On Monday, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond launched his long-awaited white paper on Scottish independence. Salmond, if he gets his way, wants to propose four options to the Scottish people:
i) Continued Scottish devolution with the same powers as at present
ii) Improved powers for Holyrood on the lines of the Calman Commission on Scottish Devolution
iii) “Independence light” / “Devolution max” – almost total separation with Scotland basically retaining only the Queen, the Pound and the Army in common with the rest of the Union.
iv) Full separation with Scotland becoming a separate, independent state
Recent polls indicate that support for the Union remains strong in Scotland – Ipsos-MORI in last weekend’s Sunday Times pegged support for full separation at just 20%, it’s lowest figure in quite some time. A recent Daily Telegraph poll said Scots would vote 57-29 against breaking up the Union – a ratio of almost two to one.
Nevertheless, for anyone who believes in the value of the Union, there is no room for complacency looking forward. Salmond is clearly banking on a Tory victory in the general election to boost support north of the border for his separatist plans. Polling figures indicate a potentially massive swing in Scotland towards separation should the Tories regain power at Westminster. One poll a year ago showed over a 20 point swing towards independence should the Tories take power in London.
This is not surprising when you look at Scottish voting preferences – even today, when there has been a significant swing to the Tories across much of England and Wales, Scots still retain strong support for Labour. A poll for the Daily Record a few weeks ago had Labour 21 points ahead of the Tories – basically showing no decline at all since 2005. Last week’s Telegraph poll confirmed that Labour are experiencing a “sharp revival in its fortunes north of the border” with their support on 39%. The Tories, according to the Telegraph, are flatlining on 18%. As Conservative Home’s Tim Montgomerie puts it, the ‘Cameron effect’ simply doesn’t exist north of the border.
UK-wide, the polls have been narrowing in recent weeks. Two recent polls, in the Observer ten days ago and in yesterday’s Independent, are now pointing squarely towards a hung parliament. A Tory majority – especially a large one – no longer seems the slam-dunk certainty it did a few months back. Nevertheless, it still seems likely that Cameron will be residing in Number Ten this time next year.
Any incoming Tory government will be faced with a difficult challenge to see off the separatist threat. For if they act according to instinct they may well play straight into the hands of the separatists. Salmond’s game plan goes something like this: launch independence white paper and use it as the SNP platform for the general election, wait for the Tories to get into power in Westminster (probably with less than one in five of Scottish votes and at best a small handful of Scottish MPs), pick a fight with them over something serious – say the financial proposals set out in the Calman Report, or George Osborne’s harsh public sector austerity measures – and use this fight to tell Scots that only through full separation and independence can they have the power to decide their own future (and be rid of the unpopular Tories to boot).
The ‘independence-light’/’devolution max’ option which Salmond proposes is almost as dangerous as full separation. It seems designed as a fallback for Scots not ready to move to full separation, but which, if passed, would ultimately achieve the same end result. Retaining just the Monarchy, the Pound and the Army in common with the rest of the Union is scarcely devolution at all – it almost has more in common with a kind of 21st century ‘dominion status’ a la the Irish Free State in 1923. No other federal Commonwealth country – even Canada with Quebec – would countenance anything like this level of separation while remaining a titular part of a federal system.
Clearly Cameron and his brains trust will need to play a very clever game indeed if they are to stymie Salmond’s plan, and retain Scottish grassroots support for the Union. The Calman Report probably represents the best hope for solidifying support for the Union in Scotland. At present the Tories seem to be blowing hot and cold on the findings of the Calman Commission. Anything less than full implementation of the proposals for added Holyrood powers in the Calman report would be playing into Salmond’s hands. They should be careful not to pick any fights which are not absolutely necessary to save the Union itself. They must also do their best to work closely in the national interest with the other Scottish Unionist parties – Labour and the Lib Dems – to avoid allowing Salmond to paint Westminster’s Scottish policy as a Tory plot to do down Scotland.
In some ways it may be a good thing that the Union will be put to the test like this. If the Union can survive a few years of a Tory government sure to be deeply unpopular north of the border, then it can probably survive most things. After all, at present, support for the Union still remains solid – so pro-Union forces have everything to play for. But all the pro-Union political forces will need to work together if Alex Salmond’s plan to destroy the Union is to be thwarted.