I'M NOT THE FIRST to compare Alex Salmond to the grand old Duke of York and nor, I suspect, will I be the last. It is, however, an appropriate analogy. For while the First Minister may have roughly twice His Grace’s ten thousand men, over the past year he has marched them up to the top of the hill and, in the last few days, begun marching them down again.
On top of that hill, of course, was the second question of referendum yore. It never quite settled, of course, but floated, the SNP leader having flown a myriad of kites both before and after the Holyrood election that secured his party an unprecedented majority. Before May 2011 there was the prospect of a second question for the Calman proposals, and after for devo-plus as well as an ill-defined devo-max option.
Yet all of these kites, despite often-favourable winds, found it difficult to remain in flight, largely because the required pretext never quite manifested itself. So-called “civic Scotland” proved itself to be a spent force – a shadow of its 1980s/90s lobbying self – while even the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, arguably straying well beyond its remit, could not muster the necessary authority.
The second question’s fortunes also ebbed and flowed according to political events. In the euphoric aftermath of the 2011 Holyrood elections it was barely mentioned, so inevitable did victory with a single question look, while a year later, when local government elections indicated a modest check on the forward march of Nationalism, for a few weeks Salmond et al pulled out all the stops in favour of a third referendum option.
If you spoke to any off-duty SNP activist they’d have told you they were fully expecting a second question, yet within Nationalist ranks there was clearly a split, ranging from the ardently-pro Mr Salmond to the New Fundamentalists who recognised that adding a second question to the ballot not only undermined the arguments in favour of independence, but also significantly reduced its chances of success.
Yet last week there was a detectable change of atmosphere. At first, when Nicola Sturgeon replaced the respected SNP fixer Bruce Crawford, UK Government ministers feared it meant a renewed push for a second question, but when the Deputy First Minister met Scotland Office Minister David Mundell on Thursday, they were pleasantly surprised to discover that Edinburgh was apparently as anxious as they were to agree terms for a Section 30 Order to make the referendum beyond constitutional reproach.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that a second question is completely off the agenda – indeed the UK Government is alive to the prospect of it making a reappearance at some late stage – but the Scottish Government is certainly moving towards a single-question referendum. But the million-dollar question for SNP watchers such as myself is: why?
In essence, I reckon those pushing for a second question, chiefly the First Minister, realised it just wasn’t going to fly. Alex Salmond is, of course, no fool, and equipped with an acute feel for the art of the possible. In the absence of an identifiable groundswell of public opinion in favour of a second question, he eventually realised he could only push it so far. It would also have created more trouble than it was worth: internal division, a contradictory campaigning message and, more to the point, the uncomfortable prospect that a vote for an undefined devo-max option wouldn’t actually have compelled Westminster to do anything (unlike a vote for independence).
For once, the UK Government played a blinder in propaganda terms. Aware that a second question would cause problems for all three Unionist parties (particularly the federalist, pro-Home Rule Liberal Democrats), Westminster insisted upon a single question, doggedly held the line and heaped rhetorical pressure upon the First Minister and his Scottish Government in Edinburgh.
Anyone who’s followed Alex Salmond’s career will know that he’s a pragmatist who doesn’t cling stubbornly to things he knows are not politically viable, most notably his party’s opposition to devolution, which he at first sustained as leader and then dumped in a series of deft moves in the wake of the 1997 general election. Indeed, so successful was he in this U-turn that he’s given the impression ever since that his party had supported the creation of a Scottish Parliament all along.
Another indication of movement was businessman Jim McColl’s backing for independence in Friday’s Scotsman. Although on the face of it this was a coup for the SNP (although not without problems – independence to McColl clearly means paying less tax than he does in Monaco), it was also an admission of defeat, for McColl was only backing independence because he believed devo-max wasn’t going to happen. As he correctly wrote in the Scotsman, “no such option is gaining enough support”.
Now if, like me, you monitor the insightful micro-blogging of the pro-independence brigade on twitter, you’ll learn that Alex Salmond had planned this all along – i.e. floating a second question and then retreating from it. It seems, dear reader, that simple journalists such as I are just too dim to detect such nuanced strategy, although precisely what it was supposed to achieve is beyond my tiny commentator’s mind.
But of course it’s all nonsense. When the SNP were up, post-May 2011, they were up, and when they were down, for example after the local government elections earlier this year, they were down. Now they remain half-way up – still theoretically committed to a single-question referendum but not quite – and are thus neither up nor down. But the grand old Duke of Eck will have to make a final move sooner rather than later, and that’s when things get interesting.
Photo courtesy of the Daily Record