Thursday, 14 June 2012

Salmond's second question strategy

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.


  1. Superb and cohesive analysis of Mr Salmond 's strategy and probable thinking on this 2nd question issue. I have to say I have always suspected that to have been the case.
    I seem to remember even Mr Darling on Sunday Politics conceding
    ("I don't think anybody would argue that the status quo, what we have at the moment, is satisfactory,".)
    that the status quo was not even an option and I realised then that Mr Salmond had backed the unionists into a corner from where there was no exit without much loss of face.
    Given that even the now leader of the NO campaign has already said the status quo is no good it is a clear choice between Independence or Status quo and I think that anyone who wanted devo-whatever will more than likely opt for YES to Independence.
    A good read anyway and thanks.

    1. Many thanks for the positive feedback. I don't doubt that many others were able to see what was going on. But it is good to see it all written down.

  2. great read Peter poses many scenarios re devo whatever excelent piece of entrapment by FM should it work.

    1. Thanks, Jim. Have to say I find Salmond fascinating to observe. We haven't seen a political operator of this calibre in a long time. Books will be written. Hopefully not only by David Torrance.

  3. Ah, October 2011. Still wearing my blue wristband....

    I think you have to bear in mind that it didn't start then. Almost immediately after the May election victory there were several eminent talking heads who were all too eager to tell us all that Salmond had given up on the idea of independence, and was in fact intending to negotiate some sort of Catalan-style devolution instead. I couldn't quite figure this out, because this was the last thing Salmond was likely to decide to do, about five minutes after the SNP's greatest-ever victory. So I flat didn't believe it. But there was no denial from any official SNP source. Cyberbrits began to crow. Don't you remember? All the gloating speculation about how gutted all the SNP troops would be when they finally realised that the Dear Leader had sold their aspirations down the river.

    I was puzzled, but I have a lot of respect for Salmond as a tactician, and the more so after May 2011, so I sat tight to see what would happen. A whole lot of nothing had happened by October, and the various positions were unchanged.

    Salmond's conference speech didn't enlighten anyone, really. There was a fringe meeting the same evening which I attended, where a bunch of puzzled nationalists discussed what devo-max might be and where it fitted into any strategy. I remember Paul Scott denouncing it as something that simply would not work, and others pointing out that it was only available if Westminster agreed anyway, and Westminster wouldn't. Nobody could really figure it out, even then.

    For me, it all became clear a few days later, when watching Newsnight. I can't remember who the SNP spokesman was, because he was someone fairly low-key. He was being badgered about the whole second question thing, and Salmond allegedly wanting one. He explained it clearly and succinctly.

    He said the SNP stood for independence, and would campaign for independence, nothing less. The SNP would put forward a bill for a simple yes/no to independence referendum. However, being a party committed to democracy, the SNP recognised that there appeared to be a fairly substantial body of opinion that supported some sort of enhanced devolution, and that being the case the SNP would accept a properly-formulated amendment which had the backing of another party or parties, to propose the addition of a secondary question on devo-max. However, the SNP would not take ownership of that question, or campaign for it.


  4. Cont....

    I remember sitting on my sofa, a little stunned, as the penny dropped with a resounding clang. I was quite in awe of the tactical move. Somehow, over the previous six months, Salmond had manoeuvred the unionist parties into declaring that devo-max was his own preferred option, and declaring that they would not allow him this "consolation prize". Then he simply handed it to them like the poisoned chalice it had become.

    I thought everybody would immediately "get" it. It couldn't be simpler. The unionists had been handed a lose-lose scenario. They could either carry on opposing a second question at all, and be immediately exposed as anti-democratic, or they could get together and formulate whatever positive proposals they thought would be enough to woo the wavering voter away from a pro-independence vote. The second option wouldn't just be a climb-down and a u-turn, it would expose them fatally. Because any proposal sufficiently radical to succeed in its objective would be of the "I can't believe it's not independence" variety, and be another fast lurch down the increasingly slippery slope, and anything less than that would simply expose their hypocrisy.

    I thought, and still think, that they couldn't take the challenge. They'll never allow the Scottish people a formal vote on "I can't believe it's not independence", because they have absolutely no intention of delivering any such thing. And anybody who doesn't believe that can just look at what happened to Calman. And they daren't propose a watered-down airguns and speed limits thing, because that would as I said expose the hypocrisy and Salmond would eat it for breakfast.

