Alex Massie

David Cameron Should Support an Independence Referendum

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And not, my English nationalist chums, so that he can bid good riddance to those troublesome, and endlessly grumbling, Scots. Rather lost amidst the Megrahi Fallout was the news that Wee Eck and his merry band of mischief-makers are pressing ahead with their plans for a 2011 referendum on the independence question. This despite the fact that, as matters stand, there's no majority with which to pass the referendum bill at Holyrood.

Nevertheless it's a bill that merits support, not least because the issue will have to be resolved at some point. That being so, it falls to the Conservatives to call Salmond's bluff (he may not see it as such but that's a different matter) and uge him to press on. Clearly that's subject to agreeing upon a suitable question and, crucially, how many options there will be. As Brian Taylor says, it suits Salmond to have a multi-option referendum - that is one that includes a "more powers for the Scottish Parliament" choice - but it suits the opposition for the question to be asked in a straight, indeed simple, Yes or No format.

Why should Cameron support this? There are a number of reasons. Firstly, the Unionists would probably win. Secondly, the SNP (or, at least some SNP strategists) have long believed that a Conservative government at Westminster is a necessary condition* for increasing support for independence. There may be something in that, but it's also in the Conservatives interest to test that proposition. Why? Because a vote in favour of maintaining the Union is also a vote accepting the legitimacy of a Conservative government at Westminster even if that government only has the support of a handful of Scottish MPs.

Now in some ways it is absurd that Cameron would have to prove his legitimacy in this way and I dare say there are plenty of other things he would like to deal with first, but the fact remains that, if he's as instinctively Unionist as he says he is, the Union could do with a spot of affirmation.

And Cameron could increase his own stature too. He could argue that, yes, the SNP has a mandate, even if it does not have a majority at Holyrood and that, yes, the most important part of that mandate is a referendum on Scotland's place in the Union. The country has a right to have that debate and the people the right to decide the issue for themselves. It would be undemocratic to deny that opportunity and, damn it, disrespectful to the people of Scotland to suppose that they lack the maturity and wisdom to decide the country's future for themselves. Here too, for the record, you might observe that the Labour party does not seem to share this confidence.

Nothing in this undermines the Conservative's Unionism. On the contrary, it demonstrates a sensible appreciation that the SNP's victory in 2007 did change matters whether one likes that or not.

Of course it's possible that the SNP would insist upon a multi-option referendum (though they'd have to sell that to their own supporters) to which Cameron can plausibly argue that the question of a revising the Scotland Act is not the main event and, in any case, asks the electorate to vote on proposals (presumably based upon Calman) that have not been agreed far less digested. No, better, from his perspective, to have a simple Yes/No ballot that will clear the air for at least the next decade.

That would put the ball back in Salmond's court: if he was offered a referendum could he really refuse it on a technicality? Not without losing some face and the risk of seeming foolish.

Bold? Perhaps. Sensible? I think so. And not just because it would give us all plenty to write about...

*This may be so - the Ghost of Maggie and all that - but I've never been convinced by this notion. For one thing it makes a negative, rather than positive argument for independence, basing the argument upon pique and, frankly, some measure of prejudice too.

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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