Scottish Independence: Alex Salmond Takes On David Cameron
It was the coalition’s quietest u-turn yet. On Sunday, Westminster were going to impose a deadline of 18 months on the referendum on Scottish independence.
Scarcely 24 hours later, government sources indicated that a statement by Scottish secretary Michael Moore on Tuesday afternoon would merely indicate the governent’s desire for any ballot to be held “sooner, rather than later.”
The retreat came after David Cameron was forced to insist he wasn’t trying to “dictate” the terms of any vote for Scotland, in the face of mounting criticism from the SNP.
So, did the prime minister choose the wrong man to take on in Alex Salmond? The SNP leader isn’t a well-known face across Britain, but within Scotland he’s thought of as a man who could take on the Conservative prime minister.
“Alex Salmond’s a bruiser, the kind that has never been unleashed on the British public,” a former SNP aide told Huff Post UK.
“Alex can take Cameron on any day, Alex and Dave can provide the show we’ve always wanted from Ed Miliband and Dave.”
Salmond is certainly a strong character. His party’s sweeping victory in 2011’s Scottish elections, using an electoral system designed for no party to deliver a clear majority, has been described as both “stupendous” - and dangerous for the stability of the United Kingdom.
But when the SNP came to power, they indicated they would prefer to hold a referendum in the second-half of their term, widely assumed to be in 2014on the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, seen as the critical fight in the first Scottish war of independence.
This time around, however, independence for Scotland might be one battle that even Salmond can’t win.
The UK government have certainly been talking tough. On Tuesday morning chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander told the BBC “jobs, investment, and growth in Scotland are much more important than waiting for the anniversary of a medieval battle.”
But according to John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, dictating an in-or-out referendum to Holyrood, however, instead of Salmond’s preferred option of in, out or ‘devo-max’, amounts to politicians playing “high risk poker.”
“There is no doubt that the unionist camp - not just Cameron, Clegg as well - are certainly wanting to call a game of high risk poker,” he told Huff Post UK,
“The risks they are taking are two part. Firstly Westminster independence is potentially toxic, the second is that the answer to the question will be 'maybe' - in other words people may be prepared to keep the union so long as they end up with the Scottish parliament with more powers. But if they only get the choice of in or out, they might just vote for independence.”
Curtice also questioned about the strength of the unionist campaign: “The short answer it does not exist. The unionist camp need to sort out what their vision of Scotland within the union.”
While Scottish Labour MP Douglas Alexander accuses Salmond of “running scared” from a referendum, the truth is that the SNP leader is being pragmatic.
Mark Diffley, research director of IPSOS MORI Scotland told Huff Post UK their latest poll data shows Scots are split over when they want the poll. “It's a murky area and there is one almighty row brewing."
Unequivocal in the polls, however, is that the majority of Scots do not support independence.
“Right now the Scottish public isn’t ready for a referendum. The SNP’s internal polls have been saying that for years but it’s all about making the case for a referendum. It’s similar to the no to AV referendum, the year before they were 30 points behind,” the former SNP aide said.
One point remains clear, in the absence of a date for a referendum; do not underestimate Salmond. The 57-year-old politician is fearless - and he’s been laying the long-game.
As an economist in the Scotland Office in the 1970s, Salmond would have known plans were being drawn up to give devolution to Scotland - something Whitehall scrapped when Thatcher came into the government.
His years as an MP, where he had a video games console installed in his office in porticullus house, means he knows the ways of Westminster - and he was not shy in warning David Cameron to back off on Tuesday.
Salmond called Cameron’s attempts to force the SNP to take a legally binding referendum, with strings attached, "cack-handed". And as the UK government prepared to unveil a statement on the future of Scotland on Tuesday afternoon he said Holyrood was putting the "final touches" on a consultation document for referendum.
With Labour leader Ed Miliband today coming out in support of the union, and David Cameron’s stance on Salmond one thing’s for certain; this is a fight that has only just begun.