Friday, November 06, 2009

There will be a referendum on independence - in 2012.

 The decision by the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference to boycott the Scottish Government’s forthcoming referendum bill might seem about as momentous as Stephen Fry abandoning Twitter because someone said he was boring.  (Oscar Wilde never had to put up with such indignity!)   So why are people saying that it has made a referendum almost inevitable?  And even that the campaign for the 2012 referendum on independence has already begun..  Let me explain. 

  The closed-door debate in Dunfermline last weekend was designed to get the LibDems out of the hole they dug themselves into after the Scottish elections in 2007, when Tavish Scott, the SLD leader refused even to discuss a coalition with Alex Salmond unless the SNP leader dropped his party’s policy of a referendum on the constitution - which of course he could not do.   This was an act of unpardonable folly by the Libdems since there was never going to be a referendum anyway. It was a matter of simple arithmetic.  The SNP had only 47 out of 129 MSPs, so as long as the unionist parties held firm, the referendum bill was never going to get to the statute book.

  Salmond couldn’t dump the formal commitment to a referendum without being accused of betrayal, but a referndum was the last thing the leadership actually wanted at that moment anyway.   The Nationalist game plan has always been to show that they could run a competent government at Holyrood before popping the question about leaving the UK.  However, they did initially want a coalition and they wanted to talk.   The SNP were even minded to make a raft of key concessions to the Liberal Democrats including a new Constitutional Convention and a promise that the referendum-that-wasn’t-going-to-happen would include the Liberal Democrat option of federalism.  But it was not to be.

   The Liberal Democrat opposition to the principle of an independence referendum never made much intellectual sense.  The UK party has been calling for a referendum on Europe,  a referendum on constitutional change in England and a referendum on electoral reform.   But under a veto thought to have come from the UK party leader Sir Menzies Campbell, Tavish and his troops were not allowed even to go into the negotiating chamber unless the SNP ruled out its defining policy.    So, the Scottish Liberal Democrats were left out of office and out of power after eight years. They had turned down the opportunity to introduce their local income tax,  and to put their stamp on a whole range of issues of policies in their 2007 election manifesto from the climate change bill to the abolition of bridge tolls.  

  Meanwhile, Alex Salmond, with opportunistic genius, realised that he could make a virtue out of necessity and run a minority government. The rest is history.  The SNP minority administration was spectacularly successful, while the Scottish Liberal Democrats have been left wandering in the wilderness with the other lost tribe of Scottish politics, the Conservatives.  Losing office is like bereavement for some politicians, and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have been in mourning ever since.  The conference at the weekend was an attempt to lay the past to rest and find away back to the land of the living.  The leadership has signalled that, while they rule out a referendum before the 2011 Scottish elections, all bets are off after that. They will not require the SNP to drop its flagship policy before they sit down and talk after the  next Scottish election in 2011 - that’s if the SNP win, of course. 

    However, the Nationalists have done very well under minority, and might be a lot less keen on coalition-making than they were in 2007.   Which means that the terms for any 2011 coalition might be stiff.  The Liberal Democrats will have to agree actively to support a bill for a referendum, which means Alex Salmond will almost certainly get his ballot.  But does he really want one?  The great mystery of Scottish politics is why the SNP are so determined to hold a referendum on independence that they will almost certainly lose.  

  One of the constants of Scottish political opinion over the last quarter century is that, in opinion polls, only around a quarter to a third of Scots actually want to leave the United Kingdom.  The vast majority want ‘devolution max’ - a Scottish parliament, with more powers, within the UK.   In a three question referendum, there seems almost inconceivable that independence would prevail.  Just think: if you are offered, the status quo, a leap in the dark, or a better Holyrood, which would you choose?  

   So, why does Alex Salmond want a referendum that would rule out independence for a generation (he has said there would no recurrent ‘neverendum’). Some cynics say that the SNP doesn’t want independence any more and is quite happy getting rave reviews for running the devolved Scottish parliament.  This is plausible. But  in my many discussions over the years with SNP leaders I have never once had any of them nudge me in the ribs and say: “forget independence, we like this fine”.  Alex Salmond genuinely seems to want a referendum, even if it means that independence is off the agenda as a result. 

