Mr Cameron, the British prime minister, wants a binding referendum on the issue of Scottish independence to take place sooner than later, and more concretely within the next 18 months. The options, it would seem from press reports, on offer will be either independence or remaining within the UK, and no ‘devolution max’ will be on the ballot paper. This is a much hastier timetable and less flexible than what the SNP government in Holyrood had been planning. Mr Cameron is either going to save the UK as it is, preside over the its break up, or merely look silly as the Scottish government quietly ignores it.
The majority of Scots may not want independence, as most opinion polls suggest, but this kind of heavy-handedness usually plays very badly in Scotland, especially coming from a leader of a party that has a solitary Westminster parliamentary seat in Scotland. Many Scots may not wish independence, but they may dislike strongly the manner in which the referendum is organized and held, even if legally it is a matter reserved to the Westminster Parliament. The problem is of course the disjunction between the legal position, which reserves such matters as this to the Westminster Parliament and indeed the Westminster Parliament can abolish the Scottish Parliament if it so decides, and the perception in Scotland about who should be in charge of this matter, especially as the SNP has been elected into government in Scotland more recently, thus can claim more directness and immediacy in representing the people of Scotland.
For the SNP government, which wants Scottish independence but not just yet, it would be possible to construct a narrative of the London parties ganging up against Scotland, around a bully of a Tory prime minister. Mr Salmond has been skillful in playing the opposition in government: opposing London, while governing in Edinburgh. This issue places other parties, both in Scotland and UK-wide, in discomfort. Presumably the other main parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, wish to keep the UK together, but how are they going to co-operate and co-ordinate an anti-independence campaign with the coalition government in Westminster? Can a credible, unifying, cross-party leader emerge to campaign against Mr Salmond?
Mr Salmond will probably question the legitimacy of the process, if an early referendum is forced through. How binding would a binding referendum be, if the turn-out were to stay abysmally low, because of a boycott or disinterest? Both sides can claim victory, except that the result would not have settled the issue one way or the other, and further referendums may take place. And, much more fancifully, what if Mr Salmond holds a referendum at a later date, wins it, and declare independence unilaterally, as opposed to an orderly secession from the UK? Send in the tanks, to crush the rebellious Scots?
Of all politicians in the UK, Mr Salmond has proved to be one of the most adroit, who has a huge mandate in Scotland. He is going to be a very tough adversary for anyone, and Mr Cameron’s judgement and political dexterity will be tested severely. The stakes are high for both Mr Cameron and Mr Salmond, but it is much higher for Mr Cameron, since if he were to lose the referendum, he will be remembered in history for causing the disintegration of the UK.