It has been assumed in Westminster for several months now that the Scots will get an independence referendum, and it will happen in 2014. But mutterings are beginning to emerge that this may not happen at all - and here is why.
After David Cameron signalled he was willing to give way on his preferred date of 2013, the only things left to work out were supposed to be who got to vote and what the question would be.
The first of those points of tension looks close to being settled. Number 10 this morning all but admitted it was willing to let 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum if the SNP insisted on it. When asked if allowing this to happen would set a precedent for general elections, a Downing Street spokesman said:
These are two different things. One is a referendum on the independence of a nation which is an irreversible decision. The other is an election for the government, which can be reversed after five years.
Last week, we were told that the UK government believes the Scottish parliament does not have the legal right to hold its own referendum on independence.
Since then, debate has focused on what the legal consequences would be if Alex Salmond pushed on and held one anyway: would it be regarded as “consultative”? Would the UK government challenge it in the courts? If so, would that look like London bullying Edinburgh?
Today, Jim Wallace, the former deputy first minister and Lib Dem leader in Scotland, has intervened in that debate, using some pretty strong language to try and head off the possibility of Salmond simply going ahead and holding his own referendum. In the most striking passage, Wallace says that to do so would be not just illegal, but undemocratic: Read more
After four days of heated argument about the complex process of holding a referendum on Scottish independence, unionists are finally starting to get the debate they have been wanting to have for a while: about the substance of what independence means.
At first, Westminster politicians seemed to have been outmanoeuvred (again) by Alex Salmond, getting drawn into a row over the timing of a referendum and what questions would be asked – allowing the Scottish leader to depict them as interfering in Scottish politics.
Now, they are beginning to put him on the spot, asking the kinds of difficult questions they think will guarantee that the Scottish people will not vote for independence when they eventually get the chance to do so. Read more
Michael Moore, the Scottish secretary, will address MPs at 4.30pm today to explain why the Westminster government is offering Alex Salmond the chance to hold a legally-binding referendum on Scottish independence.
Ostensibly, the answer is that government legal advice says that any “consultative” referendum could be open to challenge in the courts. But there is another, political reason. If Westminster offers the power to have a referendum, it can also tie in certain conditions.
The two things unionists want to stop are:
- Salmond delaying the referendum until 2014 or later, by which time the first minister might have built up a sense of unstoppable momentum and;
- A third option appearing on the ballot, dubbed “devolution max”, which might appeal to those nervous about full independence.
Amid the Labour-dominated headlines this morning on the first day of the party’s autumn conference in Liverpool, something else caught my eye. The Independent on Sunday had a story about David Cameron tackling Alex Salmond head on. It read:
David Cameron is to go head to head with Alex Salmond in a bitter battle over the future of the union between England and Scotland.
The Government is to fight what it sees as “outrageous” claims and increasingly aggressive moves towards complete self-rule from the Scottish First Minister in a desperate attempt to stop Scotland from “sleepwalking into independence”.