Invoking the spirit of the Olympic Games and the way the country came together as one United Kingdom, David Cameron yesterday used his speech to the Conservative conference to formally announce he will be meeting Alex Salmond on Monday to confirm the details of a referendum on Scottish independence.
In doing so, he sought to rally the troops to the unionist cause, declaring:
“Let’s say it: we’re better together and we’ll rise together – so let’s fight that referendum with everything we’ve got.”
But just how close are Holyrood and Westminster to actually reaching that final agreement? As the spin machines on both sides of the border sought to highlight the victories each had got - Westminster gets its way on a single question; the SNP gets it way on votes for 16s and gaining legal control of the referendum etc. - Alex Salmond was quick to suggest the prime minister was being a little premature.
The reality is that a deal is all but there, with the first minister more likely than not throwing his toys out the pram in protest it was David Cameron rather than he that got to announce that a deal was imminent.
But that said, Salmond responded:
“We’re at the stage where we’re close to an agreement, but it’s not done yet. It would be very unwise to say there was an agreement when one’s not been made yet.
“I appreciate that political conferences are excitable places, but it’s not at all sensible politics to announce an agreement before it has been made. We’re hopeful of an agreement, but there are still a couple of issues.
“The best thing to do is to wait until Monday’s discussions and work towards having an agreement. But an agreement isn’t an agreement until it has been agreed.”
In his blog, the BBC’s Scotland political editor, Brian Taylor, argued the first minister was “a mite irked at what he sees as pre-emptive comments at the Conservative Conference”; however, he went on to outline the sticking point that remained was over campaign finance during the referendum.
“There remains at least one significant item of potential disagreement. That item is campaign funding – or, more precisely, the legal limits to be imposed upon those seeking to finance efforts to win your support.
“To be clear, this does not cover money spent just now by the campaign teams. Within voluntary rules, they can pretty much spend what they like – if they can raise it and justify the cost. This covers the formal campaign period in the run up to the final vote in October 2014. It is expected that period will be longer than for a general election, perhaps 12 to 16 weeks.”
But despite the pre-announcement of a deal, across Scotland questions remain over the exact operation of the referendum.
Writing for the Herald, Dr Matt Qvortrup, Senior Lecturer of Comparative Politics at Cranfield University argues handing power to Holyrood to manage the referendum raises the prospect that even with a single question they could work out a way of gaining acceptance for devo-max, even if it’s not explicitly mentioned on the ballot paper.
“The far more important fact is that Mr Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon will be able to organise the referendum.
“Much has been made of the apparent fact that there will be only one question on the ballot. This - according to the Number 10 spin doctors - ensures that there will be no maximum devolution, or devo max, option; Mr Salmond will not have a fall-back position if he loses. Or so the argument goes. This is not quite accurate. In fact, there is actually a different option few seem aware of. It comes from the Faroe Islands.
“Back in the 1940s, after the Second World War, our northern neighbours had to decide whether they wanted independence from Denmark. The People’s Party, which campaigned for independence, was aware that it might be difficult to win an outright majority for secession. So it came up with a referendum question with a twist.
“In most referendums, it is an all-or-nothing question; either you opt for independence or you choose the status quo. It’s a Hobson’s choice, if you like; a take-it-or-leave-it choice. But in the Faroe Islands, they did it differently. The voters were asked to choose between “devolution max” or “independence”. The choice was not all or nothing. A yes vote would mean independence but a no vote would mean devo max. By using this format, The People’s Party could not lose.
“Now that the SNP has been given the right to organise the referendum, there seems little that could stop it looking to the Faroes for inspiration.”
At The Scotsman, meanwhile, Bill Jamieson this morning argues the fog surrounding independence is still not fully cleared.
Posing the question about what the objective of independence is, he writes:
“As David Cameron and Alex Salmond are set to sign an accord on the referendum at St Andrew’s House next week - a formal signing ceremony that the first minister wishes to take place in front of the world’s press and television cameras - it may be useful for the SNP annual conference next week to clarify the benefits it believes will flow from a Scottish secession from the Union.
“In few other countries has the aspiration for independence been so closely focused on the economic pros and cons of self-government. Many supporters may feel this is second-order detail. But there is a sizeable proportion of Scottish voters who are not yet decided and for whom economic considerations will be critical to their decision.”
The developments come in a week that has seen a blow to the pro-independence camp, with polling by TNS BMRB showing the no campaign leading by 25 points.
Asked how they would vote if a referendum were to be held tomorrow, 53% said no, and onls 28% yes. More interestingly still, given a choice of what they would like the future of Scotland to be, 35% said they’d prefer to keep the current arrangements, 1 point ahead of those favouring the transfer of more powers, short of independence. This bucks a trend which has consistently seen support for “devo max” by far the most popular option.
Assessing the results, Chris Eynon, head of TNS-BMRB Scotland, explained:
“With the referendum not due for two years, much can change. However, there is no doubt that momentum currently sits with those opposed to independence.
“This may be on account of a feel-good factor from British sporting achievement over the summer, the fact that every week seems to bring a fresh challenge to the viability and status of an independent Scotland or simply the SNP government becoming increasingly challenged on its performance.
“The Yes campaign is very much on the back foot and struggling to get its message across.”