The nationalist campaign for Scottish independence got off to a good start, with Alex Salmond wrong footing his opponents in the early stages. In particular he seems to have won the right to choose the timing of the poll, claiming that the terms of the referendum should be decided ‘by Scots in Scotland’.
Thus he bounced the UK government and Labour into conceding a long campaign culminating in Autumn 2014, shortly after the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, when he hopes to preside over a sort of Scottish version of the Jubilee. This could backfire on him, but the manoeuvre showed off the First Minister’s tactical political skills.
But now that his campaign has officially been launched, and with the rival ‘No’ launch imminent, the substantive arguments are starting in earnest.
Already the nationalists have got themselves into three policy muddles, and an overarching dilemma has emerged for them that could be exploited by either side.
I’m going to blog separately on the three muddles over the next week or so, but they have a common theme. In each area of policy, the SNP position will reduce Scotland’s scope for influencing its own affairs. In other words, independence will be directly counterproductive.
The three muddles are in defence policy, monetary policy, and renewable energy policy.
Meanwhile the dilemma for nationalists is to what extent they should attempt to provide detail on what Scotland will be like after separation from the rest of the UK.
The problem is that, in an independent Scotland, the SNP won’t necessarily be in power. This is a referendum on constitutional change, not a general election. The big decisions on how Scotland will constitute itself and the political direction it will take will be made by an unknowable set of political factions (some of them abroad) in the aftermath of independence. So to go into detail about this or that after the referendum is intrinsically meaningless, and can look presumptuous.
But to refuse to conjure a vision of what a separate Scotland would be like would be wilfully vague. Voters would have no idea what they were voting for, or else an idea that was implanted by someone else hostile to the adventure. So the SNP is tempted to try to offer a positive and concrete prospectus for the post-referendum future.
Take the monarchy as an example. In an effort to woo wavering unionists, Alex Salmond has promised that a separate Scotland would keep the Queen. But how does he know? The first election after independence could be won by a republican party.
Actually, the monarchy looks like being an issue where Salmond has turned the dilemma to his advantage. A post independence monarchy may be beyond his gift (other nationalists are openly hostile to it), but it fits well with his notion of the ‘social union’ – that there need be no cultural or social downsides to the break up of the UK, and we’ll all continue to be best of friends.
For the time being this has worked (though it has some clear flaws), and the debate has moved almost exclusively to the more hard-headed calculations of economic advantage and international influence.
Which brings me back to the three muddles. Here, the SNP has again called the dilemma to plump with concrete post-independence positions. But this time they’re very vulnerable to attack. More on these later.