Edinburgh, Scotland

Scottish Independence: Battle Lines Drawn

London has many other pressing issues on its agenda whereas the SNP can devote the entirety of their resources and political capital to the independence campaign – a luxury which they would do well to enjoy while they can.

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The respective governments of Scotland and the United Kingdom have formally agreed upon the terms and the technicalities of the referendum on Scotland’s independence. In so doing, they have drawn the lines of the battle that will take place between them until the referendum in the autumn of 2014.

The ‘Edinburgh Agreement‘ was signed on 15 October by Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, and David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and is the result of months of negotiations between the two governments, essentially centred on two main points.

The first of these was to determine through which mechanism the referendum would be rendered legal. Through Article 30 of the Scotland Act 1998 (which established devolution), London will confer legal authority for the referendum to Edinburgh and, consequently, the result will be legally binding.

London arguably had little room for manoeuvre when negotiating this point as the slightest indication of obstinacy would have been exploited by the Scottish nationalists to maximum political effect. The trade-off comes in the shape of the very question to be posed by the referendum and this was the second sticking point of the negotiations.

The British government made clear that they would only devolve legal authority for the referendum if Scottish voters were presented with one single, and very simple, question: independence, yes or no? The Scottish government argued that a second question should be included on the ballot paper, the so-called ‘devo max’ option. This would have allowed Scottish voters to vote against full independence but in favour of maximum devolution of powers to Edinburgh while remaining within the United Kingdom (basically full autonomy over everything except defence and foreign policy).

Unionists claim this demonstrates that Scottish nationalists don’t believe they can secure a majority in favour of full independence. As things stand, it is likely true that ‘devo max’ would have been the most attractive option to many Scottish voters but much can still happen between now and late 2014.

A third important point of the Edinburgh Agreement is that 16 and 17 year olds will be entitled to vote in the referendum, even though normally the minimum voting age in Scottish and British elections is eighteen. The theory, or so nationalists believe, is that the younger generation are especially likely to vote in favour of independence. While that has yet to be definitively proven, the inclusion of this point in the agreement represents a tactical victory for the SNP and means that Scottish residents currently aged 14 and upwards will be entitled to vote in 2014. We can therefore expect Scottish nationalists to devote considerable attention to these young people for the next two years.

There are still some important aspects of the referendum to be finalised, not least the exact wording of the question on the ballot paper. However, the agreement between Salmond and Cameron is a highly important milestone in the process and essentially marks the real beginning of the political battle between nationalists and unionists.

It could be argued that the agreement itself represents an important political triumph for Salmond as he heads into the SNP party conference in Perth from 18 to 21 October. With the (arguable) exception of the ‘devo max’ option, Salmond and the nationalists have obtained almost everything they wanted from the agreement. At the very least, that’s how they will present it in public.

The timing of the agreement could hardly be better for Salmond. It allows him to re-energise the campaign for independence still further and, at least temporarily, side-step problematic areas of disagreement within the party. For example, the ongoing debate about dropping the SNP’s traditional opposition to NATO could potentially have caused problems at the party conference but, while the issue has not disappeared altogether, Salmond must now be more confident of presenting a united front in Perth.

The SNP have an important strategic advantage over their unionist opponents in Scotland, who are simply not of the same calibre as Salmond (widely regarded as one of the most capable, or at least canniest, political operators in Britain) and who have been consistently outplayed by the SNP during the latter’s two terms in office.

As for the British government, the unpopularity in Scotland of the Conservative-led coalition and the legacy of the Thatcher era will seriously hamper the anti-independence campaign – and are therefore key elements of the SNP’s political calculation. Moreover, London has many other pressing issues on its agenda whereas the SNP can devote the entirety of their resources and political capital to the independence campaign – a luxury which they would do well to enjoy while they can, for it will disappear overnight if they actually win the referendum.

However, absolutely none of the above helps predict the result of the referendum, which remains simply too close to call. Ultimately the real question is how independence would materially and financially affect Scottish voters in their daily lives. If it is true that the current margin between Yes and No is as little as the price of an iPad then all parties still have everything to play for.

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Photo Credit: James Sheehan / theriskyshift.com

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