Alex Massie

Salmond makes his move: l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace

Salmond makes his move: l'audace, encore de l'audace, toujours de l'audace
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UPDATE: Welcome, Ross's readers. Feel free to have a poke around. Should you be so interested, other stuff I've written about Scottish politics and the like can easily be found by clicking on "Scotland" in the categories column on the right.

Meanwhile, in Scotland...

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It's been a startlingly successful first 100 days in office for Alex Salmond. His minority ministry has proved more stable - and more quietly effective - than many sceptics feared. That's quite an achievement, even if Salmond did arrive in office with a degree of goodwill. Yes, many voters remain unconvinced by the SNP but many others who voted Tory or Lib Dem were relieved to finally see Labour bundled out of Bute House. More significantly, however, Salmond has enjoyed his success without having to compromise his ambtions or trim his strategy to meet current circumstances.

On the contrary it suits him quite well to be a minority administration, allowing him to play the conciliatory statesman while, conveniently, also clipping the wings of his more radical colleagues. There's no point  demanding border posts by dawn when there's no immediate prospect of their construction. So Salmond has turned what could have been a weakness into an unexpected strength. Not for the first time we may reflect upon the foolishness of the Scottish Tories: if they really wanted to bell the SNP cat they should have found a way to form a coalition with the nationalists. Intead they've given Alec a free hand and, unsurprisingly, he's running rings around them.

On Tuesday he launched what he genially calls "A National Conversation" about the country's constitutional future in advance of the referendum on independence Salmond "hopes" to call in 2010. So, there you have it: three years to save or end the Union. Right now the polls are such that Salmond knows that though he and his party have enjoyed a post-election wave, there's no majority for independence. But by making a referendum on independence an integral part of the election (avoiding the mistake made eight years ago when the SNP downplayed the importance and prospect of independence) Salmond managed to put the fear of god into the other parties (the electorate, of course, are rather more sanguine about all this than you might think were you entirely dependent upon the more hysterical newspapers for your information).

Yet again the Tories, in particular, missed an opportunity. They should have called Salmond's bluff and supported an up and down referendum vote to be held by May 2008. Salmond would then have been in the awkward position of talking his way out of a referendum that would have been held in unfavourable circumstances. Even Alec might have had some difficulty selling that to the party membership (many of whom are not quite so enlightened as the leadership).

Salmond's "Conversation" puts the opposition in a bind: take part enthusiastically and they give momentum to the idea of independence: the very fact we're having the conversation means it's no longer an impossible or absurdly outlandish or romantic dream (an important psychological hurdle that the nationalists  - and perhaps the country too - need to clear). But staying in their room in a huff would allow Salmond to portray them as hostile to Scotland and Scottish interests. The SNP would be the party speaking for Scotland, asking reasonable questions about the devolution "settlement": if this can be controlled from Edinburgh then why can't that? (Domestic broadcasting, for instance. If here must be government regulation, then there's no real reason, it seems to me, why that role must be played by Westminster exclusively). After a while a collection of small, reasonable requests for greater autonomy starts to look like an impressive pile of grievances. The Tories still haven;t recovered from being cast (rather unfairly ) as the "anti-Scottish" party. I doubt that's a mistake Labour will feel like emulating.

Indeed, one of the happiest aspects of Salmond's success is the extent to which it must be driving Labour mad. Well, good. Scotland, after all, can't be free in any meaningful sense until the last Labour councillor is strangled with the last copy of The Daily Record.

All this meant there was a remarkable statement released by the opposition leaders Jack McConnell (Labour, now stepping down), Annabel Goldie (Tories) and Nicol Stephen (LibDems). After the usual girning and blathering, they conceded defeat:

"We are willing to enter into debate jointly about the way in which devolution within the UK can best develop in the years to come."

In other words, they can see which way the wind is blowing. Poll after poll suggests that there's a plurality at least who would like to see the parliament accrue more powers. That's what "develop" means. Hell, even Scotland on Sunday and The Scotsman  - both Unionist newspapers - used to be very bullish on full fiscal autonomy, arguing, correctly in my view, that no parliament that is not responsible for raising its own revenue is likely to govern efficiently or with any kind of reforming spirit. (Of course I like to think those were reasonably cogent editorials since I wrote quite a number of them.)

The Tories and the Labour party have walked into a trap largely of their own devising. By insisting that there was no need for a referendum they put themselves on the wrong side of public opinion. I suspect voters quite like the idea of being asked their own opinion. Furthermore, by opposing the referendum and letting the SNP govern as a minority they have given Salmond room to go over their heads. He can't, as matters stand, pass a referendum bill at Holyrood, so instead he's taking his case to the country at large. It's bold and brave and it might work.

The upshot then is most likely, one would guess at this stage, to be a multi-option referendum at which the electorate will vote for increased powers for the parliament but stop some way short of independence. How far short and for how long will be the question.

If one were to borrow from navy parlance one might say that though Salmond is up against a fleet armed with greater firepower than he can bring to bear, he is the better sailor. Plus he has the weather gage and can afford to play the long game: poking the opposition, knocking off a spar here, a mast there until eventually the day is his. From his point of view there's no need for a yardarm to yardarm stramash; what's puzzling is why the opposition parties have been so willing to do battle on Salmond's terms. It can't just be stupidity can it? Actually, maybe it can.

So, interesting times in Caledonia. But it's a long game. It took a century from the Union of the Crowns in 1602 to finally consummate the political marriage with England, there's no need to rush the divorce. 2010 may prove to be the start of new song altogether, but I wouldn't put too much money on that. At least not yet...

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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