Margo MacDonald’s reassertion of the case for a single question independence referendum (Scotland on Sunday 8th July) offers the seductive prospect of a dramatic cliff-hanger in 2014. No ifs, buts or maybes. No halfway houses. No distractions. No cop outs. No hedged bets. Margo wants all the money, hope and effort of several campaigning SNP decades to go on just one square during just one roll of the dice. Independence or bust. I don’t know if Margo is a gambling woman – with such nerves of steel she’d easily break the bank.
There’s undoubtedly something attractive about the prospect of a return to the high stakes game. And something timely about Margo’s warning that the Yes campaign must get “back to basics.” Two months of being “all things to all people” has certainly been wearing thin.
A profoundly “wrong note” was sounded by the normally chipper Alex Neil when he told a BBC Question Time audience he’d still feel British even if Scotland left the Union. I know Alex can talk the hind legs off a donkey, but this “British later” line is an inauthentic combination of expedience and bare-faced cheek. It’s an arid argument -- a stun grenade deployed by a wily strategist and a constructed argument not an emotional truth. Above all independence by stealth is a dangerous departure from the straight bat normally deployed by the SNP in matters of national identity.
Every time I hear a nationalist looking forward to feeling more British after the creation of a new Scottish state, I cringe. Apart from sounding insincere it’s also hypocritical. Why would anyone embrace a cultural identity tomorrow but plainly reject it today? For no good reason, the SNP’s most credible lieutenants are choosing to break the faith. And Margo is right to call time.
The deal used to be that other parties sugar-coated the pill whilst the SNP told it straight, toed unpopular lines and reaped the electoral reward.
When Nicola Sturgeon backed minimum alcohol pricing you knew she meant it. When Alex Salmond championed renewable energy to restart Scotland’s economy you knew he believed it -- not being invited to The Donald’s Golf Course launch tomorrow is the overdue reward. Ditto Trident. Long before Barclays joined Sir Fred, expense fiddling MPs, phone-hacking tabloid journalists, corrupt Met police and much of the Murdoch Empire down the stank, the SNP held out the vision of a future beyond the old Imperial myth of Britain “punching above its weight” in defence and world affairs -- and thus forever in hock to an incompetent MOD, a dangerously changeable America and an over-reliance on the arms trade.
Of course, like any capable magician the First Minister manages to conceal a few cards up his sleeves. More renewable energy goes hand in glove with more road-building and a Trident-free Scotland looks set to be compatible with membership of NATO.
The image of the “truth-telling” SNP is necessarily an illusion. If truth is the first casualty in war, that virtuous soldier doesn’t even make it to the battle field in times of constitutional conflict.
But there is a real danger for the SNP in the loss of honesty and trust that seems to have arisen from taking “Option B” on board.
There’s a danger however for Margo – and for the Greens – in being perpetual outsiders. It seems the Independent Lothians MSP was invited onto the Yes campaign board but declined. I can imagine there are lots of reasons for this. The independence voice is weakened by coming from “official SNP sources” only and ironically the nationalist’s sweeping 2011 win has silenced some effective communicators now under the command of the party whip. But if Margo wants the Yes Campaign to choose the “high risk” option – so should she.
The public know how constitutionally thrawn, outspoken and independent-minded Margo has been all her life and respect her for it. So the public act of zipping it and formally joining the Yes Campaign – warts and all – would be more than a gesture. It would signify that momentous change has begun.
Indy-waverers would be more impressed by the sight of Margo -- and Patrick Harvie -- sacrificing their freedom to carp and cavil than by any clever words the two will ever utter about the strategy of the independence campaign.
Credibility and respect are that rare in politics. And that powerful.
In the meantime though – is Margo right? Is one question right for the independence ballot?
I still think it’s not.
I know a two question referendum risks all sorts of undesirable outcomes. For nationalists it risks splitting the vote. Quite a number of unlikely and prominent Scots plan to vote Yes if no “middle way” is on offer. And it’s true that the more devo-something options are scrutinised the more inadequate they seem to become. Devo Plus leaves the oil money pouring into Whitehall not Holyrood. Devo Max leaves decisions on Trident and involvement in wars to Number Ten not Bute House. Of course, such difficulties are only apparent because “devo-something” is finally being given proper scrutiny and that wouldn’t be happening without the possibility of inclusion on the ballot paper.
But that’s not the main reason for a two question referendum.
2014 is not the SNP’s big moment – it’s ours. They are the midwives– the Scottish people will be the mothers or, if you prefer, the architects of what comes next. Even those who might vote yes can still prefer a ballot which allows the vast majority of Scots to say something positive about the degree of autonomy they desire. It’s a democracy thing.
Some voters strongly believe a looser but continuing involvement with rUK is best for Scotland. Others will automatically opt for an Option B whatever it is without scrutinising detail or workability.
But democracy isn’t about the “rightness” or wisdom of how people arrive at a preference. It’s about their right – after an open debate -- to express it. And the inconvenient truth for both “sides” is that many Scots currently want an in-between solution. The choice for the Scottish Government is simple. It can shoehorn genuine diversity into a single choice or allow the full range of preferences expressed in their consultation process to be reflected on the ballot paper in 2014.