Alex Salmond's party has abandoned its plans to put its proposed Referendum Bill before MSPs, vowing instead to "appeal directly to the electorate to back the need for an independence vote" at next year's Scottish parliamentary elections. An SNP spokesperson claimed that "a new re-elected SNP government will be in a...position to secure passage of the referendum, having successfully mobilised the people over the blocking tactics of [opposition] parties."
This climbdown, which underlines both the SNP's disrespect of parliamentary democracy and its determination to fight the 2011 elections on the issue of independence, fails to appreciate the realities of the Scottish electoral system, which has in the past never provided any party with an overall majority and is unlikely to do so again. Whatever the result of next year's elections, it is almost certain that no party will have a working majority.
The SNP claim that this change of tactic was necessary: "We are discussing our strategy to make the referendum the transcending issue of the election, to demonstrate that financial independence is the only alternative to a decade or more of Westminster-dictated cuts." In treading out the same tired rhetoric, the SNP has been exposed as being devoid of imagination, desperate in its attempts to reverse Labour's high standing in opinion polls (SNP trail by ten percentage points) and completely out of touch with the public. What Salmond patently fails to understand is that the public have no appetite for the independence referendum to be "the transcending issue". They want the election to centre on the economy, on employment, on health services and on public spending... not a referendum asking Scots which constitutional arrangement they prefer to be unemployed under.
This latest setback for Salmond comes after other embarrassing climbdowns, such as the abolition of council tax. The SNP leader is on the rack and his very credibility is now at stake. His tactics seem both naive and desperate - not words normally associated with Alex Salmond. It is almost certainly mistaken to make the independence issue so prominent within the SNP's campaign at the forthcoming elections, rather than to focus on issues that resonate with the public and its own record in government, and suggests a recognition on the part of the SNP that it has lost significant ground to Labour. But it's even more of a mistake to describe those opposed to independence (as are 70 per cent of Scots) as "traitors" risks alienating voters who have little sympathy with the SNP's independence rhetoric but are inclined to support its social-democratic soft-left policies.
Opposition leaders have been quick to criticise Salmond's climbdown. Labour leader Iain Gray claimed that "Alex Salmond's bill has turned into a white flag rather than a flagship policy", while the Tories' Annabel Goldie accused the SNP leader of "abus[ing] public cash to run a four-year-long party political campaign". Jeremy Purvis, the Liberal Democrats' finance spokesperson, observed that "the SNP have dumped every major promise that they made in 2007 by jettisoning the referendum...[and] should be utterly ashamed of wasting millions of taxpayers money during a recession on a pointless 'national conversation' and preparation for a scrapped referendum."
Mr Purvis's comments have been echoed by the Taxpayer's Alliance. The cost of the referendum is likely to be around £9.5million.
There has been much criticism in the media of Salmond's inability to deliver the SNP's manifesto pledges. On one level, this demonstrates that even eleven years after the birth of the Scottish parliament the media struggle with the concept and reality of minority government. On another level, it highlights a very real SNP problem; being inflexible in the face of such reality. Salmond has steered his party into a corner from which it can neither retreat nor be rescued by means of trading or negotiation with other parties. There is no doubt that the SNP bill would have been defeated in parliament and this apparently populist tactic is a means of avoiding such a devastating defeat. Salmond is simply trying to keep the referendum alive, because he realises that without it the SNP lack any distinctive policy or ideas.
Salmond, it seems, has little to offer other than an expensive referendum and anti-Establishment rhetoric. Perhaps it is time for him to join Solidarity.
A spokesperson for the Scottish Liberal Democrats read: "We welcome the SNP fighting next year's election solely on the grounds of independence. Alex Salmond has said that he is now going to do this and this is very welcome territory for us." It's very hard to disagree. For once, the SNP's tactics have played into the hands of its opposition.
The Scottish electorate will have the opportunity next may to rid Scotland of this turbulent false prophet, or at least expel him and his party to the opposition benches. I am abosultely confident they will take this opportunity, as Alex Salmond seems particularly determined to evidence his lack of leadership, inability to compromise and willingness to ignore the crucial issues in favour of his inexplicable obsession with independence.