There is an old proverb, attributed to the semi-mythical Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu, which says: “Win the battle, then go out and fight it”. On the surface what Sun-Tzu was referring to was the importance of good planning and organisation if you are ever going to get anywhere. Yet this philosophy has a deeper level too. It refers not only to strategy and logistics, but to the art of controlling the course of the battle by dictating when and where it will be fought, what tactics your enemy will use and how you will counter them. The result is therefore decided before the battle is even fought.
Applying this approach to electoral politics is nothing new. Tyrants all over the world now seem to have mastered the skill of manufacturing consent at the ballot box by sewing a complex web of deceit using tools such as unfair laws, intimidation, vote fixing and puppet opponents. Such roguishness however is generally confined to the developing world, with most mature democracies such as the UK having developed systems to minimise electoral fraud backed up by tough punishments for anyone caught trying to break the rules. These systems however were designed to deal with the existing rules. When faced with an entirely new situation where the rules of engagement have not yet been decided, such as a vote on the break-up of the UK, a legal void soon develops.
Seeking to exploit this void is the separatist SNP party and its leader Alex Salmond. Having gained a significant majority in the Scottish Parliament Mr Salmond has declared that he alone may decide on the rules for such a referendum, regardless of the fact that the UK constitution indicates that only Westminster has the power to decide upon such matters. Therefore Mr Salmond, realising the potential for exploiting the void in the laws, has set about writing the rules to ensure they unfairly favour a vote for Scottish independence.
There are a number of ruses he has so far attempted to employ. The first of these was the idea of a second question asking whether the voter believed Scotland should get extra powers devolved to it if it does not become independent. This question, termed “devo-max”, was a clear attempt to split the Unionist vote and ensure that “yes” to independence got the most votes. Under such a rule 40% of people might vote for “yes”, 30% for “devo-max” and 30% “no”, giving the SNP the chance to declare independence even though 60% of people had not voted for separation. This plot seems to have been put on the back burner for now after David Cameron offered further devolution if Scotland remained in the union, but Alex Salmond has refused to rule out bringing it back in the future.
The next ploy involves the timing of the referendum. The longer the debate on independence goes on, the more damage it is doing to the Scottish economy. Multiple economists and investment experts have already warned that uncertainty over Scotland’s future will damage the country, whilst several companies have now publically stated that they are stalling their development plans in Scotland until a vote is taken. Therefore it is very much in the national interest to have a vote as soon as possible.
This is not however in Alex Salmond’s interests, as the polls still indicate that the Scottish people would vote against independence if asked tomorrow. The First Minister has therefore decided to have the vote in the autumn of 2014. This decision has not merely been made to buy the SNP time however – instead it has been made because it will coincide with the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn. This will be a time when Scottish nationalism is likely to be especially high, therefore increasing the chances of a “yes” result.
Another ruse is hidden within the wording of the question to be put to the Scottish electorate. Alex Salmond has declared that the question will be: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” This is neither fair nor neutral, since the word “independence”, when used in a political context, suggests freedom from either occupation or imperialism. Scotland suffers from neither of these things, although that won’t stop Salmond and the SNP using rhetoric and images to portray the Scots as having been oppressed or exploited by the English. Moreover the question is also misleading, especially if the SNP intend a separate Scotland to join the EU, since “independence” implies total sovereignty, something no EU member state has. A more neutral and accurate question would be “Should Scotland remain part of the UK?”
The most recent trick (though by no means the final – there have been other, smaller ploys and there will be more in the future) is the announcement by Alex Salmond that he wants to reduce the voting age for the referendum to 16. Salmond has hidden the true purpose of this plan behind rhetoric about “reconnecting with young people” and claims that since 16 year olds can join the army, pay taxes and (in Scotland) get married they should be able to vote as well. Presumably though the SNP will not be extending this logic to the purchasing of alcohol, since the SNP are so committed to dealing with underage drinking.
Look below the surface however and it is easy to see that it is the separatists who have most to gain from this. Young people are not interested in constitutional law, joint history, financial growth, investment or any other of the prudent and clever arguments of the Unionist side. They will easily fall for populist anti-English propaganda and will most likely vote en-masse for independence. I personally would not oppose a UK-wide debate on whether to lower the voting age, however for the SNP to unilaterally introduce this at such a critical time is a blatant attempt to fix the referendum results.
Alex Salmond must not be allowed to make up the rules to suit his own agenda. All of the Unionist parties should unite to oppose him on these ploys and on any others he may come up with. Sadly Labour’s rather pathetic refusal to be seen fighting alongside the coalition parties means that Salmond may soon be able to follow another maxim: “Divide and Conquer”.