The battle for Scotland began in earnest this week with David Cameron’s offer to give Alex Salmond the power to hold a decisive referendum on independence—but only if that referendum is held “sooner rather than later,” and only if it is on a clear in-or-out vote.
Salmond’s response has been equally bold. Ignoring Westminster he has declared that the referendum will be held in the autumn of 2014, and is refusing to rule out a third option of more powers by insisting that the referendum must be “made, built and run” in Scotland. A major constitutional crisis is brewing which may only be resolved by a protracted fight in the courts.
On the surface of it, the logic behind Cameron’s decision is obvious. Polls consistently put support for independence around the 30 per cent mark, meaning that an early in-or-out vote would give him the best possible chance of winning. Ideally, he would like to stop the Scottish government from holding the referendum at the time most convenient to the cause of Scottish nationalism: the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.
Moreover, he wants to deprive Salmond of a third option: the consolation prize of “devolution-max,” which would not only hand the SNP control of all domestic affairs north of the border, but which would also allow him to keep the political momentum with the SNP, even if they lose the vote on independence.
Since the two goverments look set to clash over the timing of referendum and especially the question put to Scottish voters, it is worth asking whether Cameron’s rationale—one shared by all unionist parties—stacks up.
An early referendum might scupper SNP plans but it shouldn’t be assumed that it will automatically help the forces of unionism. Are they really ready to do battle with the undisputed king of Scottish politics? To win they can’t simply gamble on the fact that polls indicate only minority support for independence. They will have to advance a compelling account of why the Union matters in the 21st century—something they have signally failed to articulate in recent years.
In the absence of a positive argument in favour of union, an early referendum would in all likelihood see them forced into running a negative and entirely counter-productive campaign about how an…