The Scottish Government unveiled its legislative programme for the new Parliamentary session last week. Much comment has focussed on its narrow or worthy scope, with bills on such matters as the double-jeopardy rule, maintaining Scottish Water’s position in the public sector but enabling it to attract more private sector capital, increasing the sanctions for forced marriage, and reducing charges for cremation certificates. The centrepiece of the legislative programme will be the budget bill – a bill which has to be considered every year and isn’t a matter of choice for a government. The most important part is what’s not in the list – the bill on a referendum on independence, which has been dropped to enable the SNP to appeal over the heads of Parliament and MSPs to the wider public. See here and here. I particularly like Joan McAlpine’s coinage (here) of the term ‘deferendum’ – a neologism fit to stand with the ‘neverendum’ coined in Canada to describe the former strategy of the Parti Québécois toward independence referendums there.
I have to admit to being rather puzzled about the politics of this move. I’d have thought the SNP’s position would be stronger if it introduced a bill and let the unionist parties vote it down on the floor of the Parliament, as it could then definitively claim that those parties were stopping the people of Scotland from having their say. This would be consistent with the SNP’s approach of emphasising the Scottish (rather than UK) arena when circumstances have forced them to change tack. That was the case with the local income tax (scuppered by UK opposition, both on continuing payments for council tax benefit and to use of HM Revenue & Customs to collect the new tax), and conversely when it was forced to continue the Edinburgh tram scheme it wanted to abandon. People in Scotland with whom I’ve discussed this move also seem confused, and each has offered a different explanation for the move, and as this piece suggests support for it within the SNP isn’t universal.
There is a constitutional irony to it as well. If we cast our minds back to 2007-08, there was a current within the Labour Party that wanted a snap referendum and urged the SNP Government to ‘bring it on’. (Wendy Alexander was of course part of this.) This tactic fell foul of the rule that any member’s bill cannot proceed if the Executive indicates that it proposes to introduce legislation on the matter itself during that session of the Parliament. (That’s set out in paragraph 13 of chapter 9 of the Parliament’s standing orders, available here.) Of course, intentions can and do change; but if the Scottish Government had not been able to indicate then on the basis of its manifesto that it proposed such a bill itself, it might well have faced a referendum bill introduced into Parliament by the opposition a couple of years ago.
However, we can see an emergent political line here – stated pretty openly in this blog post by Joan McAlpine. It is that ‘only independence can block Conservative cuts’; a careful attempt to link the constitutional issue which has only limited direct resonance with the general public with the more bread-and-butter one which will soon be foremost in many people’s minds, if it isn’t already. If the cuts that result from the UK Government’s spending review are as drastic as is being widely predicted, this may provide a potent way for the SNP to mobilise support for their constitutional argument, especially as the Lib Dems won’t be able to join in at all and Labour will need to show how their alternative would effectively block such cuts. Despite my initial puzzlement, the more I think about this, the cannier a move it seems from the SNP.