Alex Massie

A Desperate Prime Minister’s Desperate Ploy

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Although I've long felt that the Unionist parties would have been well-advised to call Alex Salmond's bluff and have an independence referendum as soon as possible (like, er, this year), the notion that Gordon Brown might decide to hold a referendum on Scottish independence the same day as a general election strikes me as a typically Broonian too-clever-by-half wheeze that, upon closer inspection, turns out to be utterly daft. In other words, James Macintyre's story in the New Statesman is sufficiently silly that one cannot immediately discount it. Here's what Macintyre writes:

Meanwhile, a separate idea, bold if controversial, is quietly being considered for the same election day: a referendum in Scotland on independence. This reflects a rueful and secretly held sense among some in New Labour that devolution was a mistake which emboldened nationalists and strengthened the hand of Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party’s leader and Scotland’s First Minister. Brown has long fretted about British identity and about how people increasingly define themselves as English, Welsh and Scottish, rather than as British.

A referendum would call the Nationalists’ bluff. It would be a high-risk strategy. But Brown would be gambling on the majority of Scots who continue to recognise that the social, economic and political union remains much more than the sum of its parts.

Since devolution was something "New" Labour inherited it's hardly a surprise that the idea never much appealled to the Millbank crowd. But they were stuck with it nonetheless even if, like so much else in Labour's pre-1994 history, they'd really have preferred to junk it. Too bad.

James argues that this ploy - for surely it cannot rise to the level of being an actual plan - is designed to lock Scotland into the Union and suppress the SNP vote. I'm afraid I disagree with Brother Forsyth on both counts. In the first instance, you cannae strengthen the Union by treating it as a plaything to be exploited for narrow, immediate, partisan advantage. Voters can tell when they're being played. Equally, how can you have a proper independence debate alongside and parallel to a UK general election? It makes no sense. More importantly, it treats the Union and voters with contempt.

And by doing so it risks increasing, not decreasing support for the nationalists and independence. So much so in fact that Brown's plan - if it exists! - might actually create a nationalist bounce as voters, fed up with this government anyway, decided to punish it for inflicting this additional, unecessary, plainly desperate referendum. In any case, if Labour were to treat the Union so casually it becomes that much harder for them to convince voters that it matters.

One thing seems pretty clear: an independence referendum held on the same day as the general election would increase the nationalist vote in the Westminster election. In 2005, the SNP won just 17% of the vote; since then, in elections to Holyrood and the european parliament they've polled in the 30-32% range. Some, but not all, of that reflects justified unhappiness with Labour's record on both sides of the border but everyone expects the nationalists to poll well at the next Westminster election too. Holding an independence referendum on the same day guarantees that SNP voters will turn out in droves. A 30% share of the vote at Westminster would probably leave the SNP with 15 seats at least and possibly as many as 20. And if Labour's vote drops to 30% itself (down from 39% in 2005) then at least a dozen Labour MPs will be looking for alternative employment. Indeed, the most recent Scottish poll puts Labour on 28%...

Indeed, it's easy to imagine how a referendum held in these circumstances could result in many people voting No on the independence question while also voting for the SNP in the constituency ballot to send a still firmer message of disapproval to Gordon Brown. A message that, rightly, would hold him responsible for the unecessary hassle and inconvenience of the independence referendum, to say nothing of their reluctance to endorse this kind of political gamesmanship.

There are plenty of other problems with this hare-brained scheme, but these are some of the most immediate ones.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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