The referendum: the same dilemma on both sides

So, the referendum is well into the final stretch. With the polls pretty much neck-and-neck (and switching around!), the No camp has formally announced what’s been kicked around for a long time: vote No to independence, get much more devolution. (It’s not really a secret that this is what most people would have voted for all along if given a three way fight, but it’s odd to think that there’s no status quo in the middle any more.)

The Yes campaign’s response is, not unreasonably, best approximated by “yeah, right, sure you will”.

This has the strange effect of inverting the dynamic of the campaign, or at least inverting the dynamic of the campaign I get to see, which is people arguing online. (Thanks to a chain of what were at-the-time seemingly minor decisions, I ended up living in Cambridge and so don’t have a vote)

Last week, the No camp were saying “look, Salmond is winging it; he’s promising all these things he’ll negotiate for, and he’s confident he’ll get them, but… really? He still has to negotiate.”

This week, the Yes camp are saying “look, Westminster are winging it; they’re promising all these things they’ll do, and they’re swearing blind they will, but… really? They still have to actually do it.”

It’s all a bit cyclic.

We’re left with a strange impasse. The vote has to be made without knowing what the outcome of post-referendum negotiations are going to be – we know that Salmond will follow through with what he says he plans to negotiate for, we just don’t know whether he’ll achieve much of it. But it also has to be made without knowing whether the other side will honour their promises for devolution – there’s no question that a joint position of the three parties can deliver almost any program, if they actually follow through.

So one side dearly want to push through their program, but may not have the power to do so; the other side undoubtedly have the power to carry out theirs, but may not really want to. We’ll find out the answer to one (and only one) after the vote. But if either win and don’t get what they’re saying now, it’ll be a mess. Two pigs, two pokes.

In some ways, it comes down to which bit of the British establishment you are more cynical about: if you think the civil service are going to be exceptionally hard-headed negotiators and Salmond won’t get far, then voting No makes sense; if you think the three party leaders are going to turn around and pull the rug out as soon as they get the chance, then voting Yes might seem safer.

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