Scottish referendum: first round to Mr Salmond?

There will be a referendum on the issue of Scottish independence within 3 years. It is no longer a question of whether, but when and how. It remains uncertain whether it will take place sooner than 2014 as Mr Cameron wishes, or in 2014 as Mr Salmond plans. I find this issue fascinating, as it is a huge political and constitutional issue that the UK faces, and whenever and whatever happens, it is going to be a crucial period in the history of Britain. While outright independence looks unlikely at the moment, events over the next few months and years can change that situation. It’s unlikely but possible. Whatever the result of the referendum, the UK, with or without Scotland, will change from what it is now.

If Mr Cameron had sought to grab the initiative by announcing that the referendum ought to take sooner than later, then I am not sure if it has worked out as he had planned. Instead, Mr Salmond may have succeeded in outmanoeuvring Mr Cameron in the past few days. Mr Salmond has presented an alternative but a pretty clear date, in opposition to the government’s timetable drawn in London. He can therefore present Mr Cameron’s attempt to force an early referendum as something dictated by Westminster, not Holyrood. The legalities aside, on which Mr Salmond is on a weaker ground, he can and will argue that he has a stronger mandate to determine the process of the referendum. His party won a clear majority in an electoral system that ought to have prevented such a result, in an election that was held more recently than the UK general election, and in which he had promised to introduce a bill on independence in the Holyrood Parliament.

Another reason why Mr Salmond may be in a strong position is the weakness of the opponents. There are no real political giants from Scotland in the cabinet, or in the opposition, unless there is one among Messrs Alexander (Danny and Douglas), Mr Moore, Mr Murphy and Ms Curran. Anyway, it may be toxic to use a Westminster politican as the figurehead for the no campaign. But can the government or Westminster ask someone who is not elected to lead the campaign? It may make it less party-political, but then the SNP will question a campaign led by an unelected person. The three other main parties in Scotland just elected new leaderships, and it remains to be seen if any of them can emerge as a credible, unifying leader. Perhaps there is no need for a unified opposition to the SNP: each party can oppose independence on their own terms, though it will pit a divided anti-independence campaign against a united pro-independence campaign, which may result in an increase in the pro-independence vote.

Finally, Mr Salmond will campaign positively, in that he will argue that an independent Scotland will be better and more prosperous for the Scottish people, and there is a danger that the opponents will be anti-independence rather than pro-union. In other words, the no campaign may be negative, threatening dire consequences for Scotland if it were to leave the UK. That may frighten people off the prospect of independence, but it could also alienate them. It may also talk more about the past than the future. Being part of the UK thus the Empire in the past had benefited Scotland, and there is no doubt about that, however the situation has changed, and Britain is a medium-sized country that punches above its weight with a seat on the top table in the UNSC and a decent military capability as well as a strong tradition of diplomacy, but no longer a global superpower and a huge market. What is in it for the Scots, if they are content with being a small nation in Europe without pretensions in the wider world? Mr Cameron, in an odd way, may get his wish to define or redefine Britishness. May be the biggest question and challenge for Mr Cameron is whether he can construct Britishness that can hold together the different nations of the UK in the twenty-first century.