Brian Monteith: More hilarious than historic

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It is being called the Edinburgh Agreement – but it could be called the Edinburgh Capitulation or the Edinburgh Climbdown. I write of course about the historic signing of papers that ensure that Westminster will grant the legal right for Holyrood to hold a binding referendum in late 2014.

It was a complete and utter charade, it was no great peace pact, there was no dancing in the streets – it was all about two politicians covering up for their mistakes that were a result of their overblown egos, ignorance or naivety.

The point of Monday’s gathering was to save face for both men – for both had played their hands badly and were scrambling to find a way out without damaging their reputations. The fact that they presented some semblance of order and dignity was because they recognised that mutual salvation was in their own interests – you could bet your house on the proposition that if either had seen some opportunity to score points over the other they would have done so. This whole event was to be presented as a nil-nil draw and that’s why they were all smiles and shaking hands.

But let’s just take a look at what really happened.

The Prime Minister was wrong footed when Alex Salmond won his momentous victory last summer and immediately, and naively, conceded too much ground accepting that Salmond had a mandate to hold a referendum. That was unnecessary for it had never been a central part of the SNP campaign, had only been mentioned on a radio interview (when Salmond was under pressure) and anyway, the SNP did not have a majority of the support. Yes, it was the largest party but it had less than 50 per cent of first preferences with the unionist parties holding a combined majority of votes.

There was at least an argument to be had.

Soon Cameron realised he had conceded too much and was scrambling to find ways to regain some influence, if not control, on a vote that could break-up Britain.

For Salmond the problem was that he privately doubted if he could win an outright vote and if he were to lose it then both he and the SNP 
would face a tough election the year after.

The plan therefore was to tout for a second option – the meaningless Devo Max – on the basis that if a second question could be allowed then he would be sure to win the consolation prize and have a good chance of staying in charge – with enhanced powers. If it were not allowed then he could suggest that Scotland had been denied the full say that it wanted and this might help force some people to become full-blown nationalists.

I intentionally say “allowed” because for the referendum to be binding the authority of Westminster had to be obtained for it would only take one elector to raise an action in court and the legitimacy of any 
vote could be challenged and struck down.

No amount of huffing and puffing can change the fact that if we forego swords and axes in preference to laws and statutes then we must abide by and respect the letter of those laws. Salmond realised that on the international stage this legal nicety must be conceded.

Again, though, the arguments could be strung out to look like the will of the Scots was being 
trampled on.

Much hot air has thus been expended over the last year – not least encouraging more than 26,000 submissions for a consultation that has just been completely ignored. What arrogance – what a disgrace.

Salmond played his usual canny game, throwing other red herrings into the pot, not knowing if they would be conceded but thinking that if they were they might help him win. Red herrings such as giving a vote to 14 and 15 year-olds now – who will be 16 and 17 when the referendum is held.

This was done because he thought it would be resisted (creating another grievance) and because these youngsters would vote for independence – but Cameron was smarter than Salmond thought, and was willing to agree to extending the franchise. No doubt the small fact that opinion polls show a majority of young people are in favour of the union just like their elders made it that little bit easier for him.

For Cameron his aim was simple, keep the question to stay in or get out, a yes or no with no maybes. For Salmond it was all about stirring up discontent but ultimately getting the sanction in as best a format as he could so that he could maximise his chances.

The polls continue to show that sticking with Great Britain, being part of a bigger family, sharing in the opportunities and spreading the risks is the most popular choice with Scots – but nothing is certain in politics and unionists will be complacent at their peril.

For Salmond, he can smile because his party is delighted, it has a 
referendum at last, a vote that many 
of them believe they can win, and it 
is for their favoured single question.

How ironic that the man they should really thank for that is David Cameron – but that’s politics for you.