One of the constant refrains of unionist politicians is that SNP rule will lead to a 'neverendum' - a carbon-copy of the Quebec experience whereby the 'separatists' (cue demonic music) keep losing independence referendums, but then keep calling a new one until they get the result they want. In truth, the jibe is well wide of the mark even in relation to Quebec, where so far there have only been two independence referendums, fifteen years apart, with the most recent one a full sixteen years ago. Indeed, the second one only came round so 'quickly' because of the total collapse of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords on constitutional reform (which, incidentally, ought to be a warning from history to unionists who think the way to see off independence is by being as intransigent as humanly possible). Even now, the Parti Québécois seem to have no plans for a third referendum if they win the next election. So the Quebec experience actually lends considerable weight to Alex Salmond's reassurance that a No vote in a Scottish independence referendum would resolve the issue for "a generation" - and at the very least that any attempt to call another referendum sooner than that would require a clear, fresh mandate at a Holyrood election.
But can unionists - and more specifically the UK government - say the same about a Yes vote? If we are to take Michael Moore's latest pronouncement seriously, it appears not. They seem to think that a No vote should kill the matter for all-time, but if there's a Yes vote, not to worry - we'll just hold a second referendum with a much more complicated question a couple of years later to see if we can get a result that is more to our taste.
I'd suggest they're playing a very dangerous game here. The whole reason that unionists have invoked the spectre of the 'neverendum' over the years is that they know full well that the public think there is no case for a quick second referendum on the same subject - that No should mean No, but by the same token Yes should mean Yes. And since the public are sensibly inclined to think that one side of the argument should not be given a second bite of the cherry if they lose the vote, the following question may well start to be posed of the UK government - if you really think that a consultative referendum wouldn't provide a sufficient mandate for independence and that there needs to be a referendum on the details of an independence settlement, shouldn't the latter vote be the sole referendum? In other words, isn't the logic of your own position that you should enter into full independence negotiations now with the Scottish government, and that there should only be a referendum once the settlement has been thrashed out?
The other danger of the game Moore is playing is that, if he gets his way, it may well make a defeat for the unionist side in the "first" referendum much more likely. After all, we know that many people not yet convinced by the case for independence were quite happy to back the SNP on May 5th, because the double-lock of the referendum pledge meant that it was safe to do so. Bizarrely, Moore seems to be hellbent on also making it 'safe' for these people to vote Yes to opening negotiations on independence - because the message will be going out loud and clear that such a vote won't finally settle matters. They can suck it and see, which may not be such an unattractive proposition after a few more years of Tory rule.
It was suggested on Newsnight Scotland that Moore's intervention may be just one part of a new strategy of 'muscular unionism', which also involves ripping up the 'respect agenda' (will this be the sixth time?) by refusing point blank to budge an inch on extra powers for the Scottish Parliament. Since Moore's party are supposed to favour many of the powers that are being requested, it seems this 'muscularity' is largely being used to punch the lights out of the Liberal Democrats' own beliefs.
I heard it said forcefully at the Political Innovation conference in November that it was quite wrong to call the Lib Dems a 'unionist' party - they are, in fact, 'federalist'. Did Muscle Man Moore get that memo? As a Lib Dem contributor to a later package on Newsnight hinted, perhaps the party's Scottish prospects would be a little brighter if they remembered that they are actually a Home Rule party by tradition. That means breaking out of the self-destructive, almost unthinking impulse to forever lump themselves in with the Tories and Labour as just one more part of the unionist mush, in opposition to the nationalist 'other'. Here's my advice to Michael - take a step back, stop talking to Tories for a little while and start talking to your own grass roots, and then consider whether the time isn't in fact ripe for some Muscular Federalism.