It's The Wrong Question, Alex.

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You probably noticed that on Wednesday, Burns Day, Alex Salmond revealed one of the greatest political secrets of the early twenty-first century - THE QUESTION!!


And, utterly amazingly for the most astute politician in Britain since Harold Wilson, he completely screwed it up.


The question in question is of course the wording of the independence referendum, which we now know will be in late 2014 (about when we in Scotland expected it anyway). And the wording will be - tan tarara, rara - "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?".

What the hell does that mean?

On the face of it, the question is simple. It’s the kind of question that a referendum should have: it’s short, has no subordinate clauses or conditions, and expects a simple Yes or No answer. Unfortunately it is not as clear cut as it looks on the surface and defining it correctly will be key to avoiding strife after the vote is counted and “independence” has been won.

Readers familiar with the work of Douglas Adams will remember that seven and a half million years’ worth of computing effort was expended in answering the ultimate question of “life, the Universe and everything”. When the realisation came that the answer was 42, the explanation swiftly followed that the question had been insufficiently precise. Adams derived a couple of wonderful radio series and a string of very entertaining books from this misunderstanding: we will reap a harvest of argument and misery if we do not sort this out before some Thursday late in 2014.

For example, do you think that the question could be re-phrased “Do you agree that Scotland should leave the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?”? Until a few days ago I would have thought that to have been good enough. But late last week I realised that it is not.

The problem is in the word “Kingdom”. Back in 1707 when the Treaty of Union came into force there was little ambiguity. The two parliaments came together under a common titular head, Queen Anne. Monarch and parliament ruling together. Nowadays things are different. The monarch has little more than a ceremonial role and is divorced from the actual exercise of power. Much the same could in fact be said of the UK parliament since most of its function has been usurped by Brussels.

The position of the SNP - and this is something I happen to support - is that Queen Elizabeth I and II should remain the Head of State of Scotland. Presumably to be followed by King George VII (yes, George VII, not Charles III – same bloke, different monicker). Since the monarchy is an obvious anachronism, but mostly harmless, relatively cheap and useful for tourism I see no real need to abolish it.

The problem with the way we use the word “Kingdom” is that it conflates the royal and the democratic institutions, a situation that no longer strictly obtains. So we want to leave behind the dead hand of the Westminster parliament, but remain members of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and that is not easily described with the names that we have readily to hand. Until now we have been talking about the new situation in the British Isles as being Scotland, Ireland and the Remainder UK. That’s not going to work any more.

That’s largely a semantic argument, and one we can leave until a little later. We know what we want; we just need to find the words to describe it adequately.

There is a more serious problem looming in that question in its single most important word – “independent”. What does that mean in this context? Again, until recently, there would have been a fair consensus as to its definition. We would expect that Scotland would take care of its own affairs, cooperating with other countries as and when in our mutual interest. However, in the light of the SNP’s avowed intention for Scotland to become/remain a full member of the European Union that must be re-examined.

We noted above that the Westminster parliament has little to do now beyond implementing decrees from above. Following the SNP’s desired trajectory would mean that we would simply swap one bunch of remote disinterested masters for another. The only real difference would be the twenty minute longer plane trip to bend the knee to a different foreign prince. That’s not what I’d call “independent”.

What I want to see is a Scotland that can decide for itself how its natural resources are controlled, how its people live, what currency it uses, how it manages its relations with other countries. If we became an independent country tomorrow on the SNP’s terms we wouldn’t have any of that.

So Alex, please forgive the temerity, but let me suggest that the wording of the question to be asked should be: “Do you agree that Scotland should become an autonomous nation within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?”

And Alex, while you’re reading this, please try not to let yourself be bounced into any more hasty pronouncements by the bullying of the Unionist establishment. And please stop playing up to their “Little Scotlander” view of us by timing those pronouncements to coincide with nominally Scottish anniversaries. It was probably just an unfortunate coincidence that the Hugo Young lecture (full text) almost landed on Burns Night, but the Unionistas are making much of the referendum coming in the year of the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn. I realise that that is also just a coincidence, but a wee statement to that effect would be useful.

And given a vote for independence in 2014, please don’t think we can be fully self-reliant by 2016; that is just wishful thinking. The modern world is too complicated, too interwoven to allow the unpicking of existing institutions in that short a period. A much more realistic timescale would be by 2020, perhaps by April 14th or thereby.

In Douglas Adams’ book, working out the question for the ultimate answer involved a further 10 million years’ argument and experimentation, only for the whole affair to be destroyed just five minutes too soon. Please let’s not spoil the celebrations for a “Yes” vote by bickering for years over what we actually voted for.

On a positive note, the Telegraph asked its readers The Question and The Answer was YES. 

Updated 19/3/12 to fix George's number.

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