    So really, they had to go on with vague promises of jam tomorrow and pie in the sky, while refusing to propose a second question. What has surprised me is the way pretty much none of the supposedly neutral pundits has caught on to this. Everyone from Brian Taylor to John Curtice is still telling us that Salmond wants a second question as a fall-back position and consolation prize. None of them has had the wit to spot the absolutely machiavellian manoeuvring, and comment on it. If they have spotted it, they aren't saying.

    Early days. Salmond has run rings round them again with this phone-hacking thing. I used to think the SNP was a tactical train wreck (I'm talking 20 years ago). Not now. There was A Plan for 2011, and it worked beyond even the planners' wildest dreams. The same people are planning 2014.

    1. Thanks, Rolfe, for a truly excellent addendum to my article. You've covered a lot of ground I skipped and added some valuable insights. Much appreciated.

  5. Excellent analysis Peter. Salmond played a blinder... and Labour are still dithering in the dark. Hope they remain so until the vote.

    1. Thanks, Hazel. Hope you also read Rolfe's comments.

    2. Yep, an equally thorough round up... like I said, I just hope the Unionist crowd remain unable to organise a menauge, and the independence crowd remain calm and collected in the run-in to 2014.
      Although I think hell may freeze over before Labour (North Britain Branch) find sufficient neurones to rub together to emanate a spark for a sensibly constructed thought.

  6. I admit I was amazed at the deliberate misunderstanding of Salmond's statement to conference not only by the usual culprits but also SNP members. Then again the way Salmond stated his case for the inclusion of 'devo-max' was as calmly put as was his defining statement that the SNP would only be campaigning for one outcome - independence. The subliminal message was clearly one of 'let the people speak' but if Westminster wants devo-max it better have a Bill, at third reading, by Autumn 2014. What is more, he even gave them time to do so, the best part of three years.

    I have written about Westminster as the playground bully on my own blog (Tarff Advertiser)and Salmond bet on Westminster's answer to his challenge was to up the 'bullying', this is what has come to pass. There is one camp looking strident and out of kilter with the people of Scotland's wishes for political reform and it is not Salmond and the SNP.

    1. Wasn't aware of your blog. Am now. Added to my list.

  7. The genius of the proposed second question is in its simplicity. Float Devo Max and those of a sunny outlook but unsure of buying into whole hog Independence take a tentative step away from the status quo. Minds expand, possibilities grow, risk is embraced. Fast forward and Westminster denies Devo Max as an option. The choice is stark, take a step forward into Independence or a step back into the status quo that you're already dissatisfied with.

    This is the reason we're currently seeing the first baby steps of soft Unionists towards Independence.

    1. Nicely put. What you describe is, of course, the essence of the gradualist approach. An approach which many of us had serious doubts about. But you can't argue with success. although there are still a few fundamentalists who try.

  8. In all honestly Jim, this was patently obvious to me and a number of my friends from the day it was mentioned. Not only was it obviously a trap to bury the unionists in perpetual devo-whatever argy-bargy, it gave the Scottish government the potential of a favourable "out" option... if a NO vote was returned, at least some devo-concessions could (perhaps) be gained.

    However, they fell at the first hurdle and now are faced with a non-campaign, rather than a "no" campaign!

    1. I suggest that it was "patently obvious" because your mind was not encumbered by rigid dogma.

      You hint at another point worth making. Supposing the devo-whatever option WAS devised as a "safety net, what is actually so wrong with that. I stress that I do not believe this to be the primary purpose, or any significant part of the purpose of a second question from the SNP's perspective. If it were, then Salmond and his team would have been trying a lot harder to ensure that the subsidiary option was included and seeking to exercise control over the terms of that option.

      But just suppose there was the thought that a fall-back option might be a good idea, surely this is just good politics. It seems to me to be eminently smart to try and contrive things so that, even if you lose the gold, you are bound to at least get silver.

  9. Hi Peter,

    Great article and bang on the money. Alex is a superb tactician, and the Unionists appear to have taken the bait hook line and sinker.

    What will be the next move?

    I think presently the Unionists believe that when it actually comes to the point of putting the "X" on the paper, the Scots will bottle it, that the scare stories and dirty tricks will work. As long as they continue to think that there will be no devo-max option coming forward. Indeed the MSM will continue to blame Salmond for its absence. Currently the opinion polls rather suggest this is the situation.

