At least the Union he was elected to lead is dead. Furthermore, it was only one day after any assertion of Westminster’s sovereignty over the people of Scotland was essentially vetoed by the fully representative parliament of Scotland - Holyrood.
Thursday the 26th of January, at around five past three in the afternoon, heralded what was potentially the most masterful stroke of politics ever seen in these Islands, and almost nobody noticed. Nobody except perhaps Holyrood and Westminster, and neither was sending out the town criers, although for completely different reasons. While Alex Salmond was in Edinburgh Castle, Nicola Sturgeon changed the face of the independence debate.
Most of us were too enthralled by the ongoing “busy wee period” in Scots politics. Between Tankerness tanking on the Beeb, Nicola giving a strong showing, no identifiable positive case for the Union and Alex Salmond delivering masterly oratories at the Hugo Young, in Holyrood and in the great hall of Edinburgh castle, our attention was diverted.
Amid these speeches, the First Minister had an “audience” with Jeremy Paxman which couldn’t have gone better as an independence recruiting tool if had it been stage managed by Angus Robertson. Discussing other interviews, there was also Willy Hague tossing out nonsense about the usage of British Embassies. We later discovered that charges for Embassy services are levelled against Scots organisations, but not UK/English ones.
A short re-cap of the week had the Sovereign Scots leading the Westminster Wastrels by at least 6-0 before the masterful stroke at Holyrood. It took place as daylight waned on Burns' Night. In its rawest form, that Holyrood parliamentary home run requested all MSP’s to pledge to uphold the centuries old Claim of Right.
The Claim of Right fundamentally declares that ordinary Scots citizens are sovereign; not their representatives, parliament or any monarchy. Either each individual MSP goes on record acknowledging they are simply the voice of the electorate, or they state quite publically that the voice of those they represent isn’t worth squat.
The lead in to passing the motion was significant: “All we ask today is that other members of this chamber affirm or reaffirm a principle that many of them, or their fellow party members, were proud to uphold when Scotland’s Claim of Right was then signed in 1989.
“The Declaration of Arbroath famously states that if a Scots ruler were to act against the nation’s interests, the people would “drive him out as.. a subverter of his own rights and ours.”
“Presiding Officer, that basic principle of democracy and popular sovereignty is far more true today. The best guarantee of the integrity of this referendum is the certain knowledge that the people of Scotland, using the ballot box, would be merciless in driving out anyone who tried to conduct it unfairly”.
As the motion passed it formed a chain from 1320 to 2012. It also encompassed the previous parliamentary affirmation in 1689 and the unofficial but no less poignant voice of a disenfranchised people in 1989.
The claim of right is fundamentally entrenched in Scotland. On Thursday the reconvened parliament of Scotland at Holyrood effectively affirmed and averred that Westminster has no binding sovereignty over the Scots.
Such a parliamentary reaffirmation of sovereignty has uncountable and highly interesting future ramifications. Basically, it’s Holyrood exercising its democratic right and informing all and sundry that the only power they have over Scots is what Scots elect to lend through the ballot box and it’s only a loan.
This was Holyrood informing Westminster it must now essentially trample democracy to illegitamise the referendum. Holyrood effectively ensured the field of play will now focus upon Edinburgh, not London. The timing was impeccable in that it was fundamentally an unspoken yet de-facto expression of independence; after three centuries the Scottish people will not be denied due process in expressing their sovereign wishes.
The UN charter is very clear on sovereign rights, it’s a fundamental tenet.
We know The Claim of Right is now re-entrenched, but how Westminster would view the action and where the “legitimacy” discussions on the referendum would go from here were anyone’s guess. The SNP preference would have simultaneous acts putting it beyond doubt, but don’t regard it as a requirement.
We know that constitutional specialist Prof. David Walker opined that Holyrood, irrespective of the means of creation, as a reconvened Scots parliament would have a substantial authority in law to alter, amend or strike the Treaty of Union in total, or by article as it saw fit. This is a power that the Union parliament in Westminster apparently lacks as such authority was not delegated to it except by name in certain articles of the Union Treaty. In effect it will be a largely one sided negotiation.
The Telegraph’s article citing “MoD sources” that Royal Navy chiefs have decided Westminster’s nuclear “deterrent” will stay on the Clyde, regardless of any referendum was something of an anti-climax after the Holyrood motion. It made it initially appear that Westminster would attempt to ignore the Claim of Right.
The nuclear deterrent issue did make it at least 8-0 for the Sovereign Scots in just one week.
