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Party pieces

Simon Barrow

BarrowJust as the idea of a commuter rush hour was eventually swamped by continuous urban traffic, so the notion of an August silly season when trivia grabs the headlines has been rendered fictional in 2011.
Riots across England and a second wave of global recession saw senior political leaders tumbling back from Tuscan-style holidays to offer consolation and promises of 'tough action' to the media.

In Scotland, meanwhile, the sogginess of the weather has been offset by flames of disagreement over the unity (or otherwise) of the UK. The SNP has announced that, in the interests of 'a proper period of debate', a referendum on independence will not take place until 2016. By that time the electorate may have chosen new leaders and the Scotland Bill will have ushered in new domestic ground rules. But that has not stopped a row kicking off while the sun hides.

With Alex Salmond's cabinet preoccupied by a multi-million-pound Edinburgh trams disaster and a massive round of spending cuts, the case for the union has gone by default. Moreover, Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are all leaderless and 'in transition' following the Nationalists' sweeping of the board in the May elections. So the SNP remain in the spotlight, with only the Greens making additional noise.

Onto this uncertain political territory has stepped Michael Moore (no, not the rabble-rousing US film-maker, but Her Majesty's Secretary of State for Scotland) along with another Scottish Westminster Lib Dem, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander.

Speaking to the David Hume Institute and the CBI respectively, the two men chose possibly the only audiences north of the border who would not pelt them with tomatoes for their role in aiding the Westminster coalition's scythe.
Moore set out a series of questions on an independent Scotland's relationship with the EU, the cost of pensions, defence policy, and the cost of breaking away from the UK. The SNP dismissed this with a three-paragraph press release and a reference to their 2009 declaration. They will have to try harder in future. Over the coming four years they plan to set out detailed commitments on 'a range of issues' and to 'engage the people of Scotland in a proper dialogue.'

At present, polls indicate that the Scottish electorate remain sceptical about the case for full independence. But just as an SNP majority at Holyrood once seemed unthinkable, so this ground is shifting. As a potent sign of that, Scottish Labour leadership contender Ken McIntosh MSP has proclaimed himself 'not a unionist, but a devolutionist' and in favour of  'Home Rule for Scotland' rather than 'secession'.

Such canny rhetoric recognises an entrenched mood of resistance to Westminster hegemony across Scotland, but also deep uncertainty about a wholesale go-it-alone philosophy. The struggle has hardly begun, but the shape of the battlefield is emerging. 

Simon Barrow