    However if it gets to the stage that they believe that there is a real possibility of a successful "YES" vote, watch them scramble to out-bid each other in their offers of ever better devo-max schemes which might or might not ever appear in actuality, but the prospect of which will be used as a counter to the "YES" campaign in its latter stages.

    It is interesting that some of the "soft" Unionists are now beginning to come forward stating that in the absence of a devo-max option they might be prepared to consider voting Independence. If they are beginning to go down this path, many others are likely to be on the same journey the prospect of which must be very worrying for the Unionists. As a minimum therefore expect them to start adding a little substance to the "jam tomorrow" scenario, but don't expect too much as fundamentally they don't want to have to do this.

    What should we be doing. Campaigning for Independence for all we're worth, knocking on doors explaining it and cfreating and publishing articles such as yours. More power to your elbow.


  10. Excellent piece Peter, and all other previous contributors.

    In my view, when A.S. made the conference speech announcement about there being a second question I never thought for a second that it would be something which the SNP would be fighting for. As others have said, the SNP would only be fighting for one thing INDEPENDENCE. In fact, if I recall correctly, whenever he has been interviewed about the "second , or is it the third, question" he has ALWAYS maintained that if it appears in the referendum it is for OTHERS to formulate what Devo whatever stands for not him.

    To date NO ONE from the No campaign has had the guts, or the brains, to come up with a Devo whatever option. At this point in time I very much doubt they ever will. I think at the end of the day we will end up with just a straight YES/NO question, but obviously only time will tell. Who knows someone in the No camp may yet actually find the guts from somewhere.

    As others have said, A.S. is a brilliant tactician. He has played the opposition parties for the fools that they are but they are too blinded by their own ignorance to notice it. The longer and harder they push the idea that A.S. is going to "offer" a second/third" question the more foolish they are going to look in the long run.

    Here's a thought. If, and it is a big if in my view, a second/third question does appear on the ballot paper what exactly do the No camp fight for?

    Full Independence.....Obviously not.
    Devo whatever...... I doubt it

    That only leaves the status, but as we already know the GREAT leader of the No camp has admitted that the Status Quo is not enough. So what EXACTLY will the No camp actually be campaigning for?

    Answers on a postcard to......No campaign
    Labour HQ
    or is it Tory HQ

  11. One of the clever things Salmond seems to have engineered is to have the chattering classes define "devo-max" for him. We now have it in writing that devo-max is control of everything except defence and foreign affairs. If anything less than that is actually proposed by any of the unionist parties, it will be seen as "watered down".

    The point when I actually caught on was when I heard that the way for devo-max to get on the ballot paper was through an amendment to the referendum bill when it goes through parliament. How else, but it's something that's usually ignored by the media commentators.

    This means, really, that "civic Scotland" can organise and campaign and lobby and scweam and scweam until it's sick, but there will be no second question unless they can persuade one of the unionist parties to propose an amendment to their specifications. Cold day in hell springs to mind. It just isn't going to happen.

    If Salmond actually wanted a devo-max option on the referendum, all he has to do is put it there. That majority, remember. Nobody could stop him. But of course he won't. First because he doesn't want it, and second because it would be dishonest.

    I've argued all the way round the houses with a devo-max proponent, and she was vehement in blaming Salmond for not doing this. If he's a democrat he should do it. All he has to do is put it on the ballot. If it got a majority, Westminster would have to deliver. I stress this person is politically aware and a former Labour party member. I don't quite know what she's smoking to be honest.

    The SNP is not going to define a "devo-max" option it isn't going to campaign for. And it would be dishonest to put something like that on the ballot anyway, implying that they could deliver. It would be on a par with inviting the Scottish people to vote for a white Christmas. We could get 70% in favour, and it wouldn't have any bearing on whether it would snow at the end of December.

    So if "civic Scotland" wants a devo-max option defined and promised and on the ballot, they know what to do. Lobby the unionist parties at Holyrood to do it for them. Let's see how that works out for them.

    1. The point about Salmond forcing his opponents to do all the negative stuff is very pertinent. And it might have wider implications. Suppose, for example, Salmond wanted to argue for Scotland launching its own currency after independence. What would be the most effective way to go about it?

      It takes no imagination whatever to foresee what the response would be if he advanced such a proposal. It would be savagely attacked by the anti-independence parties and the media. Salmond would have to go on the defensive while also arguing against alternatives. All very negative.

      But if he proposed some alternative, such as a sterling union, the opposition would be put in the position of making the negative case. They would effectively be arguing for an independent currency. Helping to make Salmond's case for him.