The devo max debate then began to get underway with “Civic Scotland” setting forth its intentions, with Monday, 30th of January being mooted as the kick-off day.
David Cameron was faced with Hobson’s choice. Kill the devo max debate and formally proclaim Westminster’s position, or be seen to endorse it through lack of opposition. After the euro-veto Holyrood was close to betting on a sure thing as to which way the UK PM would eventually jump, and he didn’t fail the Scottish government.
Within hours of the Civic Scotland announcement, David Cameron had told Scotland “No” – it’s a take it or leave it offer, “in or out” as far as Westminster’s concerned.
Score keeping became rather irrelevant with that press release.
What was most pertinent in the Cameron statement and what bypassed many was that for the first time the message was a simple one, "Nobody is pretending that we can make people stay in the Union.”
The legality aspect wasn’t mentioned after the restatement of sovereignty, it’s now a simple “in or out” and it’s Scotland’s choice.
Fundamentally the battle is now being joined for Scotland’s resources.
Do not expect Alex Salmond to acquiesce and rule out devo max or FFA, there is still substantial advantage to be had from that argument. A principle benefit for the SNP is that it will move the opposition to fighting two fronts. It will also make the Scots themselves look much more closely at the arguments with the strong probability that when they are examined in light of day the short steps from “No” to “FFA” then “Yes” will allow many more Scots to embrace the bright future that beckons.
As a strategy it can only be argued as masterful on the nationalist part – drop a few hints, let the Unionists grab the ball and run for touch just to have the captain of the team tell them they’re not allowed to play.
Westminster has now reaffirmed on several occasions that she doesn’t want devo-max or FFA on the ballot because they are only too well aware that without a controlling fiscal union, there is no union at all. This is the first time they’ve acknowledged it plainly, and without strings.
In essence David Cameron has told Scotland, simply, clearly, succinctly and almost in words of one syllable “you contribute mightily to Westminster’s balance sheet, and without that unfettered contribution we have no need for you”
There really is no other clear interpretation.
That the PM has drawn the line in the sand at such an early stage may be the only thing that caught Alex Salmond by surprise. Moreover, judging by Ruth Davidson’s reaction she was also certainly blindsided.
Scotland’s first minister could be in no doubt whatsoever that this announcement would come eventually. He’s a canny enough political operator to know that no matter what Cameron’s own preferences, he’d never be able to sell devo max or FFA to Westminster’s back benchers.
The euro rebellion would have been but a fleabite for Cameron. Accepting FFA in Scotland would require re-writing the constitution, or perhaps more actually just writing a constitution for the UK, as now we’d be in a Union that is unarguably voluntary and federal in global eyes. Wales, Northern Ireland and England would rightly also demand the status Scotland is accorded in such a Union.
Westminster as it now exists will be an anachronism.
No matter how the issue is viewed, history is likely to recognise Saturday, January 28th 2012 as the day the UK died. It is the day the Prime Minister of the now dis-United Kingdom acknowledged by his actions a federal solution wasn’t a winnable situation for Westminster and fragmentation was preferable. By ruling out additional powers beyond the anaemic Scotland Bill, fragmentation is virtually assured.
Cameron also killed Devo max or FFA because it has an aspect about which there is a myth requiring dispelled; the myth that it is Westminster’s gift. It can be that, but only if we Scots choose to make it so. David Cameron could not take the chance that Alex Salmond would remove devo max from his control.
Devo-max becomes a viable option for any constituent nation in the current UK governmental union, as long as all who vote in that manner are aware that it is a demand and not a request of Westminster.
It is no different than accepting a marriage with a cast iron pre-nuptial agreement. Either the agreement is accepted or there is no marriage. The proposal would then be for Westminster to accept in a given timeframe.
Devo max or FFA must mean “We’re going with our own fiscal policy, but we’d like a federal union on defense and foreign policy, where we both have right of veto”. Scotland puts in a default response time for agreement, or its goodbye anyway.
For anyone who was looking, the First Minister gave the Prime Minister his default timeframe: sometime before the 2016 Holyrood elections, about a year after the referendum vote it needs to be all ironed out. The Con-Dems must agree to Scotland’s requirements for ongoing Union before the deadline, or the vote will simply default to independence.
Perhaps Alex Salmond wasn’t that surprised by David Cameron’s reaction, after all he did put him into a place where options are severely limited and the only action is reaction.
Sovereignty of the people, check and mate to Holyrood.