It's not a constitutional crisis yet, but Britain and Scotland are inching toward one. At stake is not just the future of a nation but the political careers of two powerful men.
Alex Salmond began with the Modified Lévesque Opening. The Scottish separatist leader said he will produce a referendum ballot in late 2014, shortly before the next British election, that will contain two or three questions. The first will ask if "they'd like the Scottish government to enter into negotiations with the U.K. government" toward national sovereignty. The additional questions would offer some lesser form of semi-sovereignty, including "devo max" (an expansion of the current devolution, which gives Scotland its own Parliament and some legal autonomy).
Mr. Salmond has told me he's fully aware of the phrase " sovereignty-association," and he appears to be well-studied in René Lévesque's use of deliberate ambiguity as a tactic for maximizing the Yes vote.
This week, Prime Minister David Cameron fired back with the Dion Gambit. Scotland, he declared, will be granted the authority to hold a referendum, as long as Westminster's conditions are met. And there should be only one question, a strict Yes or No one in which a clear Yes majority will result in certain and immediate separation from Britain. Only this question, whose possibility is contained in the Scotland Act, would be constitutionally allowable.
That was a politically bold and sensible move, probably inspired by Mr. Cameron's readings of Stéphane Dion's Clarity Act: By turning the referendum into a brick-wall question of secession, London gave Scots a sense of clarity, and also rendered a Yes vote as dangerous and unlikely as possible.
But Mr. Cameron, possibly overplaying his hand, added another condition: The referendum must be held by the end of 2013. Otherwise, Westminster could organize its own referendum on Scotland.
This allowed Mr. Salmond to respond with the Lucien Bouchard Defence. He will hold the referendum, he said, in 2014. Scotland has the right to hold one, he said – not to declare separation but to give its government a mandate to enter into negotiations with Westminster. Mr. Cameron is not quite in checkmate, but it will require a bold sacrifice. A London-organized secession referendum would be unprecedented. A sequence of court challenges and political gambits is more likely.
Beneath this political brinkmanship are some harsh realities. If Scotland became independent tomorrow, it would immediately become one of the European leaders in homicides, hard-drug abuse, obesity, cancer deaths and alcoholism, and would have rates of poverty and chronic disease far higher than any of its neighbours.
In other words, Scotland is a very expensive place to administer. The British Treasury spends $16,000 a year on every Scottish man, woman and child, $2,500 more than it spends on their English neighbours; if Scotland's share of tax revenue and expenditure are added up, an independent Scotland would wind up with a $23-billion annual deficit, or 13.4 per cent of GDP (or worse, if separation hurt that GDP).
Mr. Salmond says Scotland would gain control of the 81 per cent of North Sea oil in its territory, whose revenue could theoretically lower that deficit to a more manageable 6.8 per cent of GDP. But that doesn't leave room for surprises – such as the billions Britain spent bailing out Scotland's huge banks. And independence would make Scotland a single-resource nation that would be spending all its resource revenue within its own economy. This is not a recipe for prosperity.
So the morning after secession would not be an easy one for Mr. Salmond. It would mark the end of a spectacular two decades during which he has led Scotland boldly and often impressively. His political and fiscal fortunes would be hurt: He has no reason to desire any secession that would be soon or easy.
His best tactic is to hold the referendum as close as possible to his re-election vote, and to make the question so vague that it will produce something he can call a Yes, however meaningless. That will give him another majority, and a chance to start the whole thing again.
During Wednesday's Prime Minister's Questions, Mr. Cameron imported another Canadian phrase, one that may come to describe the next decade of London-Edinburgh relations: Scottish nationalists, he said, want a "neverendum," not a referendum.