By Matthew Barrett
Follow Matthew on Twitter.
Alex Salmond has long been agitating for a two-part referendum on Scottish independence. He doesn't just want the option to stay in or leave the Union, he also wants a question to determine support for "devo max" – full fiscal autonomy for Scotland. Salmond knows that if Scots vote for fiscal autonomy, after four or five years, they will see little practical (rather than cultural, emotional, etc) reason to stay a part of the United Kingdom, so a vote for devo-max would still be a victory, if a delayed one, for Scottish nationalism.
Earlier this year, it was reported that David Cameron is, or was, considering forcing an early referendum with a pure in/out question, and getting the issue out of the way. I don't think that's necessarily a wise idea, and the fact that we haven't heard about it too much recently may suggest Number 10 know they would create precisely the caricature "English Westminster Tory dictating to Scots" image Salmond could use to win a referendum, early or not.
However, Cameron's commitment to holding a simple in/out referendum must not fall by the wayside. A report released today by the Scottish Affairs Select Committee makes clear that there is no mandate for a devo max question – it wasn't mentioned in the SNP manifesto – and an alternative question would only serve as an insurance policy for the SNP.
The Committee, which is made up of five Scottish Labour MPs, a Scottish Lib Dem, one SNP member (who is currently refusing to attend), and four Tories from English seats (Fiona Bruce, Mike Freer, David Mowat, and Simon Reevell), says in its report:
"The success of the Scottish National Party in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections was seen by many as giving it legitimacy to call for a referendum on separation. … Over the summer period, however, the position of the Scottish Government, and the Scottish National Party, appears to be changing. Instead of being willing to be persuaded by others that an additional question should be included in referendum, the Scottish Government now seems to be arguing for this themselves."
The report strongly condemns the SNP's change of heart as an "opportunistic political manoeuvre", because…
"Over recent months, as debate on the possibility of separation has become more intense… support has fallen rather than risen. … So it is perhaps unsurprising that a nationalist government looks for a way out, and tries to find a way of rescuing something from a prospective referendum defeat."
The report's conclusions are:
- The SNP has no mandate to hold a referendum containing more than the simple independence question
- There are no specific plans for fiscal autonomy, so voters would be unable to make an informed choice
- Multi-question referendums do not have a good history of working well in other countries, and would not work well in Scotland
David Cameron should leap on this report, and tell Alex Salmond there will be no second question in the independence referendum in 2014. There should be an in/out referendum, and nothing else.