By the pricking of my thumbs, a wicked second question this way comes.

With Michael Moore now calling for the SNP to agree to a single question referendum as soon as possible the second option appears to be a hot topic in the unionist camp. Cameron wants a deal with no second option, Moore wants a deal with no second option and the Labour chaired Scottish Affairs Committee don’t want a second option either.

So why are the unionists so scared about the SNP unilaterally putting a second devo-max option on the referendum ballot paper?

For a start it would damage the SNP’s independence campaign by giving those who don’t want the status quo a less dramatic option for change and divert them away from independence. It would also lead to political ridicule of the SNP during the independence referendum campaign. There would be endless questions on:

* How are you going to implement this without a majority in Westminster to push it through if it wins?
* Does this mean you don’t want independence?
* Why have you put an option on the ballot paper that you are not going to campaign for?
* Is it the SNP’s ambition to have a Unilateral Declaration of Devolution (laughter)?
* Are you too scared for independence?
* Is this an admission you know you’re going to lose the independence vote and so on and so on.

It would be a disaster for the independence campaign.

However if the SNP’s real intention is not independence but devo-max as many in the unionist camp seem to believe then if devo-max were to win wouldn’t the SNP get their consolation prize by achieving a Scottish Parliament with much more substantial powers?

It would never happen that way. For devo-max to work as a fallback option for the SNP it has to pass two hurdles. It has to win the referendum and it has to pass as a bill through the Westminster Parliament and that parliament is controlled by the unionist parties.

Even if the orphan option of devo-max won the referendum then the unionist side would say that it couldn’t implement the SNP’s proposed devo-max without a UK consultation to see how it affected everybody in the UK economically and in terms of good governance and that would take at least another parliament to achieve. Then it would have to go to a UK wide referendum as it affected the whole UK. In other words whatever powers were offered to Scots on the 2014 referendum devo-max option they would come out at the far end of the Westminster process as some form of Calman clone if they ever did appear. Toothless and useless and far, far into the future. The alternative option for the unionist parties would be simply to ignore a devo-max result in the referendum as not being a policy of any party in Westminster. The Westminster Parliament is the bottleneck for delivering more power to a devolved Scottish Parliament and the unionist parties control that bottleneck.

If the SNP unilaterally put a devo-max option on the ballot paper they would be shooting themselves in the foot with both barrels. Perhaps the unionist inspired media fuss about getting the SNP to agree to a single option referendum is some form of reverse psychology by the unionist camp. By demanding that the SNP produce only a single option on the ballot paper they hope the SNP will also produce a second devo-max option just to be awkward and destroy the independence campaign along with the SNP. The answer is a lot simpler than that.

The unionist camp of Labour, Tory and the Lib-Dems control the placement of a second option on the ballot paper since they are the only ones who can get a devo-max bill through Westminster. They are also the only ones who have the capability to define the powers of devo-max as they know what devo-max powers their MP’s will countenance in a Westminster devo-max bill. If a devo-max option goes onto the referendum bill then it has to go on under the ownership of all of the unionist parties (or at minimum the Labour party) as the only parties who can guarantee implementation through Westminster.

That means that if the unionist camp don’t want a second option on the ballot paper none will appear. The SNP are certainly not going to put one on unilaterally. The SNP have ownership of the independence option and they’ve stated time and again that is the only option they are going to campaign for. Which brings us to the important question highlighted in the first paragraph. Why are the unionists so eager for the SNP to eliminate a second option on the ballot paper this early in the campaign when the unionists are in control of the second option appearing on the ballot paper? If the unionists do nothing no second option will appear.

What the unionists really fear is the SNP keeping the door open for a second option right up until the referendum bill goes through the Scottish Parliament. Both camps, nationalist and unionist, will be targeting the swing voters, the ones who would like more powers but are not yet struck on independence. If the unionists can get the SNP to agree to only one option now then it blunts any SNP campaign based on the fact that the unionists were given every chance to put a devo-max option on the ballot paper and failed to do so. An analogy is of a train leaving a station.

The Referendum Bill Express is about to leave the station and Train Guard Alex Salmond is holding the door open while shouting to Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, “Hop aboard if you’ve got tickets for request-stop Devo-Max.”

Cameron, Clegg and Miliband shout back, “We don’t want to go there, just close the door and leave early.”

If the residents of Devo-Max start to ask questions as to why Cameron, Clegg and Miliband never showed up at the Devo-Max station then Cameron, Clegg and Miliband are going to point to Train Guard Salmond and raise the fact that he shut the door and left early. They might be at fault but Train Guard Salmond shares the blame too.

It’s sly, sleekit and sneaky but that’s what they’re going to do. Salmond has to keep that door open until the Referendum Bill Express leaves at the appointed time to avoid sharing the blame for Cameron, Clegg and Miliband failing to get off at Devo-Max station.

There are two scenarios for the second option.
In scenario one the SNP agree to a single option ballot paper years before the referendum is held. The SNP then become partners in shutting down devo-max and become part of the corporate guilt for the failure to place a devo-max option on the ballot paper. The unionist line will be that even the SNP agreed it was a sensible thing to do and devo-max becomes a non-topic in the referendum campaign. The SNP now can’t point at the unionists as the ones who failed those who wanted devo-max and point to the lack of devo-max as a prime example of the unionist camp’s double standards on devolving powers to Scotland.

In scenario two the SNP keep the door open for a second option right up until the referendum bill passes. The Unionists then take sole blame for no devo-max on the ballot paper and the SNP can point to failure of unionists to propose devo-max as an example of how they will never deliver any more powers to Scotland. The lack of devo-max then becomes a live topic in the referendum campaign. This is what the unionists fear and not the non-starter scenario of the SNP unilaterally putting a devo-max option on the ballot paper.

It’s quite obvious to the SNP, the unionists and anyone who thinks about it that a second option is never going to appear on the ballot paper but this has not been highlighted anywhere in the media. The narrative is all about the unionist camp trying their best to ensure a good clean simple ballot paper and the SNP trying to wangle a second option. The unionist parties know that a second option will never appear but it’s not a good strategy for them to make public that the proposed agreement is to ensure that the SNP shares the blame for no devo-max option and nothing to do with a simple referendum. Hence this media line from the unionist parties that it’s about ensuring a simple, easily understood referendum. It’s not a conspiracy from the unionist political parties anymore than a co-ordinated strategy between the SNP and the Greens would be considered a conspiracy but the mainstream media is wholly unionist and they are not going to deviate from the party line both because they don’t want to and because they’re too lazy to think beyond the press releases. If it’s a conspiracy in the media it’s a conspiracy of lazy unionist partiality.

The second option is important only because both sides know it will never appear on the ballot paper. The SNP know it’s not going to appear and Labour, Tory and the Lib-dems know it’s not going to appear. All this media fuss about the second option is not about stopping it appearing on the ballot paper because that’s already a given but about who shares the blame for it not being there and whether or not it becomes an issue in the independence campaign. The unionists are willing to give Alex Salmond almost everything he wants as long as he accepts the corporate guilt of denying Scots a devo-max option on the ballot paper and with that the unionists can spike the SNP’s strategy of targeting the disappointed devo-max supporters in the referendum campaign.