Tom Gordon: Unionist mixed messages on Indyref2 not all panic

IT’S certainly activity, but it would be daring to call it a plan.

Some of it looks decidedly random, although it is possible to make out some logic. If you squint.

In the last few days, we’re had reports of urgent action on the Union at Westminster, with Boris Johnson urged to bend the franchise for a looming referendum to his advantage, followed by Michael Gove appearing to rule out another vote full stop.

The two things are flatly inconsistent and suggest a breakdown in communications, if not blind panic.

Hyper-optimistic Unionists may detect a carefully crafted, but largely subterranean plan to defend the UK.

But as the goal is to win over hearts and minds, secret plans are of limited use. The public has to notice what’s going on if it’s to be moved.

What seems to be happening is the No side is probing the SNP and Yes movement for soft spots now that the dust has settled after the Holyrood election, seeing what gets a reaction, and what leaves a mark.

The first sortie involved suggesting the vote in Indyref2 be extended to Scots now living elsewhere in the UK, a handy 800,000-strong bloc more inclined to vote No than Yes.

To my mind, this group have already voted – with their feet.

As Iain Macwhirter pointed out in these pages yesterday, this is also a dark path to go down, and UK ministers would be very unwise to try.

Introducing ethnicity into the mix is not going to end well. Residency has always been the essential standard applied in elections and referendums past, and so it should remain.

If blood and birthright are allowed to trump bricks and mortar, then all manner of people could be excluded on the basis of their alleged impurity.

It’s also a very dog-eared notion. It was floated by Tory MPs in 1997 when legislation for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly referendums was going through the Commons.

They tried to extend the franchise to Scots living elsewhere in the UK and even to everyone in the UK.

The Labour MP Tam Dalyell called it “the Gary McAllister problem”, asking why the then Scottish football captain couldn’t vote just because he was playing for Coventry City.

“He has a moral right at least to be considered,” he said.

Another Labour MP, John McAllion, shot down the idea, pointing out there are obvious consequences to leaving your home, perhaps never to return.

“Whoever you are, if you choose to leave your country, you choose to leave the democracy in that country.”

The idea came back again when Holyrood was deciding the franchise for the 2014 referendum. Again, it was rejected in favour of residency.

Yet the cabinet minister flying this kite in the Times said it was a solid bit of preparation, while another senior Tory told the paper: “We need to get out there on the front foot and start talking like we’re ahead.”

Dusting the cobwebs off a bad idea doesn’t really seem to fit the bill.

More interesting is the coded message involved – if, and it remains a vast if, there is a second referendum in the coming years, it will not be done on the same footing as the one of 2014, when Alex Salmond’s Government determined the timing and franchise.

This was a shot across the bows, telling Nicola Sturgeon Westminster would try to raise the gradient to make her path to victory far harder than before, in the hope she will blink and not push for a vote while the polls suggest the outcome is a toss-up.

The First Minister’s angry complaint about her opponents trying to rig the process suggest the message got through to its intended target.

The second foray involved Michael Gove. Regular readers may recall my frustration in May when, in the aftermath of the election, the Cabinet Office minister adamantly refused to commit an act of news when he spoke to the Holyrood lobby, deflecting all questions about Indyref2 with waffle.

But in an interview with the Telegraph yesterday, Mr Gove was verging on an opinion. Asked if there were any circumstances in which the PM might grant Indyref2 before the 2024 general election, he said: “I don’t think so” and “I can’t see it”.

Although not categorical refusals, the message to Ms Sturgeon was clear enough – you’ll get no help from us.

If you want this, you will have to push it all the way to the UK Supreme Court, where an authorised Holyrood Referendum Bill may well get gutted, in a process that would remind voters how complicated and exhausting the delivery of independence could be.

The FM said this was “sneering, arrogant condescension” and predicted it would “just build support for independence”. If the sun failed to rise tomorrow, the SNP would happily argue perpetual night is a boon for independence. So no surprise there.

More interestingly, Mr Gove also played another card, claiming the SNP’s Ian Blackford is too happy being part of the “Westminster furniture” to upset his cosy routine with Indyref2.

This punched a bruise much-thumped by Mr Salmond’s Alba Party, which sells itself as the home of true believers, while the SNP leadership have snuggled into a rut and given up.

It is a sign Mr Gove hopes to feed that division in the Yes movement.

By suggesting Mr Johnson will keep blocking Indyref2, he knows it will generate demands from Mr Salmond and the Alba-minded asking what Ms Sturgeon plans to do about it.

While with his pop at Mr Blackford, he suggests the answer is precious little, hoping that will make the Yes movement more fractious, which in turn may make its wares less appealing. Not a slick bank-job of a plan, but not wholly shapeless either.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992