As much as I dislike the phrase ‘the third way’, it sums up what the coalition has done today. Given the choice between hobbling or accommodating Alex Salmond and his referendum on Scottish independence, it has decided to do neither and both. In the words of the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, speaking in the House just now, the referendum will be ‘made in Scotland, by the people of Scotland’ — just so long as Westminster okays it first.
Maybe that'll make more sense if we look at what, specifically, was announced today. Moore's main point was that any referendum held by the Scottish government, without the approval of the UK government, would be ‘unconstitutional’. At best, that would mean its result would be purely advisory; it worst, it would leave it open to legal challenge. But, said Moore, were the Scottish government to have the approval of the UK government it would be a different matter altogether. Then it could hold a proper referendum that actually counted.
So this was Moore's offer: if all sides can decide on a process that is ‘fair, decisive and clear’, then Salmond can have his referendum. To that end, the UK government has produced a consultation document that seeks the views of Scottish people on how a referendum should be conducted. Those views, it is said, will then feed into discussions between Holyrood and Westminster.
This approach is considerably more sensible and more reasonable on the coalition's part than the one briefed out to papers yesterday. But it doesn't remove half the tension from the situation. Indeed, all of the same differences remain between the UK and Scottish governments. As Moore made clear today, the coalition still wants the vote to be held in the next eighteen months, and it wants a simple 'Yes' or 'No' vote. Whereas Salmond is already saying that he plans to hold a referendum in 2014, with or without London's blessing, one assumes.
Which is to say, this is going to be a long and bad-tempered process. But at least, now, the coalition is confident that it has the law on its side.