Bateman: Alex Salmond and the Devo Max ballot question

Salmond and White Paper. Gordon bid is theatre too.

Commentary by Derek Bateman

Derek Bateman
Derek Bateman

The admission by Alex Salmond in Newsnet’s television series that he had encouraged the creation of a second question in the independence referendum should serve as a reminder to all sides of the reality of political pragmatism.

At one level, it appears to be a denial of everything we’re told that the SNP exists for – freeing Scotland from London rule to flourish separately as a European state. When I first blogged about this revelation before last September, quoting sources close to the then First Minister, some correspondents took offence and said no Nationalist leader would dare propose anything less than sovereignty. Others claimed he’d offered it so it could be knocked down.

Now, Alex Salmond hasn’t gone soft on independence and never will but his very success is built on something few other politicians grasp and not a few in his own party fail to appreciate. It is that he never gets too far ahead of the people. He knows the Scots better than anyone and, although he campaigned wholeheartedly and towards the end was convinced it would be won, the timing of the referendum was effectively grabbed from him by party policy on one hand and 2011 electoral success on the other. It came too soon.

The consistent will of the Scots in the opinion polls throughout the devolution years has been in favour of maximum devolution within the British state. Today’s polls telling of Labour decline and a big bloc of Nationalist MPs going south will be surely a direct expression of that…it says: We agree to stay but only if you do the honourable thing and deliver wide-ranging powers so we can run our own affairs our own way and set our own agenda.

In the long game, that would be exactly what Salmond would see as the stages towards success in a steady, reassuring exercise in the accretion of powers, building confidence through experience and in 10 years’ time arriving logically at the same place as New Zealand did – with effective sovereignty requiring only a democratic declaration of confirmation in a subsequent referendum.

It isn’t exactly an expose to say he was interested in Devo Max on the ballot paper but to hear it stated in retrospect illuminates the bigger game that was going on. This is no pop-eyed destroyer of Britain but a pragmatic democrat trying to connect the threads of decision-making with the fibres of democracy. It shows a bigger man than many understand…easier to fall on human failings of pride or cunning to undermine him.

Salmond: Devo Max offer was genuine
Salmond: Devo Max offer was genuine

But Salmond also possesses an open-handed generosity and modesty of ambition curtailed by the will of the people that few opponents can even aspire to.

And how his remarks damn the Labour leadership. Johann Lamont dismissed the idea of a second question without consultation with party members or Holyrood colleagues, very likely because she knew they might support it. She set her staff the task of ambushing the nascent civic Scotland Third Option movement, urging the unions and the churches to withdraw their support.

How Labour and the Tories chuckled at their manoeuvre to ensure there was but a single question, one that would win them a resounding No and crush Salmond and the Nats. They brushed aside the key issue of how Scotland should be governed in order to gain party advantage, or so they thought. Margaret Curran I recall shaking her head gravely and announcing there could be no question on Devo Max until the big question of staying in the Union was answered first. I wonder how she views that now…

The Vow was a tabloid version of Devo Max, mashed up in panic, and Labour are today trying to sell the same line…mendicants in reduced circumstances asking Scots’ forgiveness and pleading for another chance. The lack of insight, honesty and public duty that the denial of a second question displays is a metaphor for a party that was first brain dead and now rots from the bottom up.

Labour misread Salmond and they misread the Scots but the Scots can understand them only too well.