Brian Taylor | 11:18 UK time, Thursday, 3 September 2009
The smile is back, palpably back.
Indeed, at one point, Alex Salmond had to promise the Presiding Officer – with a drolll grin – that he would try to avoid stimulating the chamber too much with his rhetoric.
(Alex Fergusson in the chair had requested no interruptions to Mr Salmond’s statement. The interruptions consisted of lively applause from the SNP benches and sedentary growls elsewhere. Mr Salmond’s offer merited a wry smile in return from the PO.)
The statement was substantive: thirteen bills ranging from action on alcohol abuse to measures to protect wildlife.
Controversy? Plenty. That alcohol bill with its plans for minimum pricing; crofting reform where consensus is absent; the future of children’s hearings, ditto; debt provision, seeking balance between the rights of creditors and consumers; a shake-up for our legal firms; tenancies and limiting the right to buy; the new Forth crossing.
Then there’s the Budget Bill, this year against the background of looming cuts in public expenditure.
Enough, in truth, for substantive debate and argument. But there’s more.
Paving legislation which could lead, ultimately, to the Act of Union (Abolition) Bill.
This is, of course, deeply serious – not least for the SNP for whom it is a founding principle.
So why the passing smiles from the First Minister as he opened his remarks, leading to that conclusion?
Because, alongside the deeply held long-term desire of Alex Salmond to secure Scottish independence, there is a short to medium term strategy.
Mr Salmond acknowledged that he serves in, as he put it, a parliament of minorities.
He knows he cannot push through his Bill for a referendum on independence next year without support from other parties.
He knows that support is not presently forthcoming.
Labour, for example, has staggered through its “bring it on” phase – and now rejects a referendum on the professed grounds that it is an unwarranted distraction during economic crisis. Tories and LibDems ditto.
So, again, why the smile?
Because Mr Salmond calculates that, setting aside views on independence per se, the intrinsic notion of a plebiscite tends to be rather popular with the people due to be consulted.
He calculates, further, that those same people will tend to resent or, at least, question those who would seek to frustrate an exercise in popular democracy.
He anticipates that those same people might, if prompted, tend to express their discontent at a forthcoming election by bolstering the SNP at the expense of the other parties.
To enhance that prospect, Mr Salmond explicitly suggested that there might be a multi-option referendum: broadly pitting the status quo against Calman-style devolution max and independence.
The Scottish Government insists its preference is for a straight yes or no on independence.
But, ever keen to help, it is offering to include the option of the reforms drafted by the Calman Commission (copyright: Labour, Tories, LibDems.)
This is deliberately sufficiently flexible to make it an offer which is, strategically, difficult to refuse.
Again, dual approach.
Mr Salmond wants independence. He wants a referendum.
He argues that Scotland can only thrive with the full powers of an independent nation
This is not purely tactical.
However, there is a substantial tactical element: he wants to invite voters to infer that his opponents are curmudgeons who dislike giving the people a say.
As I have written before, this is a tricky one for the SNP’s opponents.
They have to find language which suggests that the particular Referendum Bill is unwanted without in any way giving the impression that they are hostile to popular choice.
On today’s evidence, they will seek to suggest that the referendum is a selfish move on the part of the SNP, placing partisan advantage ahead of Scotland’s pressing needs, particularly in difficult economic times.
Should be a fascinating debate. Bring it on, as someone once said.
I am so proud that Scotland has managed to come so far ,and so close to Independance without a bloodbath of troubles .
Scotland should be independant . It should not be an economic issue ,what would actually change after independance? Trade would continue as before ,as it does today between European Nations.
Nothing really would change except that Scotland would now have control over its own resourses and funding and defence. For example a Scottish Government would NOT send troops to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Here’s to the Independant Republic of Scotland and the end of the United Kingdom and the Union Jack can join the Southern Rebel flag ,as a blood soaked relect of history.