Giving in to temptation

  • 5 February 2013
  • From the section Scotland
Alex Salmond in front of Saltire
Alex Salmond envisages independence day for Scotland would be in March 2016, but the exact date for the referendum has yet to be announced

In combat - and indeed chess - it is a classic tactic. Tempt your opponents, lure them onto your territory. Then pounce.

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon are pursuing broadly that approach with the publication today of a paper tracking possible process from a putative "Yes" vote in the independence referendum to the creation of a distinct Scottish state.

This is not comfortable territory for supporters of the Union. They do not want to talk about it.

They do not want to presume the establishment of independence - nor even to posit it as a prospect, lest it somehow become more likely, more ingrained in the public mind.

But Scottish government ministers have a perfect explanation ready to justify their decision to focus on the process of independence - rather than the substance - in the first paper of a planned series.

(Not that they feel the need to offer excuses, you understand. But it is always advantageous for a politician to be able to point to external justification.)

In this case, the notion of explaining process was explicitly urged - and urged rather substantively - in the report published last week by the Electoral Commission.

That said that the Scottish and UK governments should combine in an effort to dispel uncertainty among the electorate as to what independence actually involves.

To be absolutely clear, the commission did not demand nor expect pre-negotiation of the terms. They simply wanted parameters to be established.

Privately, SNP strategists talk about their planned discussion documents as "the how and why" series.

These papers will lead to the publication in November this year of a composite White Paper: the prospectus upon which the referendum will be based.

Today's document, as charted elsewhere, envisages that independence day for Scotland would be in March 2016, with elections to an independent Scottish Parliament following closely thereon, in May the same year.

There is no precise date on offer - but those with a sense of history in the SNP (and there are one or two) are recalling that the old pre-Union Scottish Parliament was adjourned on the 25th of March 1707 - as Winnie Ewing famously recalled when she opened the new devolved version in 1999.

The paper notes that there would ultimately be a written constitution in an independent Scotland but that a constitutional platform, covering such matters as finance, the law and international agreements, would be needed in the interim to enable Holyrood to operate independently.

There is much here to discuss.

But I was particularly struck by the expectation that much of the legislative framework for this would be processed at Holyrood, rather than Westminster.

The expectation thus far - among those who considered the point at all - was that independence would require to be enacted by a Westminster statute, not least because the present position is that the constitution is reserved to the UK Parliament under the Scotland Act 1998.

The Scottish government view is that this could be altered by agreement.

Timetable 'absurd'

They cite the deal, prefaced in the Edinburgh Agreement, whereby the power to hold a referendum was transferred to Holyrood under Section 30 of the founding 1998 Act.

Why not, they say, do the same for independence itself? Why not, by agreement, transfer much of the power to legislate for the new Scottish state to elected MSPs?

It is envisaged that Westminster's legislative role in this scenario would be primarily to acknowledge the end of its own power to legislate for Scotland. In short, the Act of Union (Abolition) Bill.

I stress, envisaged. Because agreement there would have to be. Initially about the process. Ultimately about the substance.

Supporters of the Union broadly have two responses.

One, that the timetable is "absurd"; that Scots would have to be prepared for a far more troublesome process; that, consequently, they should not embark upon that process.

Two, that the SNP are engaged in another distraction, to avoid talking about the substance of independence.

In response to which, Nationalists say 30 new states have been forged by referendum since World War II - with the average time lag being 15 months.

On the challenge re substance, they say they are simply responding to the commission's request.