If anyone had any doubts why Alex Salmond picked up almost every UK political award going last year, then they should study how he has dealt with the referendum issue this week. At every turn he has out-manoeuvred his UK counterparts — and this was perfectly demonstrated tonight.
Earlier today, in the Commons, Michael Moore, the Scottish Secretary, had delivered the UK government’s riposte to the SNP’s referendum plans. Mr Moore was considered, clever and smart. In fact, it was a first cogent and effective strike back by the UK government on this issue for more than a year.
But what will lead tomorrow’s papers in Scotland? It won’t be Mr Moore’s statement. It will be the simple, short sentence uttered by Salmond while the Commons debate was still in process. ‘The referendum will be held in the autumn of 2014,’ Salmond told the BBC, standing in front of a crackling open fire and two furled saltires, in a clip that will be played over and over again.
At a stroke Salmond managed to capture the news agenda and force the UK Government into playing catch-up yet again. He has know for some time when the referendum was going to be held, but he waited until the optimum moment to announce it — the moment when he could grab the front pages at the same time as relegating Mr Moore’s statement to page two.
For more evidence of his political manoeuvring, it is also worth considering the Scottish First Minister’s approach to the Supreme Court.
This afternoon, Mr Moore raised the prospect of the SNP’s referendum bill being ruled illegal by the Supreme Court. This is the same Supreme Court that Mr Salmond has spent the last year been attacking in the most incendiary language he could muster. He has attacked the court’s decisions; he has accused it of being anti-Scottish and of not understanding Scots law. Some were baffled as to why he was being so extreme, but now we know. This has all been done for a reason.
Mr Salmond always knew there was a chance the referendum bill would end up before the Supreme Court. So, by denigrating and undermining it, Mr Salmond has laid the ground work for an utter rejection of the Supreme Court and all its decisions.
What some in the UK Government seem to have forgotten is that, because this is such an important issue for the Scottish Nationalists, they have analysed and prepared for every twist and turn of the debate. In what is now a game of political chess, Mr Salmond has correctly forecast his opponent’s moves before they have even decided what they are going to do.
What appears likely to happen now is this: Mr Salmond will pass his referendum bill through the Scottish Parliament and he will challenge the UK Government to take it to the court. If it does go to court, he will then accuse the UK Government of subverting the democratic will of the Scottish people and, as far as many Scots are concerned, he will have a point.
The UK Government has approached this late, it has approached it half-heartedly, and it is now being outplayed at every stage. Their solace is that the game isn’t lost yet. But it will be unless they can come up with something imaginative and new — and, crucially, something the Nats haven’t thought of.