By David Torrance
Today will see First Minister Alex Salmond and Prime Minister David Cameron conclude negotiations on an independence referendum expected to be held in October 2014. It will be hailed as “historic”, while both parties will claim to have achieved the upper hand. The truth, as ever, is somewhere in between.
From the UK Government’s perspective it has achieved what its strategists always called the “main prize”, in other words a single referendum question. The Scottish Government now claims it never wanted a second question in the first place which is – at best – disingenuous. Westminster pursued this relentlessly, and has undoubtedly won.
Unionists did not, however, win on the timing, which has to be regarded as the Scottish Government’s main prize. The Prime Minister wanted a vote sooner rather than later, but having cleverly pre-announced the likely date earlier this year, the First Minister effectively bounced Cameron into accepting his preferred timing.
The other outstanding issues – franchise, wording of question and campaign finance – have to be regarded as draws. Although the Scottish Government will be able to extend voting to (some) 16 and (all) 17 year-olds, it will have to do so on the basis of the existing electoral register. There aren’t that many of them (fewer than 90,000) in any case, and polling is divided as to how they’ll vote.
On the wording there was also a compromise. While the Scottish Government will decide what question is asked in 2014, the Electoral Commission (EC) will be fully involved, as it has been in most other elections. The SNP initially resisted this, but backed down when it became clear there was no compelling argument against the EC having an oversight role.
Finally, the issue of campaign finance has been managed so that both sides are relatively content. Although the combined Unionist parties will most likely raise more than the Nationalist forces (the Scottish Greens are not noted fundraisers) to spend during the formal referendum period in the summer of 2014, the disparity won’t be as great as it would have been under existing caps.
Both sides can, therefore, claim victory. The SNP can point to a referendum “made in Scotland”, while the Coalition Government can point to a “single, simple question” within a “legal, fair and decisive” referendum. Today’s meeting at St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh will most likely be perfectly amicable. Perhaps surprisingly, Cameron and Salmond – both talented political tacticians – have a mutual regard.
In fact, the whole negotiation process – publicly and privately – has been surprisingly courteous, not least in the usually toxic context of Scottish politics. Bruce Crawford, who handled most of the talks until Nicola Sturgeon took over a few weeks ago, was genuinely liked and respected by his UK Government counterparts. The Deputy First Minister has also impressed London with her constructive attitude.
Ironically, this process demonstrates just how well the Scottish and UK Governments can work together. The constitutional dynamic, meanwhile, is now more evenly balanced. In the immediate wake of last year’s Holyrood elections Alex Salmond looked like an unstoppable force, while after this May’s local government elections the Unionist parties appeared to have recovered some momentum.
But now the dust has settled on the process of the referendum things are on an even keel. The Prime Minister is firefighting on several fronts while the First Minister is discovering that the good old days (pre-2008 economic crash) are not going to return any time soon. Governing for both men is, if anything, about to get a lot more difficult.
In retrospect, too, I think the failure of a second question to gain any traction is actually a good thing for the “yes” camp. It was always clear Alex Salmond was keener on this option than most of his ministers, and indeed the vast majority of grassroots Nationalists. If he had secured a question on so-called (yet still undefined) “devo-max” then Salmond would have had to manage a degree of internal unhappiness.
It would also have left Blair Jenkins at YesScotland campaigning on two – and arguably contradictory – fronts, when it was perfectly clear he too wanted a single question. Last but not least, an insistence on a second question would have meant the Scottish Government eschewing a Section 30 order from Westminster and conducting its own – arguably ultra vires – referendum.
The whole thing, in other words, would have got bogged down in the courts. Those who argued that this was all part of the First Minister’s master plan to wriggle out of holding a referendum at all have been proven wrong. A ballot on Scottish independence – barring an alien invasion – will now take place by the end of 2014.
This is – for several reasons – a good thing. First, referendums have a knack of settling contentious issues for at least a generation; second, today’s agreement should hopefully clear the air and leave room for a more nuanced debate about substance rather than process. This is badly needed, not least because the level of debate (on both sides) has hitherto been depressingly lacklustre.
It’s always worth remembering that not everyone lives and breathes politics in the manner of bloggers, activists and the commentariat. If Scottish voters weren’t bored by the independence referendum at the beginning of this year, they sure will be now. But – as the twitter hashtag puts it – today’s agreement means it is, at last, #gameon.
David Torrance is a writer, journalist and broadcaster.
He is also author of 'Salmond - Against The Odds' a biography of Scotland's First Minister
Newsnet Scotland would like to attract more contributions from respected commentators from across the constitutional spectrum. If you would like to see more of this kind of content then please make a donation by clicking the button below.