You might be forgiven for thinking that the recent wranglings over the Scottish independence referendum have played overwhelmingly into the hands of Alex Salmond and the SNP. After all, the UK Government’s plainly transparent concern trolling over the legality and decisiveness of any referendum held unilaterally by Holyrood has allowed the Nationalists to bang the usual drums of “Westminster domination,” with Salmond even suggesting that David Cameron’s intervention may persuade more Scots to back independence.
But we’ve also seen the mask slip a couple of times, and the deeply unpleasant, bullying core of nationalism force its way briefly to the fore. South of Scotland MSP Joan McAlpine this week branded opponents of independence “anti-Scottish,” provoking (predictably) widespread indignation. While Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and other leading SNP figures represent an outwardly tolerant, “friendly” nationalism – “civic nationalism,” as the SNP brand themselves – you don’t have to dig very far before you reach the kind of backward, bigoted attitudes held by their followers, and exemplified by McAlpine’s outburst.
Anyone who reads “below the line” on the Scotsman website, or any of the increasing number of news sites where readers can comment, has seen this sort of thing before. While the SNP leadership have always sought to distance themselves from the “cybernat” phenomenon, it’s increasingly clear that their attitudes are shared relatively high up the party hierarchy.
The SNP’s successes in recent elections have been ascribed to their effective presentation as a party that stands up for Scotland and Scots, eschewing the divisiveness of former years. Nationalism thrives on divisions, but the SNP have always been careful to place the dividing line between “us” – Scotland – and “them” – Westminster. If the ill-considered remarks of the likes of Joan McAlpine redraw that line between “us” – Scots who back independence – and “them” – Scots who don’t – then it could be much more difficult for the Nationalists to gain the kind of electoral traction that saw them win a landslide victory in May’s Holyrood elections.
The other major obstacle in the road for the Nationalist juggernaut is the persistent polling evidence that Scottish voters, given the choice in a referendum, would vote to remain in the UK. Playing up the divisions between Holyrood and Westminster is but one way the SNP will attempt to win round enough Scots to secure a vote for separation, but it may not be sufficient.
The same polling evidence also suggests that what most Scots want is for Scotland to remain a part of the United Kingdom, but for more powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. This is what Nationalists mean when they state that the “status quo” is untenable – most Scots are unhappy with the present arrangement, or at least would prefer something else. Never mind that the “status quo” is currently in a state of upheaval with the Scotland Bill currently making its way through Westminster, which proposes to devolve more powers to Holyrood, albeit not enough to placate the SNP administration.
Perhaps the holy grail in the quest for the perfect amount of Scottish autonomy is the much-referenced, never-quite-defined option known as “devo-max,” which may yet be included as a “third option” in the independence referendum. Loosely, devo-max seems to mean that all policy areas and powers would be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, with the exception of defence and foreign affairs. But quite how such a transition would work, or what arrangements would be hammered out between Scotland and the rest of the UK in this case, remain unexplained.
The reason the details of devo-max are not really explained are quite deliberate. The SNP suggests it is for the parties that oppose independence to elaborate fully on what devo-max would mean, arguing that it is not for the SNP to define its opponents’ political positions. The opposition, on the other hand, point out that it is the SNP’s referendum, and that the inclusion or exclusion of any options on the ballot paper should be a matter for the SNP government.
As an option that falls short of full independence but grants substantially more powers to Holyrood, it is easy to see why the non-nationalist parties are reticent about the idea of fully defining devo-max. It would still be perfectly possible for Alex Salmond to run Scotland as his own personal fiefdom under a devo-max arrangement, with the other parties being marginalised still further. While nationalists argue that it is not for them to define the positions of other parties, opponents argue that it is not for them, either, to define potential “consolation prizes” for Salmond and the SNP.
The overriding concern about the referendum debate is that it is being framed within the context of party politics, and all the mud-slinging and point-scoring that goes with it. Nobody – not even the SNP, despite their protestations to the contrary – is interested in conducting this debate in the interests, and for the benefit, of the Scottish people. If devo-max is a viable third option it is for all parties to come together and agree what it means and what it would entail, and present it as an honest possibility for inclusion in the referendum.
If the SNP’s preferred referendum date of autumn 2014 is accepted, there are two-and-a-half years before the Scottish people vote on their future. Plenty of time, then, for all sides to set aside their differences and agree a coherent set of options. A shame they seem pathologically incapable of doing so.