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No room for complacency, as Salmond outlines blueprint for breaking up the Union

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.


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7 Responses

  1. Alwyn ap Huw says:

    The contention that Salmond’s plan is to create strife between a Tory Government and Scotland is reminiscent of the claim made before the 2007 Scottish Parliament Election that an SNP government would pick fights with the Labour Government in Westminster for the hell of it.

    It didn’t happen. One of the reasons why Salmond had one of the longest political honeymoons in history was because he didn’t pick fights with Labour, but enabled Labour to pick fights with him!

    The SNP star is beginning to wane because Labour has realised that picking fights with Salmond are counter productive, so they have stopped picking them!

    Cameron, if he becomes PM, could fall into the same trap. If he decides to fight Scotland, Scotland will win!

    The only chance that Cameron has of preserving the Union is by working with the Scottish Government rather than against it.

  2. oneill says:

    “The only chance that Cameron has of preserving the Union is by working with the Scottish Government rather than against it”

    A bit melodramatic (the anti-Union % in Scotland barely touches 30% at present) but basically a sound tactic. Or at least, give the appearance of wishing to work with the SNP- put the ball in their court rather than letting them call the shots as the present Labour have let them do.

  3. David C says:

    Alwyn – agree with most of what you say above, my great dread is that the Tories will go in sort of Simon Heffer style and start slashing public services, cutting funding to Scotland, cutting Scottish seats at Westminster (when they’ve already been cut after devolution) etc… – it’ll be a lot easier for the SNP to pick fights with the Tories (whom many Scots view as basically ‘English’) rather than with Labour (who have very deep roots indeed in Scotland).

    O’Neill – yes, the low <30% support for independence in polls is encouraging, but I think the pro-Union vote is a lot softer than I'd be comfortable with – i.e. with a potentially 20+ point swing to independence if the Tories take over in Westminster.

    Bottom line is that if the Tories do get in, and if they really are committed to the Union over the long-term (I take Cameron at his word on this), they can't afford to indulge in anti-Scottish policies, and they'll need to be very careful indeed in terms of how their public sector cuts etc impact on Scotland.

    I appreciate that the core Tory support in England may be in a fairly anti-Scottish mood at present but if the Union is to be preserved then any Tory govt is going to need to look past the feelings of its core English supporters and place the UK national interest first – and sort of 'kill off independence with kindness'…

  4. “if the Union is to be preserved then any Tory govt is going to need to look past the feelings of its core English supporters and place the UK national interest first – and sort of ‘kill off independence with kindness'”.


    Let’s face it, the ‘kill off independence with kindness’ has been official policy since the Goschen Plan in the nineteenth century and also via its replacement policy of the Barnett Formula. It hasn’t worked and so you want more of the same.

    Ever wondered why ‘the core Tory support in England may be in a fairly anti-Scottish mood at present’? No. Thought not.

    So there’s only 30% support for independence in the polls. Roughly one Scot in three. Do you know what the equivalent figure is in England? No? Because nobody ever thinks to ask. The English are taken for granted and any suggestion that we might have an opinion ourselves is treated with derision and contempt.

    Here’s a suggestion. If you want to preserve the Union, try asking the English what they think rather than just “looking past their feelings”, i.e. ignoring them.

  5. James Matthews says:

    The trouble is that the Scottish definition of an “anti-Scottish” policy is a polcy which does not continue to treat Scotland with special favour, either economically or constitutionally. Cameron might, indeed, retain Scottish support for the Union by avoiding such policies, but the Union also requires English support if it is to survive. It is rapidly losing it.

  6. Chekov says:

    Do you know what the equivalent figure is in England?

    We certainly know how few people support a nationalist party.

  7. David C says:

    David & James – I don’t have a problem with an assembly or devolved parliament for England, along the same lines as for Scotland – so long as that’s what the English people really want. Outside of Cornwall though, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of hue and cry demanding devolution in England, and the Cornish seem to prefer a Senedd Kernow for themselves, rather than joining in with English devolution. (MORI have polled 70% of Cornish people in favour of a Cornish assembly.)

    I also believe the Union really needs something like the Barnett formula to redirect wealth from the wealthy areas like London and SE England to poorer areas like the northwest and north of England, north Wales, Northern Ireland and much of Scotland. This is in line with equalisation practice in Canada, Australia and the EU and it helps maintain the social cohesion of the Union.

    Like I say, I’ve no problem with devolution for England within a consistent federal framework for the whole of the UK – after all I’m half English myself. That said I’d probably be more sympathetic if the English devolution movement didn’t seem to indulge so much in simplistic rhetoric against the Scots – like obsessing about the number of Scottish ministers in the Cabinet, or, believe it or not, even attacking Boris Johnson for flying the St Andrews Cross on St Andrews Day.

    Much of the anti-Scots stuff being spewed on the website of the ‘Campaign for an English Parliament’ is reminiscent of the same anti-Union rhetoric we hear all too much from the likes of the SNP and Sinn Fein. I think proponents of English devolution would do their cause a lot more good if they framed it within a pro-British, pro-Union context – after all, I think the vast majority of English people are proudly British and pro-Union and if English devolution is to come in from the political fringe it will need to reflect that.

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