Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Why not a referendum on devolution Gordon?

The Labour leader in Scotland, Wendy Alexander, has given Gordon Brown a headache by advocating an early referendum on independence. Her proposal, which does not have Brown’s support, is being presented as further undermining his leadership, hot on the heals of the 10p tax band controversy, Labour’s mauling in local elections in England and Wales and dissent on the issue of 42 day detention.

The notion of an early poll is in itself commendable. “The SNP tactics are all about delay and fomenting grievance. I firmly believe the SNP should not be allowed to control the question, the timing and the agenda”. Internal wrangling within Labour may be music to the nationalists’ ears, but being asked to put up or shut up on the issue of independence at such an early juncture terrifies them.

O’Neill cites John Redwood and calls for an English poll on possible independence to accompany any Scottish referendum on the matter. Certainly, as a unionist, the prospect of forcing the constitutional issue to a vote and subjecting putative nationalist sentiment in the United Kingdom to rigorous scrutiny is an alluring one. The miasma of various discontents, which manifest themselves in electoral or rhetorical support for nationalist parties or policies, must be required to crystallise in the form of unambiguous votes for dismemberment of the United Kingdom, if we are to consider seriously the nationalist case.

Nationalists will argue that support for independence varies depending how the question is framed. But it is the question ‘do you wish Scotland / Wales / Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and become independent?’ which is the kernel of the independence debate. Mealy mouthed formulations suggesting the empowerment of sovereignty are merely a type of sophistry. Beano gives a pertinent answer to the nationalists’ point on Slugger O’Toole. If respondents are giving different responses to the two questions it ‘would suggest that people are lacking something in their understanding of the terms in the question”.

Coincidentally in the thread below it is also Beano who expresses doubt as to whether the UUP have presented themselves sufficiently effectively as proponents of what Johnny Andrews refers to as ‘overarching pan-UK unionism’. I am concerned that a fair-minded unionist, and a close observer of unionist politics, does not perceive in the UUP a clear articulation of this strand of unionism. On the specific point regarding the UUP I would argue that the importance of thinking within the larger UK unionist context is a view which is strengthening within the party. If that is not coming across then the party must do more to promote its stance in this regard. Taking a broader approach, what better incentive to encourage unionists throughout the UK to formulate together their arguments, to foster friendship and understanding across their party political boundaries and to build mutually a sense that a coherent unionist case can be forged against separatist nationalism, than a series of referenda on the continuance of the Union?

Had Gordon Brown called a snap election during 2007, he would now be undergoing a difficult period early in a term for which he had acquired a popular mandate. Instead many within the Labour Party are considering seriously whether it is necessary to dispense with the Prime Minister as leader in order to recover enough to stand a chance of winning a general election in 2009 / 10. The prospects of Brown being won over by the notion of striking whilst the iron is hot are frankly slim.

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