Cablegate: Scotland: Independence Referendum Not Moving

DE RUEHLO #0126/01 0201717
P 201717Z JAN 10

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 LONDON 000126



E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/12/2020

REF: 09 LONDON 2500 Classified By: DCM Richard LeBaron, reasons 1.4 (b/d).

1. (SBU/NF) Summary and comment. First Minister Alex Salmond and his Scottish Nationalist Party-led (SNP) minority government are unlikely to introduce an independence referendum bill in the Scottish Parliament in January, as previously planned. According to well-placed sources, the SNP government's "referendum team" is now considering whether to go forward with the bill in February or March or whether to introduce the bill after Westminster elections conclude this spring. The SNP-led government is up against a block of opposition parties which has thus far vowed to kill any referendum. Given the tough political climate, the First Minister and his team are assessing their power to leverage the other parties into allowing the referendum bill to go forward this spring. If the bill goes forward and makes it through the introductory stage, then a referendum vote in late 2010 is likely. If the political climate proves too tough, First Minister Salmond and the SNP will not get their referendum vote and will likely continue to criticize opposition parties and their London-centric parent groups for continuing to undermine Scottish democracy and oppose the will of the Scottish electorate. Recent polling data suggests that only one-third of Scots support independence, while approximately two-thirds support increased devolution.

2. (C/NF) Salmond told the Ambassador in late 2009 that he does not have the support in the Scottish Parliament to pass a referendum bill. This appears to still be the case. However, with elections on the horizon and an SNP promise to deliver a referendum in its first term, we see a couple of possible scenarios. The SNP could introduce a bill calling for a referendum for Scotland's independence, knowing that it will be defeated. By doing so, the SNP would keep its promise and build campaign rhetoric about Scotland's democracy being stifled, claiming opposition parties were preventing Scots from having the opportunity to choose. Alternatively, the SNP could introduce a bill for a referendum calling for increased devolved powers, which opposition parties would be under pressure to back because of broad public support for increasing the Scottish government's authorities. End summary and comment.

The Origins of the Referendum Bill and Scottish Opposition Response ----------------------------------

3. (SBU) When First Minister Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party (SNP) came into power in 2007 with a one-vote majority, they vowed to advance a core campaign promise to hold a referendum on Scottish independence during their first term in office. In response, Scottish opposition groups (who do not want an independent Scotland) supported the Scottish Parliament's creation of an independent committee in April 2008 to review the implementation of Scottish devolution since 1998, which became the Calman Commission on Scottish Devolution. In its final report released in late 2009, the Calman Commission recommended further devolved powers for Scotland, including a special Scottish income tax, ministerial powers to borrow funds for capital investments, and more negotiating powers for Scotland with the European Union.

4. (SBU/NF) Throughout 2009, UK Secretary of State for Scotland Jim Murphy played a leadership role in organizing the opposition parties, hoping to move Scotland toward implementation of the Calman recommendations as an alternative to an independence referendum, according to Murphy's advisors, Labour party insiders, and opposition party leaders. First Minister Salmond's response to independence critics (such as Murphy) has been to accelerate the implementation of the Calman recommendations as soon as possible - "to call the bluff." Some political pundits assess that opposition parties' inability to move on the report's recommendations has buoyed Salmond's case for a referendum. According to this theory, Salmond could gain politically by putting forward -- and winning -- with a softer referendum question that calls for further devolved powers, including those recommended by the Calman Commission (which is often referred to as the "devolution max" option). 5. (SBU/NF) Less controversial than full independence, "devolution max" enjoys broad public support. Nevertheless publicly, the SNP and opposition parties all claim that they would like a straight up-or-down vote on Scottish independence, as both sides continue to claim popular support for their respective positions. However, both the opposition LONDON 00000126 002 OF 003 and the SNP tell us privately that they would also support a referendum if the vote was only about further devolved powers, as long as the question was written in a politically neutral manner.

5. (SBU) At the opening of the Scottish Parliament in September 2009, Scottish National Party (SNP) First Minister Alex Salmond introduced a motion to discuss a possible independence referendum. The motion was roundly defeated. (Note: According to Scottish parliamentary experts, motions are considered "trial balloon discussions" of how a vote might be treated and are not formal. End note.) On November 30, 2009, Salmond launched his Government's White Paper on Scottish Independence, with the intention to introduce a bill into the Scottish Parliament in January 2010. If successful, the independence referendum would take place in autumn 2010. Over the past month, opposition parties (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green) have played on the weaknesses of the minority SNP-led government in order to stall SNP plans to introduce a referendum bill in January and to marginalize the SNP's political ambitions heading into the UK elections, which must be held before June, where the SNP hopes to increase its number of seats in Westminster.

Referendum Mechanics --------------------

6. (U) If the bill passes in the Scottish Parliament and goes forward, the Scottish Parliament will appoint a special committee to take evidence from constitutional and other experts. According to the team of government officials working on the referendum, once the bill is introduced, the government will naturally lose control of the process because it does not have enough votes to stack the special committee in the SNP's favor. This is one of the reasons the SNP has opted not to introduce the bill in January as originally planned, they have intimated. The Committee process could take up to three months. Parties will then negotiate the language of the bill and the language of the referendum question itself. Once the parties have agreed, the committee overseeing the process reports to the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament then debates the bill, makes revisions and conducts a full floor vote. If the bill gets to the debate stage, it is likely to pass. A simple majority is sufficient to pass the bill.

Conservative - SNP Deal? ------------------------

7. (SBU/NF) The political jockeying around the Scottish independence referendum has created a climate of political intrigue in Scotland, with facts and rumors generally intertwined. Since the Tories (historically weak in Scotland) allied themselves with the SNP in 2007 as part of the SNP-led minority government, SNP insiders and political pundits have suggested that the SNP struck a deal with the Tories whereby the Conservative Party would not obstruct a Scottish independence referendum vote in exchange for mutual support in Westminster and Holyrood elections. Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie told the Edinburgh PO in November 2009: "While we are very opposed to Scotland leaving the Union, if the will of the Scottish people is for Independence, we won't stand in the way. But we believe that the will is not there." Although the Scottish Tories are fundamentally opposed to Scottish independence, they do not oppose a vote as a matter of policy. Whether the SNP-Tory deal exists remains in question, and any real effect it would have would be determined by how well the Conservatives fare in the Westminster polls. In Westminster, Tory leader David Cameron has not made any clear pronouncements about the Conservatives Party position on an independence referendum for Scotland.

8. (SBU) The Liberal Democrats (Lib Dem) have also moderated some of their statements on a referendum vote. According to Scottish Lib Dem Leader, Tavish Scott, the Lib Dems are not opposed to a referendum vote, "provided the question isn't rigged by the SNP." National Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said during a recent political rally in Scotland that there is an "unspoken affinity of interest" between Salmond and Cameron, alleging that the SNP and Tories share a "hostility for the Union."

What Scots Think About Independence and Devolution ---------------------------

9. (U) A poll published by the Center for Social Research on January 15, based on the responses of 1,482 individuals resident in Scotland interviewed in autumn 2009, indicates LONDON 00000126 003 OF 003 that only one third of Scots support full independence. Another third say independence would make no difference to their lives, and the third tier say that it would have a negative effect. Two-thirds, however, support increased devolution, as recommend by the Calman Commission report. Visit London's Classified Website: XXXXXXXXXXXX

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