Interesting findings published today from a BBC poll. Firstly, 58% of respondents (from a sample of 1,010) favoured holding a referendum next year on the constitutional question, which will be a finding warmly welcomed by the Scottish Government.
However, there was also a clear demonstration of support for the continuation of the Union in all forms of the question asked, although the levels did vary. The preferred wording of the Scottish Government (about negotiating a settlement with the UK Government) received the highest level of support for independence (42% support, 50% supporting the Union), however other versions of the question saw support for independence at 38% and 28% respectively, very low totals for nationalists to approach a referendum with.Where does this leave us?
Well, the first clear challenge is for the 'opposition' parties to either find a different way of justifying their opposition to a referendum; or to call the Government's bluff (as they would see it) by going for a referendum - this appears to be the approach that the public would like to see. Of course, the crucial aspect of a referendum will be in the wording of the questions asked - the SNP will be desperate to stick with their preferred wording whilst the opposition parties will, as Iain Gray says, want a straight yes/no question, which appears likely to lead to a rejection of independence. If the opposition parties look like they are opposing a referendum that the people want and which it looks like they will win then this could well make them look ridiculous - they will also be terrified of the consequences of a lost referendum, leaving them in quite a conundrum.
The second challenge is of course to the SNP. As John Curtice points out (and I heard him speaking about this at a conference recently) the SNP Government have done a good job of cementing their place in the public conscious as a competent party of government and they have also undoubtedly won the argument over whether more powers should be devolved to Scotland, with their opponents falling over themselves to join the race for further devolution. However, they appear to be failing to convince the public that independence is therefore the logical answer. Indeed, it could be argued that the SNP, despite their avowed aim of independence, are actually strengthening the devolution settlement, demonstrating that Scotland can have a Government of its own whilst still remaining within the Union. The SNP are also struck with a quandary - to have any chance (and even then it is an outside one) of winning the referendum they have to stick to their preferred wording; however to have any chance of getting a referendum in place they must be willing to compromise on the wording. All of these decisions are to be taken within a context of it looking likely that the referendum would be a loss for the independence cause, leaving them with the potentially tricky task of reinventing themselves in the absence of the independence question which they themselves have stated would have to occur for a generation.
This is where perhaps the logical answer to the situation presents itself, whereby the Government and opposition parties can find ways of agreeing on powers which should be further devolved to Scotland, enhancing the devolution settlement. The opposition cannot ignore the public's appetite for further devolution and indeed their own stated support for such measures; but likewise the SNP do not appear to be in a position yet whereby they can realistically expect to close the case for independence. Working together would allow both sides to claim victory (the SNP would see it as another step along the road, whilst the opposition parties would see it as proof that the settlement is the answer) although it would raise the potential for internal troubles, particularly for the SNP with some of their more intense pro-independence elements who have been relatively disciplined to date, but might react to more evidence of Salmond's gradualism.
It is likely that such agreement will not occur of course, certainly not before the next election - politically Salmond will want to avoid the troubles I suggested above and will also be aware of the political capital which he might be able to raise in an election campaign in 2011 whereby he derides the opposition parties for denying Scots their voice. Likewise there is an almost intractable refusal on the behalf of both the SNP and Labour to consider working together in a visible way, for fear of annoying their party faithful. In addition, the Scottish Lib Dems appear to have a surprising hatred of the concept of a referendum for anything, and therefore whilst appearing on paper the most likely to support the Government on introducing the Bill will fight it tooth and nail. The Conservatives could be an interesting element of the equation - they may decide to take the SNP on and agree to the referendum in order to defeat it, however this is probably still an outside chance.
I have to say, however, that the findings have challenged me to think about my own initial opposition to a referendum (of course, it's still the case that we shouldn't have a referendum just because the SNP demand one) and it will be interesting to see if other views are affected by the poll as well.
Also published on the Scots Voices blog