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Salmond puts independence on the agenda

About the author
Tom Griffin is freelance journalist and researcher. He holds a Ph.D in social and policy sciences from the University of Bath, and is a former Executive Editor of the Irish World.

Tom Griffin (London, OK): It's now official. The Scottish Government will bring forward plans for a vote on independence in 2010. Alex Salmond announced the Referendum Bill in Holyrood today as the centrepiece of the SNP's new programme for government.

On the face of it, this was something  of an empty gesture, as Salmond's minority government does not have the votes to get the bill through the Scottish Parliament. Yet wise heads like the BBC's Brian Taylor and Slugger's Brian Walker believe there is more to the story than that.

Even if it falls, the referendum bill is likely to keep the constitutional issue on the agenda until the next Holyrood election.

On one level, Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are well prepared for this debate, with a clear alternative to offer in the shape of the Calman Commission's proposals. Yet it seems that none of the opposition parties are likely to take up Salmond's offer of a multi-choice referendum that could include a Calman option.

Instead, it may be the following Holyrood elections which see a clear choice between the SNP pushing for independence and the other major parties all backing Calman.

The unity of the opposition on the constitutional issue could prove to be a strength or a weakness in an election campaign. On the one hand, Calman can be presented as the basis of an emerging consensus around greater powers within the UK. But if the SNP can show that the detailed model proposed in the report is flawed, all the parties backing it will be damaged.

Indeed, by agreeing a single alternative, the opposition parties may ultimately have played into the SNP's hands. Between them, they once represented the bulk of a political system within which unionism was an implicit assumption rather than a contested issue. Now that assumption is being challenged, they have effectively congregated around one end of what is fast becoming the major cleavage in Scottish politics, boosting the SNP's status in the process.

That reaction may owe something to the mindset described by the Spectator's Alex Massie in a post on Lockerbie today: 

There's something about the Nats that drives folk crazy, leading them to assume that even their unpopular decisions are part of some devious long-term strategy aimed at ripping the Union apart and hoodwinking the electorate into supporting independence. Even by the standards of political parties, with the nats everything is political; nothing can ever be principled.

It may be the very unwillingness of the other parties to accept independence as a legitimate part of the constitutional debate that will make the SNP's task easier.

Labour's Ian Gray today accused the SNP of 'misplaced prioritisation' in going for a referendum at a time of economic uncertainty, yet in uniting with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats around the goal of saving the union, his party may ultimately have done as much to keep the constitutional issue at the top of the agenda. 

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