencies in the last few months. Much of the party membership – from Cabinet ministers to the most recently arrived supporters – wanted a clear run at making the case for independence. Yes or no, without distractions.
This suited the Better Together campaign, though I’m still trying to understand why. The trite response is that we do not need a referendum for the Scottish Parliament to get more powers or indeed, that we need to answer the independence question before we begin to look at repatriating more powers. But it doesn’t stack up: the Unionists think – again – that with a single question referendum they have shot the nationalist fox, but we all know what happened the last time they reached that conclusion.
A yes-no referendum creates a whole host of problems for the No camp: already there are fault-lines with some declaring that they are devolutionists, not Unionists. They may think they can successfully coalesce around the word no for two years but that presumes that no one asks them to explain the why, what and how at any point.
It is also supremely arrogant of those parties to think that they and they alone should determine what more powers the Scottish people should have to run our own country. Who cares about the semantics of whether there is a constitutional need for the people to have a say on more devolution, why would you want to prevent a democratically expressed commitment to devolution, if you are so confident that is what they would choose? If you believe this marriage is still a healthy one, where two hearts still beat as one, why not a re-affirming of vows?
I get why most of the Yes camp wanted a single question referendum: conspiracy theorists who divined that Alex Salmond wanted a devo-plus option on the ballot paper so he could contrive a win-win appeared to forget that most of the SNP don’t want a halfway house and want a tilt at persuading the Scottish people to go all the way. That argument never really stacked up for me but I utterly fail to understand why the No camp think not having devo-plus as a referendum option somehow gives them tactical advantage over the SNP and other yes parties. When 40% of the population already support that position.
And I can’t help returning to the fact that the parties have ignored the people – or at least, 40% of them – in contriving to create a referendum which will not offer them the choice they most want. But ever the sceptical idealist, I think there is still time for “more powers for the Scottish Parliament” to appear on the ballot paper, if not writ large, at least in spirit. My hope – still – is that “more powers” will effectively be the no option and that the idea of the status quo will quickly be buried. In two years’ time, Scotland will either be fully independent or near enough and while I will work to achieve the former, I won’t be unhappy if Scots choose the latter.
The parties might all be claiming victory over today’s historic agreement. The No camp reckon they backed the SNP and Alex Salmond into a corner and indeed, the SNP can claim that for once, it has imposed its will on its leader by winning the argument for a single question referendum. I’m not convinced though that Alex Salmond will at all feel like a loser today. No one is more masterful at teasing the opposition into following his lead and he will already be working out how to pull the no camp across the divide of the status quo and into the territory of talking up more devolution. Come referendum day, the choice for the Scottish people will be either a yes for independence or a no which implies a considerable loosening of the constitutional apron strings.
If anyone is capable of achieving such an outcome, it is Alex Salmond. And if he succeeds in creating a referendum that is a debate about there or thereabouts, then power will indeed have vested in the Scottish people to make the choice they wanted to all along.