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Tactical switch

Brian Taylor | 14:25 UK time, Monday, 6 September 2010

This is about tactics. Not, strictly, about policy.

That Alex Salmond backs independence preceded by a referendum will, I suspect, come as a surprise to few.

I think we may deal relatively briefly with some associated matters.

As elected First Minister, Mr Salmond is entitled to pursue a referendum on independence along with other elements of his manifesto.

As elected FM, he is entitled to commission staff in the Scottish government to work towards that objective.

He is entitled to devote resources, within reason, to sustaining that objective.

Opposition members may argue that the money / staff time has been poorly spent; that it could have been better diverted to other issues.

However, that is a political point, not a constitutional one.

The spending and staff time were both legitimate.

Defining aim

Secondly, it does not seem to me that this is an ego trip by Alex Salmond, as some have suggested.

Independence is the defining aim of his party.

He is entitled to pursue it - just as Labour politicians pursued devolution when there were voices raised by rivals saying that the project was a waste of time and money.

Further, he is entitled to pursue it in his own fashion.

Perhaps, it might be argued, he should have advanced referendum legislation before now.

Mr Salmond might reasonably retort that he had to search for a reasonable prospect of success in such a venture.

So, again, this controversy is not about whether there should or should not be a referendum on independence.

That dispute has run for some time and will, I suspect, run up to and through the next Holyrood elections.

Rather it is about how Alex Salmond and his party deal with the likely - now, inevitable - thwarting of that policy objective by opposition parties at Holyrood who, on this issue, have conjoined to form a majority.

On that, Alex Salmond has changed his mind.

He has, if you like, performed a U-turn.

Previously, he stressed that, eventually, his referendum legislation would be put before the Scottish Parliament in this term.

It was not like the measure to replace the council tax which was dropped in the face of majority opposition in Holyrood.

It was different: MSPs would be given a vote.

Timing tactics

The bill was delayed until Mr Salmond thought the moment propitious; until his government had time to prove its worth to the electorate.

Remember at all times the dual strategy: to govern sensibly and, where possible, consensually within the limits of devolution while simultaneously inviting the voters to conclude how much better things could be under independence.

Opposition critics may object to Mr Salmond's timing tactics. But he chose them with the objective of succeeding.

Then the bill was further delayed while the FM sought to persuade one other major party - in practice, the Liberal Democrats - to tolerate a plebiscite, perhaps with the alternative of enhanced fiscal powers also on the ballot paper.

Again, there may be complaints about this: that it was stretching the process beyond toleration.

But remember again: Mr Salmond chose this course for what he believed to be good reasons. He wanted his referendum to succeed.

Which brings us to the latest indications of ministerial thinking.

The bill will be published but will not now be introduced at Holyrood.

MSPs will not be given a chance to vote upon the measure.

Why? Because, we are told, the bill stands no chance of success, given the views of the SNP's opponents.

They argue that Scotland does not need a referendum on independence at this juncture where every effort should be focused on repairing the economy.

So this latest thinking is a response to the prospect of defeat.

And therein lies the tactical switch.

Fresh mandate

Previously, Mr Salmond believed that his bill might well go down - but that he would use that defeat to condemn wicked Unionists for thwarting the exercise of Scottish popular choice on Scotland's constitutional future.

Now he still says that he will appeal directly to the voters at the next election - but without first confronting Holyrood with the legislation.

He will seek a sufficient fresh mandate for the SNP.

In particular, he will argue at the next election that it is only with the powers of independence that Scotland can seek to reverse economic decline.

This change of tack leaves the first minister vulnerable.

Vulnerable to the most potent weapon in an opposition party's armoury: that of ridicule.

They will lampoon the FM. They will mock him.

Again, Mr Salmond says he will make his pitch directly to the voters, over the heads of Holyrood.

That, he believes, is a powerful position for a political leader: siding with the people against the machine.

Of course, Mr Salmond could have made just such a pitch even if he had chosen to introduce his bill and watch it face defeat at the hands of opponents.

Indeed, some argue that his pitch to the people would have been all the stronger, reinforced by evidence that rival parties were prepared to block a referendum.

In response, Mr Salmond indicates that he feared there would have been a feeling of finality about such a defeat; that it might seem to the electorate that the referendum issue was finished.

His call, your choice.

Not, in the immediate future, at a referendum. But at the elections next year.


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