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Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Independence battle begins in earnest

I believe an agreement of "historic significance" was signed in Edinburgh yesterday.

This is welcome, if largely expected, news.

I didn't foresee the Westminster government actively blocking the SNP's reasonable claims to hold the referendum on the date of their choosing, or the SNP providing too much resistance to Cameron's insistence of a single question.  I was moderately surprised that 16 and 17-year olds will be allowed the vote, something of which I am personally supportive.

There has predictably been a great deal of excitement surrounding this.  I'm afraid I don't share it.  To be honest, I was more concerned about developments surrounding Halls meat factory and the resultant loss of both jobs and a once-thriving Scottish business.  It was why I used facebook to suggest that the referendum question should be "Under which constitutional arrangement do you prefer to be unemployed?"

Some things really are too important to be overshadowed by the so-called Edinburgh Agreement.

That said, I'm not understating the importance of the agreement.  The referendum has now become very real.  It is certainly going to happen in 2014.  Gloves can now come off and the battle begin in earnest.  No doubt campaigning will continue in the same vein that it has for the previous few months, characterised by negativity, simplicity, personality and entrenched tribalism, but at least we can concentrate on the arguments about the outcome, rather than the process.

I must admit to feeling that yesterday amounted to something of a personal psychological battle between Alex Salmond and David Cameron, with Michael Moore regrettably left on the sidelines with his efforts largely unrecognised.  Salmond has certainly "won" in regards the timing and the referendum will now take place in the aftermath of a (hopefully) successful Commonwealth Games, the Batttle of Bannockburn commemorations and the Ryder Cup - all of which the SNP calculate will increase the sense of national identity and allow Scots to feel could about themselves.  On the other hand, Cameron will be happy he's ensured the referendum will consist of a single question.  Neither obviously wished to appear too smug before the TV cameras, but clearly the First Minister has waited for this day for some time.  There was a sense of pride evident in his announcement that "the very substantial gain Scotland now has is an agreed process to this referendum".

As for Mr Cameron, he used the opportunity to reassert his own commitment to the union and to extend an appeal to those who are pro-change but who would not necessarily support independence as a default option.  He promised nothing but insisted that "further devolution was possible".  The Conservatives even showed signs of beginning to understand the nature of Scottish politics, quickly killing the idea of a televised debate between Salmond and Cameron when it dawned on them that it would play directly into the First Minister's hands.

Personally, I find it regrettable that yesterday's proceedings were dominated by the First Minister of Scotland and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.  Those who deserve more credit for ensuring this outcome are Nicola Sturgeon and Michael Moore.  In fact, The Times - in praise of Cameron's statesmanship, fails to mention either the Deputy First Minister or the Secretary of State for Scotland.  Moore's had a difficult hand to play and while he's not played the perfect game deserves credit for what he has achieved.  That we will have an undeniably fair and legal referendum is testament to his energy and to the successful negotiations between himself and Sturgeon.  That he was able to confirm that the electorate will be extended to 16 and 17-year-olds was a remarkable success given Conservative opposition and Labour indifference.

Whether the referendum will be "decisive" depends on interpretation.  In my view, the result of the referendum will be the beginning - either of the rebirth of Scotland as an independent nation or of the re-opening of debate surrounding Scottish devolution.  What Scotland will look like post-devolution will largely be determined by the inevitably lengthy negotiations that must take place in the aftermath of the voters' verdict.  If the result is "Yes", then at least there is an agreed course by which to resolve issues and establish independence. If "no", then while there will be talk of further devolution, there is no certainty or guarantee about either the nature of inter-party conversation on the matter, the collective commitment to constitutional change or what precisely that "change" might be.

No doubt that while the result might be decisive, the outcome will not.  It could be extremely messy and in all likelihood will lead to lengthy and potentially acrimonious dialogue that could take several years to arrive at a way forward.

What is now obvious is that those hoping for a second question have lost.  Alex Salmond is surely not one of them; his persistence in keeping it on the agenda stemmed from political motivations - specifically to remind the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats of the opportunities a second question might afford them.  There has been much discussion of the merits of an additional question; I for one preferred the idea of a two-question referendum using the 1997 model, in which the second question only became relevant if the outcome of the first was a rejection of independence.  That however has not happened and we must now accept this.  The debate is academic, even if Professor Michael Keating of Aberdeen University used today's Times to argue that the case against was flawed: "We are told you cannot have a referendum on 'devolution max' because that would require Westminster to agree.  But any settlement will require negotiation and agreement [even independence].  And isn't the Conservative Party not talking of a unilateral referendum to redefine our place in another union?"

