Alex Massie

Referenda Agenda

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Steve Richards in the Independent today:

I wonder still if the referendum will ever be held in Scotland. Precedent suggests something or other will get in the way. What a titanic moment it was in British politics when in 1991 John Major persuaded his Chancellor, Ken Clarke, to support a referendum on the Euro. Mr Clarke has regretted conceding the ground ever since, one of those moments when the Euro-sceptics proclaimed a significant victory. Of course the referendum was never held, neither by the Conservatives, nor by Labour who also offered one.

As Richards says, this was a significant victory for the euro-sceptic cause. It didn't just commit the Tories to a referendum on the single currency, it forced Labour into committing to one too. And it's that commitment that has kept Britain out of the eurozone. The "something" getting in the way here is, well, public opinion and the risk of humiliating defeat. So the absence of a referendum can be just as telling as a vote itself.

Richards concludes:

Referendums are the clumsiest and least democratic of tools. Leaders only offer them when they think they can win. Quite often they are proposed to avoid an argument. Sometimes they are offered to make mischief...

In Scotland the dance over a referendum will have its own profound consequences. Already it makes waves down in Westminster. What precisely did Mr Brown know about Ms Alexander's ploy? What did she really want to happen when she said bring on a referendum?

It will be a long, hot dance in Edinburgh and London. Do not count on a referendum being held at the end of it.

Well, in one sense Richards is right. There may not be an independence referendum in 2010. But there will be one by 2020 I'd bet. At some point the stars will align and the question - or questions - will be asked. Scotland is the new Quebec you see, and Alex Salmond has, in this sense, scored another goal in persuading Scottish Labour that a referendum is, in principle, not the worst idea in the world.

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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