Alex Salmond flew in to Holyrood this week in true presidential style; after all, he is Teflon Alex, the presidential campaigner who rose above party politics to steal a majority in the Scottish Parliament in last Thursday’s elections. When Tony Blair’s mandarins drew up plans for devolved assemblies in 1997, they concocted an arcane electoral system which flatters AV, with the sole purpose to prevent majority role north of the border. It has not.
Admittedly, he is an impressive figure: a man of conviction, so it seems. But thirteen months ago, a certain Nick Clegg (now the Right Honourable NC) was riding high on public naivety with no precipice in sight. Who ever thought that reality would be so different from utopia? The turning point for the Deputy Prime Minister was tuition fees; the focal point for Salmond will be the inevitable referendum for Scots on independence.
Scottish independence is actually more broadly supported in England than in Scotland, with the latest YouGov poll reporting 41% in favour in England as opposed to 28% in Scotland, sixteen points fewer than the support for the SNP at the election. Despite the deficit of public support, Alex Salmond’s credibility will hinge on whether he delivers this referendum. Public opinion is transient – not least when there’s a contentious union-related issue afoot, and there might be two: when Westminster cuts bite in Scotland’s vibrant state sector and if the Barnett formula, which dictates Scottish funding arrangements, is calibrated.
However, the SNP leader is astute and must know that tearing up the Act of Union presents a poisoned chalice. What share of the UK national debt would Scotland bear? What about their contribution to Union’s pension liabilities? Let’s also not forget that the rather disproportionate £8bn annual subsidy that flows from Westminster to Holyrood, which pays for free health prescriptions, free university education and other goodies, would stop. Republicans say that the repatriation of North Sea oil reserves and revenues would cover the loss in subsidy. That is untrue; the omnipotent UN Law of the Sea defines territorial waters as those within a line drawn at the angle of the border of two countries at the coast. This conveniently places a significant amount of the oil and gas reserves in English hands, and deprives the SNP of their would-be revenue-raiser. Scotland’s economy has a per-capita income which is lower than the UK average, and that is before you remove the subsidies and repatriate the UK public sector workers who are based there. Quite simply, the Scottish would be worse off with independence.
So perhaps it is not much of a surprise that independence is more popular among the English than the Scottish; it’d help our economy. Ironically, as a unionist party, the Conservatives would benefit too. Labour have forty-one seats in Scotland; the Liberal Democrats hold eleven, whilst their coalition partners have one. Suppose we run the 2010 general election again but ignore Scottish MPs; the Tories would now have an outright majority of nineteen.
His own people don’t want independence, and I have a sneaking suspicion that he doesn’t either. But he does want to be a proper president with the powers to tax, spend, place his trotters over the nuclear button and land in a Marine One: an upgrade from the rented G-CYRS he calls Saltire One. There’s broader support in Scotland for that.
Will Salmond try and water down the referendum to achieve these grand ambitions? Probably. The Prime Minister’s best hopes of keeping the structure of the Union as it is now is to sanction a referendum only on full independence. He only need consider changes to this strategy if the public mood in Scotland change.