The referendum is going to present voters with a straight choice: Independence - Yes or No?  Those supporting change must decide whether they believe their hopes can me fulfilled post-referendum in a Scotland that remains part of a dysfunctional union.  For federalist Lib Dems, this involves asking whether our progressive and proudly held aspirations are likely to be met via negotiations with those who do not share such aims.  We cannot achieve anything alone, the implementation of our fine and noble proposals being dependent on convincing other parties of their value.  Can we trust the Conservatives, whose UK leader yesterday gave no commitment other than suggesting that "those who want to see...further devolution...must vote to stay in the [UK]" and whose Scottish leader seems resistant to the idea?  As for Labour, can they be relied upon to support our objectives, even a watered down version of our proposals?  And what about the SNP, should they lose the referendum?  Would they be disposed to constructive discussion on full fiscal federalism and extending devolution?

Oddly enough, that last question is the one more likely to be answered positively.  What is certain is, if independence is rejected as Cameron says it should be, there is no vehicle through which to guarantee further constitutional change.  To vote "no" therefore, in the hope of further change, is a significant gamble.

In one respect at least, the outcome is irrelevant.  That is in respect to the extension of the franchise to all aged 16 and over.  This is to be welcomed.  There were some, even within the Liberal Democrats, who were cynical about the SNP's motivations and who struggled with the notion of doing this specifically for the referendum.  There were concerns about setting precedents by which electorates could be self-determined by those holding referenda.  Fortunately, common sense has prevailed and the referendum will indeed set a precedent, one which will hopefully lead to extending the electorate for other local and national elections.

The Times asks whether "a 16-year old is ready to exercise democratic responsibility, whether we want schools to be involved in the electoral process and whether we want to take another step in blurring the lines between children, teenagers and adults".  The answer, it concludes, is "surely not".  I disagree.  Such lines are  largely artificial and ignore the inescapable reality that different individuals develop at different rates.  And what could be so wrong with schools actively becoming involved in promoting democracy, rather than having a day off whenever there is an election?

This is an incredible achievement and one which, I hope, will lead to all over-16s being given the vote in future.  Certainly this referendum has given those of us who believe in extending the franchise more cause for belief than the Liberal Democrats, acting alone, have been able to.  And if part of the legacy of 2014 is a permanent reduction in the voting age, even the two years of bickering and relentless negativity that will ensue between now and that fateful day will be but a small price to pay.

The real battle for the SNP is only just beginning.  Alex Salmond, his party and Yes Scotland have a challenge convincing Scots to embrace independence, given that support for it has almost never registered at over a third.  Salmond recognises this, saying yesterday that "I believe in the ability of persuasion on this argument."

So, in two years' time we will finally know the verdict of the Scottish electorate.  In the meantime, I'll live in hope that intelligent voices will dominate a political discussion that will inspire and empower Scots to arrive at informed decisions.  I am a positive person deep down...


3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I fought for Russell Johnston when I was 14 but sadly I realised that the Liberals were just the British establishment with a bit of a conscience and I turned to the SNP like many others.

Countdown to November said...

There's no doubt that the Lib Dem push on localism has forced David Cameron's Conservatives to further the devolution agenda, at least in public, but I fear that a failed independence referendum will only be used by the Tories to settle the issue and move away from any discussion of building stronger regional governments.

Also, it's hard to see how Scottish independence is in the interest of the Scottish people and, more importantly, the SNP that clamors for it with every last dying breath.

Will departure from the UK not lead to a sudden loss of grant money that will in no way be restored by the Scottish people? Will this not usher in larger deficits and fiscal insolvency? Are we to believe that this is in the interests with the Scottish people?

I contend it's not. In fact, in a little piece I wrote on my own blog, I contend that Scottish independence is in the interest of the Conservatives who will benefit from losing a Labour bastion and a desperate drain on public funds.

cynicalHighlander said...

The Nicola and Michael negotiation was always a front Andrew as the real points were being discussed out of public view which is why Alex was very confident over legality etcetera. Its the British way of doing things.

The biggest problem is the biased media just look at BBC QT tomorrow night in Scotland 1 Independence, 3 staunch Unionists + Host and Mark Serwotka (TU) who I actually have a lot of respect for as being of good integrity.

Its the 40% who wanted more substantial powers who will decide this decision over our future and unless they are offered just unknown jam tomorrow I and others are fairly confident in which way they go.