Scotland referendum deal done and Salmond looks like the loser
Has First Minister Alex Salmond conceded too much to realise his dream of an independence vote?
DAVID CAMERON and Alex Salmond met in Edinburgh today to sign an agreement that paves the way for a referendum on independence for Scotland to be held in autumn 2014. After months of negotiations, commentators are suggesting that the Prime Minister might have got the better of the First Minister.
The key planks of the deal are:
- Handing over of legal power from Westminster to the Scottish parliament to hold a referendum on independence.
- There will be only one question – Yes/No to independence. This rules out the third option of 'devolution max' – union with greater powers for the Scottish parliament in Holyrood.
- Extension of the franchise to 16-year-olds.
- The electoral commission - not a body chosen by the pro-independence SNP - will oversee the form of the referendum question and the running of the vote.
The removal of a question over 'devo max' weighs on the minds of many commentators. James Mitchell in The Guardian says that the UK government won this battle by insisting on a straight 'in or out' question. "But it is clear who lost," he writes. "The substantial body of opinion that supports moving towards an ever looser union will be central to the outcome of the referendum yet remains disenfranchised. Anyone hoping that the referendum will bring finality to the debate on Scotland's constitutional debate will be disappointed."
"Let's be clear," says Lesley Riddoch in The Scotsman. "The reason devo max cannot be a referendum option is that it would win hands down. So the politicians have agreed a compromise - why wait?"
Everyone is a winner from today's signing ceremony, she continues. "Everyone, that is, except the majority of Scottish voters who have expressed their preference for two questions in successive opinion polls." Now those who back more power for Holyrood will be forced to select their second best option – independence or the status quo.
Other commentators believe the real loser is Salmond. Cameron has "won nearly every round' of the negotiations surrounding the referendum, says Alan Cochrane in The Daily Telegraph. Of the concessions the Prime Minister won from the First Minister, "the most important was to restrict the number of questions on the ballot paper to a simple In or Out".
The Independent agrees that Salmond has been outmanoeuvred. "It looks as if the high-water mark of Salmondism may have passed, and the low-water mark of [pro-union] Scottish Labour likewise," says the paper. "Sir Chris Hoy, crystallising the Olympic pride in being both Scottish and British, was evidence of the first; the recent speech by Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader, calling on the party to break away from its public-sector and benefit-claimant client groups, may have been evidence of the second."
But the most damning assessment comes from top pollster Peter Kellner, the boss of YouGov. He writes today that Salmond might be cursing the fact that his SNP won an outright majority at last year's Scottish elections, forcing him to hold a referendum that he would have to "defy history' to win.
"He would surely have been much happier remaining the leader of a minority government, unable to get his independence legislation through Holyrood," said Kellner.
"Then he could have railed against the Scottish satraps of the Britain-wide parties for silencing the voice of the Scottish people.
"Instead, by winning an outright majority, he has shot his own fox. Rather than shed crocodile tears for his inability to call a referendum, he must now put the issue to the test."