On Radio 4 the other night, Professor James Mitchell summed up his view of how events are likely to unfold rather succinctly - if devo max is on the ballot paper in pretty much any form it will win, but if not it's anyone's guess at this stage as to whether independence or the status quo will prevail in a forced choice. We might quibble about his near-certainty that devo max would defeat independence in a three-way choice, but there's no denying there's more than a grain of truth in his assessment, and all the parties will surely have made a similar calculation. Which makes the battle over whether there should be a devo max question essentially one founded on games theory. The SNP seemingly believe that it's rational to seize the overwhelming likelihood of substantial new powers for Holyrood, even if it means lessening their chances of securing the ultimate prize in the near future - because it would also dramatically reduce their risk of coming away with nothing. The Tories and Labour have reached the opposite view - the thought of genuine Scottish self-government is plainly so horrific to them that they believe it's rational to risk everything in order to have a chance of maintaining their precious line in the sand.
But the Lib Dems? Unlike the Tories and Labour, Devo Max is indistinguishable from what they claim to believe in. So how on earth are we to explain their seemingly irrational decision to turn down the golden chance to use the referendum to fight for the very constitutional settlement they supposedly want, instead infinitely preferring to join a united front with the Tories and Labour to save a status quo they're supposedly opposed to? Remember - just a few days ago, Nick Clegg informed us that he is "not a unionist", and that supporters of both the status quo and independence are "extremists". And yet how quick he is to want to reduce the choice to one only between those two "extremes", and equally quick to decide which one of those extremes he passionately wants to win. Curious.
Perhaps the response from the Lib Dems might be that if independence is defeated in a straight yes/no vote, they can then go on to argue the case for substantial new powers. Don't make me laugh. A No vote would be hungrily seized upon by the London establishment as an excuse to close down all movement on the constitution for a generation, just as happened after 1979. We know it, and the Lib Dems know it as well. No, there's only one explanation for the way in which they are moving heaven and earth to sabotage their own constitutional policy - namely that the Lib Dems (or more specifically the party leadership) are, in spite of Clegg and Moore's protestations, every bit as much an instinctive, "gut" unionist party as the Tories and Labour are. Cut them, and they bleed unionist red, not the federalist rainbow.
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Is Ruth Davidson channelling Martin Kettle, or is it the other way round? She made this extraordinary claim in the Scottish Parliament yesterday -
"Every opinion poll ever published shows the people of Scotland agree with me - Scotland is better off in Britain."
Every opinion poll ever published? The only question that needs to be asked here is whether she knows she's lying or just hasn't bothered to do even the most basic homework (ie. whether she's making the schoolgirl error of taking the London media mythology as read). Forget the poll from just last September showing a plurality in favour of independence - how about the legendary multi-option poll in the run-up to the 1992 election, that showed support for independence at 50%, with devolution and the (then) status quo trailing way behind in the twenties? And there have been umpteen polls showing a pro-independence plurality since then.
But if by any chance she knows all this, then clearly we're in for the 'Big Lie' school of political campaigning over the next couple of years.