As MSPs returned from their summer break on the sun loungers, first minister Alex Salmond used the first day of the new political season north of the border to outline a list of 14 bills he will be asking Holyrood to approve.
Whilst there are no doubt a number of significant pieces of legislation which admirably seek to reform adult social care, improve outcomes for children and young people in Scotland and modernise the criminal justice system, there is little doubt that two bills in particular stand out.
Firstly, the Marriage and Civil Partnership Bill which will provide a legal basis for same sex marriages. With Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, having already said he has ended all direct communication with the first minister as a result of the policy more fireworks are expected to be seen in the relationship between church and state.
But at the heart of the list of legislative proposals is the Referendum Bill, making provision for a 2014 vote on whether Scotland really should go it alone.
The first minister said:
“Only with the full economic and decision-making powers of independence can we ensure Scotland lives up to its full potential. Our children and young people deserve nothing less.”
Yet despite the hype, writing in this morning’s Scotsman, Allan Massie notes the bill remains little more than a “statement of intent”, noting:
“It can’t be more than that, for two reasons. First, for the referendum to be legal – by which I mean not open to a challenge in the courts – Westminster must also pass what is called a Section 30, ceding the authority to stage a referendum to the Scottish Parliament.
“The SNP believes that the Scottish Parliament already possesses the moral authority to hold the referendum, because the promise to do so was made in its 2011 election manifesto, and the Scottish electorate knew this when it gave the SNP its majority. This is true.
“Nevertheless, Mr Salmond knows that the Scotland Act (which he voted for as an MP), which brought the Scottish Parliament into being and detailed its powers, reserved constitutional affairs to Westminster.
“Second, Westminster will not grant the Scottish Parliament the legal authority until the wording of the question on the referendum paper has been agreed by both the UK and Scottish governments.”
So what of that all elusive question? Who will win the game of brinkmanship between Westminster and Holyrood? Alex Salmond, so dedicated to a two-option question, giving voters the choice of “devo-max” in addition to an independence option, or David Cameron and the unionist cause, equally determined it should be a straightforward yes or no to independence?
Writing on his blog, the BBC’s Scottish political editor Brian Taylor, argues Salmond might just be able to turn a defeat on the wording into a potential benefit, a weapon to beat nasty Westminster with, blaming them for failing to give Scots a genuine choice.
“The most likely option, I believe – although it is far from fixed – is that there will be a Yes/No plebiscite with Alex Salmond blaming his political opponents for the absence of a wider choice and urging support for independence as a consequence.”
Yet at the heart of the debate on a referendum is not a question of national pride or sovereignty, but a fairly clear level-headed consideration to be made by the people of Scotland - would their personal and national wealth be improved or hindered as a result of independence?
Taylor goes on to note:
“Alex Salmond has long believed that Scotland will be most inclined to go for independence when Scots feel relatively confident about themselves and their prospects: that they will, in short, seek full autonomy as a demonstration of self-will, not in flight from London or perceived decay in the Union.
“The present economic circumstances, it might be argued, are not entirely propitious to such an approach. Indeed, senior nationalists say they are encountering signs of an early mood of disquiet on the doorsteps – not hostile to independence but sceptical about such a move in the current climate.”
In its editorial today, the Herald was equally convinced it will be the economy what will win it for either side in the referendum campaign.
Taking readers on a tour-de-force of the package of bills announced, it concludes:
“While the political dialogue at Holyrood will be dominated by the referendum, voters weighing up the pros and cons of independence will base their decision largely on the economy.
“Currently Scotland is faring neither markedly better nor worse than England. Most voters remain to be convinced that Scotland would fare better as an independent country of barely five million people, heavily dependent on its remaining reserves of oil and gas. Mr Salmond and his team have work to do.”
And in a sobering thought, the Daily Record this morning observes:
“Opposition MSPs accused the government of focusing on independence and neglecting the real issues that matter. It is a serious concern. While Salmond was outlining his plans yesterday, research released by Save the Children showed how much work has to be done in other areas. It revealed one in six youngsters from struggling families goes to bed hungry.
“There was little in yesterday’s bills that will help put food in their mouths.”