Not long after the referendum was called it struck me that simply resisting the independence project and insisting on a straight Yes or No was a less than intelligent response from Conservatives who were, about the same time, pondering their own raison d’etre following Murdo Fraser’s new party plea.
I wondered if this really was the best they could do, offering a flat No when we knew then – and know now – that the biggest single group of voters favoured enhanced powers in line with the concept of Devo Max.
Here was my thought process. If you are unpopular – a fair assessment of Tory fortunes, I think – and if there is a popular idea to which no one else (as in political party) has laid claim – Devo Max – and if adopting it would secure your main objective – saving the Union – is it not counter-intuitive not to seize it?
In addition, Scotland was/is a problem the Tories are tired of and would like to go away. So what if you offered Salmond and his Nats pretty much what they wanted in return for dropping the referendum?
Consider: No long campaign, no acrimony, little or no objection from England, the funding issue more or less resolved, the end of the West Lothian Question as there would be little need for more than token Scottish representation in the Commons, Tory chances of governing Britain enhanced, Scottish Tories actually doing something popular and getting the reward, the SNP deliver for Scotland with the best deal on powers ever and – God Save the Queen – the Union is saved and Dave’s a hero.
So convinced was I of the compelling logic of my idea – it doesn’t take me long to think I’m right – that I wrote it down in detail and called it grandly, Ahead of the Curve. In my capacity as a private citizen I contacted a leading Tory of my acquaintance and asked him to read it. He in turn showed it to another key figure of the Right and they promptly rejected it as unworkable. But I think they lacked the imagination to see the possibilities, as did Cameron himself when he became Prime Minister. Politicians think in silos and hardly ever break out into the world of rationality even when there are prizes to be won.
I thought Cameron should have seized his moment as soon as Salmond won his majority and instead of shirking back from a world, which to him is alien, should have suggested that two newly-minted leaders should meet. Privately. On their own. After all, it’s what world leaders do. We now know that the fall of Soviet Russia was helped immeasurably by Gorbachev forming personal relationships with Reagan and Thatcher, or, indeed, the case for illegal war was confirmed man to man between Blair and Bush. In such an environment they can look into the eyes of the other and see what might be.
Supposing, I suggested, that Cameron starts with the idea of independence and works back. He could decide where to draw his red lines – perhaps on defence or personal taxation – and get Salmond’s response. Even within a red line area there could be concessions…for example on defence. Scotland’s forces could remain under British command unless there was to be a foreign incursion with which the Scots disagreed. The Scottish Parliament could be asked to rubber stamp their involvement, giving the approval of the Scots…or not, if illegal, as in Iraq. And that might have helped change London’s mind too.
The options are infinitely variable but the effect would be to give Salmond such a wide-ranging package of powers that Scots could not say No. It could be time-limited so that after 10 years if the experiment didn’t work, there could be a re-integration and if it did work, the Scots could consider their future based on a decade of running their own affairs, from raising their own revenue to social security.
I am told that George Osborne said, when asked what to do about SNP demands: “Give them what they want.” He didn’t really care either way.
For both the Tories and SNP there would be the added bonus of outflanking Labour who would lose their block of MPs at Westminster. The liaison between Edinburgh and London could be done through a revamped Scottish Grand Committee with MSPs from each party working between the two capitals and making sure there was Scottish representation when issues not devolved – probably monetary policy or most foreign affairs – needed Scottish approval. It’s hardly beyond the wit of Britain’s elite to work out a system agreeable to all, is it?
You would then have effective independence – we could even stop flying the Union flag – while the Unionists get to keep their prize of the Union itself and Britain’s global reputation is not only maintained but enhanced as a place where real democratic arrangements apply. And we would avoid years of a campaign with the acrimony that entails.
What’s not to like?
The English zealots can no longer cry Subsidy and Scots get to make virtually all their decisions themselves…real hard political power. And it would be in the interests of both Salmond and Cameron to make it work as they would have joint ownership, reducing the chances of rhetorical hostilities and wilful disruption.
Ah, you say, but Salmond would never do the deal. His party wouldn’t let him. This is the chance of a lifetime, or several and could not be thrown away.
Well, I don’t agree. What most people forget about Alex Salmond is his most enduring quality, and it’s not cockiness or love of a gamble…it’s pragmatism. Almost alone among his generation of Nationalists, his vision has been tempered not by emotion but by a logic that says Never get too far ahead of the people. He reads them better than any other politician and it helps explain his enduring success. It isn’t caution as such, but rather it’s a gift from the gods in the world of politics.
He would simply have told the party that this time of austerity is not the right moment for a referendum and since he had secured virtually everything short of independence, it was right to settle and focus on improving life for the Scots. To the doubters he would simply have pointed at the opinion polls and told them he was serving the majority. It is his duty to serve all Scots after all.
Only this week I had what amounted to gilt-edged confirmation that Salmond would have talked the talk on such a deal from someone who really does know.
Alex Salmond does want Scotland to be independent but his way has always been to climb one grip, one foothold at a time and more than anything he wants what is best for the Scots, even if that does fall short of the ultimate aim.
Now I want independence and believe in it deeply but the bedrock of my politics is that I am a democrat. I actually don’t want independence if the majority don’t agree because it is such a big project that we will need every Scot behind it with no room for spectators. I think there is a real possibility that there will be a Yes vote built not on true belief in independence but swelled by those who only want more powers, denied them by a rigged one-question referendum.
And just imagine if that happens, what a fool Cameron will look when all the time the gift of success and retention of the Union lay in his grasp.