Alex Massie

Referendum Delayed: 2012 to be the new 2010?

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So, it seems that dreams of a referendum next year have been dashed. 2010, once the Year of the Referendum, will now be plebiscite-free. No referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and no referendum on the Act of Union either. This my be good news for voters but it's tough on hacks who'll need to find something else to write about.

But, for a moment, let's consider some of the implications of this. I'll leave the Lisbon question to one side for now and reiterate my suspicion that Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are helping, not hindering Alex Salmond, by agreeing to delay nay referendum until after the next Holrood elections.

Granted, the SNP may not remain the largest party, nor form even a minority ministry in Edinburgh after the 2011 election. But that view seems weaker now than it did while a 2010 referendum remained a possibility. A referendum many not be many people's top concern, bt there is, I think, a fairly widely held belief that we need to sort this out, one way or another, pretty soon.

Delaying the question until 2012 is good news for Alex Salmond, not least because I'm not convinced he really wants a referendum next year anyway. (Since this is pretty close to being a zero sum affair that too offers an argument for the Unionist parties to support just such a plebiscite.) Now he can deflect awkward questions about the SNP's actual (modest?) record in government by arguing that the Big Question remains the constitution and only the SNP offer a means of settling that issue. Forget about the details, in other words, and concentrate on the bigger picture.

Conversely, if the SNP were defeated in a referendum next year it is hard to see how they could realistically recover ahead of the 2011 elections. What, now that their raison d'etre had been summarily rejected, would they have to say? Why should anyone bother listening to them? The SNP would find themselves in the ticklish position of telling voters: OK, you think we're completely wrong on the one thing that matters most to us but you should vote for us anyway.

Of course, this assumes that the electorate would indeed reject independence in any putative referendum. Perhaps they wouldn't so perhaps it would be a needless gamble. But all the polling suggests there's no majority for independence. So why not have the bloody vote?

Equally, we must hope that a vote in 2012 will happen in happier economic times. Who knows how much of a difference this may make? And then there's the wild card of that other referendum issue: Europe. God knows what's going to happen there. But amidst all the uncertainty, let me make on small, modest suggestion: an English revolt against Brussels may have consequences north of the border too and those consequences would, I think, include weakening the Act of Union. This is necessarily speculative, but there you have it: the eurosceptics and UKIP are also, cold-blooded analysis suggests, Alex Salmond's useful little helpers. Perhaps it won't come to that. But if a Cameron ministry is bedevilled by war with Brussels that's not such good news for the United Kingdom.

So, for that reason too, I think Unionist parties have, yet again, blundered. Sooner rather than later might, from their perspective, be better than never when it comes to asking and answering the Scottish Question.