Er, just how many questions is that again? Once upon a time independence was a simple matter - you just asked people whether or not they agreed that: “The Scottish Government should negotiate a settlement with the government of the UK so that Scotland becomes an independent state”. That’s how it was in the original draft bill published by the SNP in 2007. Now, anything goes.
Today’s St Andrews Day surprise from the SNP government, we are told, is that there are going to be four options presented in today’s White Paper. There will be Independence (see above); ‘Devolution Max, or fiscal freedom short of independence; a Calman Commission option of shared income tax; and our old friend the Status Quo - whatever the hell that is.
But why stop there? Why not have a full federal option, whereby there is a formal separation of powers with Westminster, as favoured by the Liberal Democrats? What about an Iceland option, where you become independent but stay out of the European Union. Many people might favour a Republican question, whereby Scotland is no longer subject to the arbitrary influence of a constitutional monarch. An Alaskan option might also be considered whereby Scotland remains in the union, as a federal state, but retains control of oil revenues and has diplomatic ties with Russia. Or a Ruritanian option where Scotland declares itself independent, and then does nothing at all except march up and down.
This is all getting a little silly. You can’t have a meaningful referendum with four options. The results would be so various that it could be almost impossible to achieve a consensus. Mike Russell, the Constitution Minister, insisted yesterday that there will not be four actual questions on the ballot paper, which will not be published until next year. But if there are four constitutionally valid options, I don’t see how you can avoid putting them all before the people.
The great virtue of the 1997 devolution referendum was that the questions were very clear and transparent. You could see what you were voting for, and as a result there was an overwhelming affirmation of the favoured constitutional option: a Scottish Parliament with primary legislative powers. That three to one majority in 1997 ended the constitutional debate for a generation. Having four options would simply create a huge argument, not so much a national conversation as a national rammy.
Presumably, this option-inflation is an attempt by the SNP to confuse the issue - to turn the debate into a kind of constitutional soup into which all the constitutional options dissolve, allowing the SNP to get along with governing under devolution which, until now, they had been doing very successfully. The ‘multi-option’ option is a also a distraction from the inconvenient truth that Scots really don’t want to be bothered with constitutional change, at least not now. The latest Ipsos/Mori poll suggests that support for independence is down to 25% and that only 20% of Scots want an early referendum.
This stands to reason. Asking people in the middle of a recession whether they want to tinker with the constitution seems slightly indecent - like asking an unemployed man whether he would prefer to be in an English or a Scottish dole queue. There are more pressing matters - which doesn’t mean the issue has gone away. In the Mori poll, 50% agreed with having a referendum “in a few years” In present circumstances, with the SNP government in mid term difficulties, that’s not at all bad. Maybe Alex should quite while he’s ahead; maybe that’s exactly what he is trying to do today. Lay the independence question to rest for a few years while they sort themselves out.
This St Andrews Day is turning into a bit of a nightmare for the SNP. These disappointing polling returns follow defeats on key policies like minimum alcohol pricing and local income tax, Labour’s crushing majority in Glasgow North East by election, and an epic bust up with local authorities over class sizes. Alex Salmond is beginning to look a little like Gordon Brown. There’s even a nationalist sleaze scandal - Universality of Cheese-gate - where a nationalist aide to the Constitutional Affairs Minister, Mike Russell, has been caught spreading abusive and highly offensive hate mail over the internet. Shades of Labour’s Damian MacBride and his vile smears from Number Ten. The rebarbative behaviour of the cyber-nats is hardly news, but it is a shock to discover that one of them was under the wing of Mike Russell, one of the most enlightened figures in the SNP.
When things start to go wrong in government they all go wrong together. It will take extraordinary skill to get through the next six months with the government’s integrity intact. Alex Salmond faces defeat of the referendum bill in parliament, defeat at the general election and the disintegration of the “historic” concordat with Scottish local authorities. Press commentators are poised to declare the beginning of the end for Alex Salmond and the end of the end for independence. We will no doubt be reading soon how Nicola Sturgeon - who performed with her usual effortless competence on Question Time last week - should be taking over from Shrek before the SNP lose the plot entirely. But I wouldn’t write of the big man yet.
And we shouldn’t write off independence entirely yet either. Or rather we should, but for a reason. What we will see today, I believe, is the SNP coming to terms with reality - which is that formal independence is becoming increasingly marginal to Scottish constitutional politics. Everyone knows that the referendum on independence isn’t going to happen. The debate is now all about extending home rule - how far and how fast.
The Calman Report, for all its faults, is a tribute to the success of the SNP in office. All the unionist parties now support giving Holyrood, greater tax powers - something that would have been inconceivable only three years ago. Whoever wins the next UK election, something like Calman is going to be introduced and this will require the active co-operation of the SNP government. This will be an opportunity for the SNP to turn Calman into something workable: to convert devolution min to devolution max.
That’s if they remain in office - and that’s not looking at all certain any more, after this St Andrews Day nightmare. Alex Salmond needs to get a grip, put aside multi option metaphysics and focus on winning the Scottish election in 2011.