Why are we asking this now?
The Scottish Government, led by First Minister Alex Salmond, yesterday published a glossy 176-page White Paper entitled Your Scotland, Your Voice, looking at a range of possible changes to the country's constitutional status within the United Kingdom. As an ardent nationalist, Mr Salmond was making good on his long-held commitment to bring forward legislation that could pave the way for independence from Westminster through a national referendum.
What exactly is he proposing?
The Scottish National Party (SNP) has laid out four possible choices, only three of which it envisages would feature on a future referendum ballot paper. The first would see the electorate asked to vote for no change. The status quo would see the Holyrood Parliament continue to operate under the terms of the 1998 Scotland Act brought in following the "yes" vote in the referendum on devolution of the previous year. It gave Scots powers to make their own laws and vary income tax rates (a power that remains as yet unused – the first since the Act of Union).
The second proposal is being described as "devolution max" or "independence lite", depending on your standpoint. This would see future Scottish governments given still greater control over their own affairs. Responsibility for broadcasting, benefits and the vast majority of tax collection would be handed over. While Scotland would remain within the United Kingdom, keep the pound and continue to be guided by Westminster on matters of foreign affairs, it would give an unprecedented degree of autonomy. The third option would see Scotland become a sovereign state with full independence from the rest of the UK and total control over its affairs.
And the fourth scenario?
The other option laid out in the White Paper, but which would not form part of a referendum question under Mr Salmond's plans, would be adopting the recommendations of the Calman Commission. The body was set up in 2007 to review the devolution process 10 years after the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and came up with 24 recommendations, the most radical of which would give MSPs much greater tax-setting powers and the government authority to borrow money for capital investment and infrastructure. It also envisaged handing over power in controversial areas such as airgun legislation, drink driving and elections.
What happens now?
These are uncharted waters and no one can really be sure how this push for independence will play out in the long term. Many matters are up in the air, not least a forthcoming election for a new Westminster government. But if the SNP get their way, a referendum Bill could be published by early next year and Scottish voters might find themselves going to the polls within a matter of months after that.
How likely is that?
Highly unlikely. The first problem Mr Salmond faces is getting his Bill through Holyrood. The parliamentary maths are stacked against him. The minority SNP has 47 seats – just one more than Labour – and is reliant on the votes of the two independence-supporting Greens. It would need the support of 16 other members to gain a majority. Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are all committed to the Union and have backed the findings of the Calman Commission, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Then even if the necessary votes can be accrued to pave the way for a referendum there is the small matter of public opinion. Polls have shown that full-blown support for a referendum continues to hover below the 30 per cent mark while the most recent survey found only one in five now back independence, the second lowest level of support since the SNP came to power in 2007.
Then why launch the White Paper?
Mr Salmond is an astute political operator and never to be underestimated. In one sense this is the realisation of his political ambition and the fulfilment of a covenant he has held with nationalist supporters stretching back years. The SNP has spent all its its energies since clinching power in 2007 trying to convince voters it is capable of governing and has enjoyed a long honeymoon on the back of some populist policies, even changing its name from the weak-sounding Scottish Executive to the more powerful Scottish Government.
But some of the gloss might be coming off and the recession has badly hit optimism in Scotland, which continues to perform badly compared to the rest of the UK. The SNP failed to snatch by-election victory in Gordon Brown's backyard of Glenrothes and was comfortably rejected again at Glasgow North East this autumn. A recent poll suggested Labour are now ahead of the SNP in voting intentions for both Westminster and Holyrood.
Of course it could be that Mr Salmond achieves his goal of increasing his seats at Westminster next year from seven to 20, potentially giving him a much greater say should there be a hung Parliament following next year's general election.
He could use the main parties' opposition to a referendum to galvanise support for the SNP in 2011 in the Scottish Parliament elections, when he could justifiably point to the democratic deficit if a fiercely Unionist Tory government is in power in Westminster with few or even no seats north of the border. Especially if Scotland is feeling the pain of George Osborne's plans to balance the budget and slash public spending. There are still votes in a radical mandate to tackle the enduring problems of drugs, alcoholism, poor health and hopelessness endured by at least two generations of Scots under both Westminster and New Labour's devolution.
What other obstacles to independence remain?
The independence argument was badly undermined during the economic crisis as critics recalled Mr Salmond's grand talk of an "economic arc of prosperity from Dublin to Reykjavik" that would include a sovereign Scotland. Iceland and Ireland were nearly wiped out by the financial crisis. Scotland's financial services didn't do much better and its biggest company, the Royal Bank of Scotland, was only saved as a result of billions of pounds of British taxpayers' money being poured in to nationalise the banking giant by the pro-Union Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
North Sea oil and gas revenues, once the foundation stone for resurgent nationalist sentiment in the 1970s, are now waning and subject to worrying levels of price volatility. Meanwhile many in Scotland remain painfully aware that they benefit from an extra £1,600 a head of public spending under the Barnett Formula, the system which works out the regional share of Treasury cash, compared to elsewhere in the UK .
Finally, even if Mr Salmond's long-term plan were to come together, Holyrood is powerless to declare unilateral independence from the rest of the UK even with the backing of a "yes" vote in a referendum. Westminster would be under no obligation to honour a vote backing "devolution max" either, though there would be considerable pressure to do so. David Cameron has blown cold even on the relatively benign suggestions contained within the Calman report and he is unlikely to prove receptive to SNP negotiations on full withdrawal from the union – especially if that compromises the British nuclear deterrent, Trident, currently based in Scotland.
Is full independence now the best option for Scotland?
*Only full independence can give Scotland the powers it needs to build its economy, solve its social problems and carve out a place in the world
*Devolution began a process that will inevitably lead to full sovereignty
*A future Tory government with no Scottish MPs would have no democratic legitimacy north of the border
*Public opinion is against it, and so too are the majority of Scotland's politicians
*The Scottish economy is not strong enough to stand alone: witness the bailout of RBS
*Scotland continues to benefit from a generous financial deal out of being part of the UKReuse content