|Alex Salmond knows his opponents|
Here's a little thing I learned a while ago.
If outcomes conflict with your expectations, first question your expectations.
The default human reaction tends to be to question the outcome and/or the process leading to it. People are naturally disinclined to query their own assumptions and preconceptions. It takes a conscious effort. That effort is an essential component of analytical thinking. And there's not a lot of that around. To illustrate the point we might do worse than look at reactions to Alex Salmond's position regarding a "second question" on the independence referendum ballot.
In his keynote address to the SNP Conference in Inverness back in October 2011 Alex Salmond dropped the "second question bombshell".
In contrast fiscal responsibility, financial freedom, real economic powers is a legitimate proposal.
With this, Salmond signalled that the Scottish Government would be open to the inclusion of an option on the referendum ballot, in addition to a straight question on independence, for a constitutional settlement that falls short of actual independence. How far short depends on which flavour of "devo" you take. Since we are not here concerned with the detail of these "57 varieties" of devolution - and since many don't even have any detail - let's settle for calling it "devo-whatever".
It is worth clarifying at this point that, while thus signalling the administration's willingness to consider a devo-whatever option on the ballot, Salmond made it abundantly clear that the SNP would be having nothing whatever to do with the formulation of such an option and most emphatically would not be campaigning for anything other than full independence. Not that you would know this from the ensuing media coverage which would have had you believe that the SNP had abandoned independence altogether. Which brings me to my point about the failure of analytical thinking.
Adverse reactions to Salmond's remarks broadly fell into two camps. There were the avowed political enemies of the SNP who sought to portray it in various negative ways. And there were the independence supporters - SNP or otherwise - who reacted with diverse permutations of puzzlement and outrage. The former were deceived by their own facile caricature of Alex Salmond and simply stopped thinking when they got to the first unflattering interpretation of his motives. The latter similarly failed to think beyond their initial gut reaction. Both failed to ask the awkward questions of themselves.
At this point I have to admit that I too was somewhat perplexed by Salmond's decision to open this potential can of worms. It conflicted with my expectations of what he would do. But my instincts then led me to question my own expectation. I did not simply assume it was either a tacit admission that a straight yes/no referendum could not be won or an inexplicable tactical blunder. Neither offered a satisfactory explanation. So I asked the obvious question. Why would Salmond do this? This is a man renowned for his political acuity. Surely it made sense to presume there was some sound reasoning behind the move. And if there was a strategy here, it should be possible to figure out what it was.
Salmond knew three things. He knew that the referendum must have a straight yes/no question on independence. But he also knew that there would inevitably be significant demand for a devo-whatever option. And, crucially, he could confidently predict how his opponents would respond to anything that he said. On the matter of the devo-whatever option he could go one of three ways. He could embrace it as SNP policy. He could rule it out completely. Or he could put the ball in the unionists' court.
The first of these choices we can safely dismiss as politically impractical. We then have to look at the potential outcomes of following either of the other two routes. If Salmond categorically ruled out the devo-whatever option he would leave that ground free to be occupied by the unionists. They would be at liberty to concoct a devo-whatever proposition that might be a serious rival to independence. And they would be able to claim that the Scottish Government was being anti-democratic in refusing to even consider having such an option on the referendum ballot. More! They would have a credible case for accusing the SNP of hypocrisy given the party's vociferous objections to anti-independence parties' blocking of the referendum.
In short, the SNP and the Scottish Government would be placed very much on the back foot. Damaging as the accusations of hypocrisy might be, it is the ceding of the middle ground to the opposition which promised to become the biggest threat. Salmond was then, as he continues to be, very much aware that the success of the independence campaign would depend on its ability to attract support from across the entire spectrum of Scottish society. A large part of the campaign would have to be devoted to an appeal to small-c conservatives. They would have to be offered reassurance against the coming storm of scare-stories and woeful predictions of falling skies. This reassurance would inevitably draw on elements of a devo-whatever proposition.
Perhaps even more crucially, the positive campaign would have to appeal to Labour voters and supporters. And the key to this also lay in the kind of ideas that fall within the sphere of devo-whatever. If the middle ground of devo-whatever was vacated by the SNP then it was all but certain that a cross-party anti-independence campaign would gather its forces in that territory. If that middle ground was left vacant, the SNP would be free to pick and mix from the devo-whatever counter in whatever way it wanted.
Salmond saw that he could deny this ground to the unionists by the simple expedient of expressing an interest in it himself, thereby provoking an entirely predictable response from the anti-independence alliance. Salmond only had to hint at the possibility of a second question to induce an outright rejection of the idea from his opponents. The fact that he was able to do this wearing his First Minister's hat rather than as party leader was an invaluable bonus. The SNP could continue as before, campaigning on the basis of a single question while the First Minister listens to the people in true statesman-like fashion.
Who can deny the success of this strategy? The anti-independence campaign fell into the trap and now find themselves struggling to find anything to campaign for other than the status quo - the least popular option by a massive margin - or some jam-tomorrow promises so vague as to be of no value whatever. And they have also been tricked into being the ones obstinately refusing to listen to the people or allow them a say in their own future. Very much the same place they were prior to the 2011 election.
The strategy could have backfired. If Labour had seized the opportunity offered by Salmond we would have been in a very different situation now. Although they could hardly embrace the devo-whatever position without the corollary of weakening any defence of the union. They would effectively be reduced to admitting that the union is unsatisfactory, while pleading that it could be fixed with some tinkering. And there would never be any agreed anti-independence position on what that tinkering would involve. So Salmond had a reasonable expectation of a fail-safe situation.
It is interesting to note that, rather than develop a distinctive devolutionist position of its own, Labour's preferred - some might say instinctive - course of action was to enter into an alliance with the Tories on their home ground. Surely more than even Salmond might have hoped for.
The fact that Labour were so easily duped is a telling indictment of the paucity of talent in the party's leadership. Perhaps more telling still is the fact that they still don't seem to have realised they have been outsmarted. All unaware, they proceed as if the second question issue is a problem for Salmond - witness this Labour press release obligingly published by the Daily Record. The reality, when it finally does sink in, is going to come as a bit of a shock. If only they'd questioned their expectations.