Referendum poker – who has won?


  By G.A.Ponsonby
Well, notwithstanding both the Tory party and the BBC jumping the gun, it looks as though the independence referendum process will be agreed by next week.
Both sides we are told have emerged as winners, the SNP have control over wording, timing and the franchise and the UK government have their much desired single question.

But who really won in this game of cat and mouse?  One has to take a step back to 2011, and May’s historic win in order to see how this particular poker game has played out.

The Unionists, almost from the off have been calling for an immediate referendum – they still are.  Salmond’s announcement during the campaign that the SNP would seek the views of the Scottish people in the latter half of this parliamentary term worked to his advantage.

A two year campaign allows the Olympic after-glow to diminish and the scare stories to lose their impetus.  By 2014 Scotland will be enjoying the Commonwealth Games, Ryder Cup and of course the Bannockburn anniversary.

There’s also the small matter of the UK debt and the ever increasing cuts to the Scottish budget.  There will come a point where even BBC Scotland won’t be able to mask the damage being inflicted on Scotland by Westminster based Tories.

The question was another area conceded by Unionists.  Up in arms at thoughts of the SNP setting the wording, they have gained nothing but an agreement to allow the Eletoral Commission to be consulted.  Where now the Unionist group of experts set up to draft their own question?

The franchise extension that will see 16 and 17 year olds allowed to take part in the vote is an intriguing capitulation by London.  So concerned about this aspect of the deal are Unionists that two institutions fell over themselves to attack it yesterday.

The BBC and the (unelected) House of Lords were almost trembling at the thought of young Scots having a vote.  Many of these young men and women are currently only fourteen years of age and have grown up with a confident and competent Scottish government. 

Constantly straining and stretching its charter leash, the Unionist attack dog that is BBC Scotland reflects Unionist anxieties perfectly and 16 year olds taking part in the ballot is already under attack.

Of course, the Scottish government didn’t need Westminster permission to hold a referendum – we already gave them that permission in May 2011.  But by allowing Westminster to ‘muscle in’ and demand negotiations, Salmond has very cleverly gained absolute and formal control over every aspect – including the question wording and legality.

Mundell, Moore and Cameron are left holding less than they began with.  The Scottish government had no power to offer Devo-Max and thus could not ever have introduced a third option. 

With no power to deliver Devo-Max the UK government could have sat on their hands.  However, London’s nerve went at the thought of the Scottish government referendum consultation and the sheer number of responses – this was the trump card held by Salmond and Sturgeon, and they knew it.

And it still is.  Cameron and Mundell will crow over their single question ‘victory’ for a few days and the BBC will be roped in as well, as they already are.  However, at some point the Scottish government will surely reveal the consultation results and so will begin the pressure on Unionists to define a No vote.

We will shortly see the game enter its second phase – and all three Unionist parties will face pressure to define what No actually means.  Currently boasting that they have scuppered a third option, the disappointed middle-grounders will demand to know what they intend in its place.  And here’s the rub, the legally binding referendum might actually compel them to hold to the promises. 

Cameron announced at his conference that he is coming to Scotland to “sort out that referendum”.  Within a few short days, the cheers of a Tory audience against the red white and blue backdrop will be replaced by the cold chill of an Edinburgh Autumn day.

Smiling before him will be Scotland’s First Minister who, having done nothing, now controls the timing, the franchise and the question wording of a legally binding independence referendum.

A Yes vote means the return of all powers from London – what does a No vote mean.