There’s an episode in the West Wing where, in the madness of a crowded rope line, President Jed Bartlet accepts a copy of the Taiwanese flag from a member of the public. Given Jed is such a wily political operator, the assumption is that he did this on purpose to invite the consternation from China and provoke a debate on Taiwan independence. He didn’t, he just made a mistake and didn’t see what someone had put in his hand.
One has to wonder if that other wily political operator, President-in-waiting Alex Salmond, has played yet another strategic blinder in not getting Devo Max onto the ballot paper or whether he’s simply messed up.
On the one hand, Salmond has seemingly been pushing for something that he and his party claims to not want but his political opponents do and, in losing ‘his’ second vote, he may well have cleverly won much of the would-be Devo Max voters as future Yes voters by fighting their corner and offering them some sort of change, rather than simply the status quo.
Further, through this push for a Devo Max option, the First Minister has certainly helped paint Labour as anti-devolutionist and helped sew some internal rancour over whether they should back a second question or not. It’s well worth noting that the Devo Max referendum option has disappeared before Johann Lamont has even started her promised commission on devolution which is (was?) to focus on extending Holyrood’s powers.
On the other hand of course, Alex Salmond has opened his party up to the possibility of a devastating defeat in 2014 with no consolation prize and also opened himself up to ridicule here and now. Unwarranted ridicule that is, but when has that ever stopped the Scottish press. The First Minister was portrayed as wanting something but he didn’t get it. Cue exaggerated terms such as ‘humiliation’, ‘embarrassment’ and ‘making chumps’ of those who want Devo Max. (A neat, if rather desperate attempt by Willie Rennie there to try to wrest back the Lib Dem reputation as being the most pro devolution party, though it does indirectly make him sound like Head Chump).
I personally believe Alex Salmond genuinely wanted that second question, that it wasn’t all just political cross-dressing smoke and mirrors, and that he’ll be bitterly disappointed that a more fortuitous result was not reached during the time that he created for a second question to emerge. However, when someone doesn’t get the first win from their win-win situation, it’s more than a stretch to label it a defeat. Alex Salmond no longer has a legacy-defining backup plan for his circa 2014/15 retirement. That doesn’t really change much for the rest of us.
The quid pro quo for Salmond relenting on his push for a Devo Max option on the ballot slip is seemingly a mercifully straightforward, Westminster-sanctioned, legal framework in which to hold the referendum.
This is all to be welcomed, because the sooner the ultimately frivolous and childishly conducted discussions over how many questions, what the question(s) will be, timing etc are out of the way, the closer we will get to the real debate sparking to life, Scots having constructive conversations about their collective future, politicians on all sides being forced to talk about substance and, most appealingly (and to use another West Wing analogy), the Yes campaign letting Salmond be Salmond, unleashing their prized weapon when he’s at his best – winning votes on the campaign trail. Unless he stuffs up and unwittingly takes a Union flag as a gift at an inopportune time, of course.
So no, it’s not at all clear who the absence of a Devo Max option is a defeat for, and we have a way to go to find out.