Thursday, March 29, 2007

End Of Term

Today sees the end of the second term of the Scottish Parliament. With the Executive going into 'Purdah', Labour will no longer have access to the Scottish civil service, or have a legion of Executive press officers to highlight their triumphs and bury their mistakes. Instead, they'll have to rely on their own people and a campaign machine which seems increasingly creaky and rudderless.

There's a funny atmosphere about Holyrood today. Jack McConnell is turning in a shouty, beleaguered performance at FMQs, assailed from all sides over broken election promises, health, crime, council tax, nuclear power and the performance of devolution. His rants about the SNP seem even more heated and lacking in humour than usual. All told, his demeanor is not one of a man brimming with confidence about being returned to his position in May.

The next parliament seems set to be very different indeed. 12 MSPs are standing down of their own volition, but a wee glance at the polls suggests that there could be more than a few new faces about the place come May. Both The Times (yesterday) and the Daily Mail (today) have carried polls putting the SNP ahead of Labour, both in terms of support and likely seats in parliament. The solitary thread of comfort which Labour spokespeople have clung to for dear life has been the apparent fall in support for Independence, down from 50% plus earlier in the year to just 27%.

Proof that the Labour campaign is working at a certain level, perhaps? Well no, actually. The difference is in not just the question asked, but the number of questions asked. You see, when the question of 'Independence - yes or no?' is put, there's a roughly 50/50 split. However, throw the rather nebulous option of 'more powers' into the mix and unsurprisingly, the numbers change. In fact, we find that in addition to the 27% who want 'independence, nothing less', some 52% would like more powers, perhaps as a further step towards sovereignty.

Game, set and match for the union then, and vindication for the Lib Dem stance that there should be no referendum on independence? Again, no. No-one takes the trouble to set out what these 'more powers' might be - would they include full fiscal autonomy, for example? The right for Scottish Ministers to represent us in Europe? Control over broadcasting regulation? The simple fact of the matter is that no-one knows. You'd get as worthwhile an answer by replacing the question with one asking whether you are in favour of fluffy kittens and nice sunny days.

The Lib Dems justify their anti-referendum stance by citing such polling data and by highlighting their support for federalism. In this way, they argue that there can be a 'middle way' on the constitution, whereby Scotland gets more powers and can stay happily in the union. That would be an honourable position, if it weren’t for the fact that they've supported federalism for over a century, yet still don't have a viable plan on how to bring it about.

All they have in their locker is to call for powers which Westminster would have to cede, over which the Lib Dems would have no leverage. And let's be brutally honest here - the only leverage for getting the powers worth having will be a strong SNP vote in May. Westminster might cede more powers to Holyrood, but only if Independence looks like it will be on the cards and even then, as with devolution V1.0, only as little will be ceded as they think they can get away with in order to dissipate the SNP 'threat'.

This is where it gets interesting. With any referendum likely to come towards the end of a 4-year term, there will be ample opportunity for Westminster to make its play. However, the SNP has already set out a little shopping list of powers it would like for Holyrood, such as control over North Sea Revenues and that right to lead negotiations, such as over fishing, in Europe.

If it can be shown through the rejection of some fairly modest requests that further reform of the British State is either impossible or won't come until many years into the future, won’t that make voters more inclined than ever to demand a referendum on independence? And where would that leave the Lib Dems, other than on the wrong side of the argument?

Support for independence down? It all depends on the question you ask, as well as the number of questions you ask. Alex Salmond could be unwrapping the mint Viscounts at Lancaster House yet.


tom said...

Yet another Scottish poll is coming out tomorrow. This time in the Telegraph done by Yougov - SNP leading Labour by 6%.

Jack McC will not be amused.

Richard Thomson said...

Neither will Jack McD, I'll wager!