Scotland Special 1: To be independent is not a multiple option

Jeff Breslin queries Alex Salmond’s tactics in considering a three-question referendum

You take the low road and I’ll take the high road and I’ll be in bonnie independent Scotland afooooore ye.

Now, these warbling words will not form the opening line of Alex Salmond’s set piece speech at this weekend’s SNP Conference but they might as well do. The half a year since the storming election result in May has seen the Nationalist camp calmly and diligently go about their business, simultaneously advancing their cause of independence (as proven by favourable polling evidence), while the various unionist parties have squawked and clucked directionlessly as if the sky is about to fall on their heads. Which metaphorically it may well do when the independence referendum comes around, if a Yes result is delivered.

Tomorrow: Scottish Labour searches for a new tune

Gerry Hassan reports on Douglas Alexander’s exploration of his party’s dilemmas north of the border

The latest strategy from the unionist camp is to hold the Scotland Bill up as being the most significant transfer of powers from Westminster to Holyrood in 300 years, a boast that they hope will distract Scots away from the underlying question of full independence by demanding attention is paid to the tax changes that are still being ironed out.

It won’t work.

Scots are proving remarkably pragmatically nonplussed when it comes to delivery of extra powers to Holyrood from Westminster, almost to the point where an expectation exists that such powers continue to arrive over the border on the conveyor belt of devolution. This situation has ensured that the SNP will always have the consolation prize of further independence by stealth, as opposed to its preferred result of full independence by referendum.

However, what I don’t understand, and this is what I do hope Alex Salmond will explain in his speech, sung or otherwise, is why the SNP is offering its backpocket consolation prize alongside its prized objective of full independence on the referendum ballot slip. Surely a straight up and down Yes/No to full independence is more likely to return a Yes vote if Scots didn’t have the option to split the difference, compromise and vote for Devo Max.

Give anyone a choice of more than two options and they will almost always select one from the middle; it’s a proven conjuror’s trick and it’s something that the SNP should bear in mind if they are offering three futures rather than only two.

I suspect that Salmond has shied away from the risk of putting everything on the table and ending up going backwards. There is a danger to the SNP that decades of hoping and years of planning may well result in one terrible word from a one-question referendum – No. The wind could be knocked out of the SNP’s sails and the momentum could be momentarily lost but with monumental repercussions – a bitter leadership contest, factions emerging, back to the dark days of the 1980s and so on.

But is that safety first approach of guaranteeing a little bit of extra momentum worth the risk of missing out on the 2-3 per cent of yes votes that could make all the difference? That’s one for the SNP to consider and answer.

Don’t get me wrong, SNP activists will be going into this Conference pinching themselves at the position they are in and full square behind the First Minister as their leader. I remember well the evident delight that party members had during Inverness 2009 and Glasgow 2009 when the party fortunes amounted to little more than a wafer-thin minority Government and a referendum that was situated somewhere between a hope and a prayer away. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t be surprised if some Nats have just a niggle of concern at the extra question being offered in the coming referendum.

When I took part in the Guardian’s blogging panel considering the future of the ‘Disunited Kingdom’, I was harangued, quite understandably, for not being fundamentally pro-independence enough, despite admitting quite freely that I’ll probably be voting Yes to full independence when the referendum comes around. The irony, quite possibly lost on my detractors, is that the satisfaction that I have with even a federal UK is seemingly one that I share with Alex Salmond himself, though I daresay even the most devout Nationalists wouldn’t say Salmond wasn’t pro-independence enough for any forum. Not yet anyway.

Alex Salmond once promised, and delivered, a political earthquake in the unlikely hunting ground of Glasgow East. Across all of Scotland, through hedging his bets with a second question, Salmond is already backpedalling on what can be delivered through his independence referendum and I just wonder if, far from the earthquake of independence, the wheels will come off the hefty SNP juggernaut as a result of not being brave enough. Nick Clegg went for the ‘miserable little compromise’ of AV in the end, is Salmond doing the same with Devo Max in the eyes of the SNP faithful?

After all, when a nation’s independence is at stake, is there really a middle road to be taken? It must be the strategic high wire road for the SNP or it will be the high jump for full independence.

Jeff Breslin is co-editor of Better Nation

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