      All of this is, of course, predicated on the predictability of the unionist response to anything said or done by the pro-independence lobby. In part, this is a function of being on the "anti" side of the argument. This narrows their option anyway. But Salmond and his team have been very successful in narrowing those options even further.

  12. Excellent article.
    Some people I have been speaking to are getting very impatient
    with AS for not defining his second question.
    I have been telling them that the SNP have no intention of proposing anything other than full independence because that is the only thing in their power to deliver.
    It is for others to propose and most importantly be in a position to deliver whatever it is they are asking voters to agree to.
    Without doubt the NoScotland campaign will make much of the enhanced powers granted to Holyrood in the present Scotland bill since they have nothing else presently to hang their coats on.
    Possibly a "line in the sand" for them.

    1. The problems faced by the anti-independence effort are well illustrated by the difficulty they are having even finding a name for their campaign. They are trying to put a positive spin on an essentially and necessarily negative case. SNP strategists can hardly take credit for this as it is simply a function of being the opposition. But they do deserve credit for taking full advantage of the situation.

  13. The other interesting thing to me about the second question (Devo-whatever) is once the dependency parties elaborate what this might be, e.g. the current offer in the Scotland Bill, or Cameron's 70% tax "offer", the obvious response will be, "if you "trust" us with 70%, why not 100%?"

    And the same variation to the voters, "Why settle for a possible 70% "offer" from Westminster, when you can vote for 100%!"

    I am reminded by a quote fro "Brave" the new movie from Pixar. The heroin says at one point, "If you could change your future, would you?" That's the question all Scots should be asking themselves in 2014.

    1. A good point. Basically, any move away from arguing for the status quo is a move towards arguing for independence. Or, at the very least, an admission that the union is flawed.

  14. Anon and Tony, surely even the NO camp would not be so stupid as push what is in the current Scotland bill as their "answer" to the Yes Campaign. I mean the Scotland Bill has already been accepted by both Westminster and Holyrood so we are just waiting for the timescale to kick in before we see these new powers passing to Holyrood. Should the No camp even try to push these "powers" as their answer to full Independence then surely they will be laughed all the way out of Scotland!

    The No camp must come up with a distinctive alternative to full Independence, something that is definitively different from Independence but also significantly different from the current newly created Scotland Bill powers, due to come into force around 2015 I believe.

    As pointed our as well, Cameron's "offer" of 70% of all Scottish taxes raised is a non starter for the No camp. This is another Tory "jam tomorrow" promise. If the No camp jump for this offer then again they will surely be laughed out of Scotland.

    This now leaves the No camp penned into a very uncomfortable corner. A.S. is, as others have pointed out, an extremely shrewd operator. He has achieved something no other British politician has ever achieved, penned his opposition into a "no way out" corner without losing face! He has managed to turn the No camp into a public laughing stock, and they haven't even launched their campaign yet!

    1. There has been a strand of the anti-independence campaign which has somewhat tentatively and not very successfully tried to suggest that Scotland already has ample powers but that these powers are not being deployed. I don't really see this being an effective strategy. But it does serve to illustrate the point that the unionists do have some arrows in their quiver. It wouldn't do to underestimate the opposition.

      The whole "70% of taxes" thing illustrates another facet of the gradualist approach which ensures its success. The more powers that are devolved, the more difficult it becomes to justify the dwindling number of powers retained. It is this that leads many people, myself among them, to conclude that independence is inevitable - regardless of the outcome of the referendum.

  15. What a lot of people fail to recognise is that any devo-whatever option will be part of the "No" campaign not the "Yes" campaign because devo-whatever is all about retaining Scotland in the Union.

    Once you recognise that rather obvious fact then those who still hold to the idea that the SNP should define and offer what should be a major plank in the "No" campaign are shown up as politically ignorant, whether or not they write for major newspapers or are employed on the TV.

    If there ever is a devo-max option offered it will be defined not unilaterally by the Scots but in Westminster. I wrote about this in a piece about devo-max which appeared on Bellacaledonia in January.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree that devo-whatever is a unionist option. It is most certainly not an alternative to independence but a denial of it. Where I would disagree with the piece to which you link is in the claim that it is the SNP which wants to keep open the devo-whatever option. In fat, it is more correct to say that it is the Scottish Government that is doing so - while the party merely accepts the policy. The difference may be regarded as subtle, but I don't think it unimportant. If the SNP was not in government then the party's position might well be quite different.