   I suppose the way to look at this is that a referendum is a game the SNP cannot lose.  If they win, fine - negotiations begin with Whitehall about leaving the UK.  But if they don’t win, the chances are that they will still be in a parliament which  acquires tax raising powers.  So long as the SNP keep winning elections to the Scottish parliament, and it looks as if they will win next time, the nationalist project is being fulfilled.  Scots are being given confidence in their ability to run their own affairs, and the UK is getting used to thinking of Scotland as a separate country.  Independence is a long game- they’ve waited three hundred years, so what’s another generation or two.  

   The task for Labour will be to prevent them remaining in charge of the Scottish parliament, which is why, Labour will become very much more nationalistic after the next general election - assuming they lose office in Westminster - and might themselves decide to opt for a referendum on their own terms to pre-empt the Nats.    With the SLD moving in that direction also, you can begin to see why this weekend’s non-event in Dunfermline may have altered the course of Scottish history. 


Andrew BOD said...


It's quite conceivable that a three-option referendum, with a period of campaigning, could end up with the independence option being the most popular, but without having anything like an overall majority. E.g. Status Quo 28%, More powers 35%, Full Independence 37%.

Salmond knows that a multi-option referendum will never end up signalling independence, but this sort of result would move independence a step closer and continue the evolutionary change in Scottish politics.

Anonymous said...

The general view is the SNP is playing a rigged waiting game and the longer the length of time till the referendum the better for them. This is a gov of a majority of 1 seat surrounded by ideologically hostile opponents, a big brother parliament ready to trample when it can and ever hungry tabloids ready to slay whatever has been built up.

I don't buy the premise of this article at all, is it saying that because LibDems are out of gov and becoming increasingly irrelevant in Scotland they will have to form a coalition in 2011 therefore agreeing to a deal with the nats over the referendum? It's not a simple sum for me.

Personalities figure too. Salmond the professional gambler wants the ref in his career, it's his life's work, so expect it when he gets the chance. Step forward Tavish, with the backbone of the average LibDem, he'll want to avoid any major gamble that could see his head liable for seeing the 'break up of Britain' by playing Salmond's game. By nature, he's petulant and adverse to anything of Salmond's doing anyway (call it Shetland Isolationalism).

I could go on but enough already....

J. R. Tomlin said...

"One of the constants of Scottish political opinion over the last quarter century is that, in opinion polls, only around a quarter to a third of Scots actually want to leave the United Kingdom."

You ALWAYS leave out the fact that about another third are willing to be PERSUADED to leave the union. People who make that "only a third want to leave the UK" act like the undecided don't exist.

Well, they do.

Only about a third of Scots actively support the union and that is what chaps unionists. They know that in an election there is in fact a darn good chance that the union could break up.

J. R. Tomlin said...

I'm going to expand on my previous comments, Mr. Macwhirter.

The reason between 60 and 70 percent of Scots say that they want a referendum is because although about half that number are not CONVINCED that they want to leave the union, they want to CONSIDER it and decide for themselves.

Between 60 and 70% of Scots are NOT unionists. Only a quarter to a third of Scots would never consider voting to leave the union and are, therefore, unionists.

This is an uncomfortable fact for unionists like yourself (and you're one of the more reasonable of that group) to face and they very much like to pretend that the "undecideds" either don't count or are really unionists who just kind of forgot to tell the pollsters that.

This is nothing more than a pretense. The union is VERY shaky if the Scots ever have a choice. Don't mistake. The Westminster government doesn't mistake that and it's why if they can stop it the Scots will never vote on it.

Take a look at David Cameron's statement that he would "allow" the Welsh to have a referendum. *ahem* How kind of him to "allow" democracy in Wales but not in Scotland.

Anonymous said...

In response to Westminster 'vetoing':

Surely the new Supreme Court would have the final say on the legitimacy of any referendum, NOT Westminster? (cue rant about separation of powers in the U.K. being non-existent)

Ultimately, if the same result is returned as was for the Scottish Parliament then would it not be against legal precedent to deny the referendum legal standing?

For less convincing wins then for sure we get a more thorny issue...

Anonymous said...

Also 60-70% NOT being Unionists doesn't make them pro-independence either.

Show me the cold hard sums on tax revenue per capita and public spending per capita. If those are 100% locked in and we get more after than before then I'll be pro. Anything less certain sees my vote slipping more towards greater powers in roughly equal proportion to the reduction in guarantees.

I imagine there are a number of people who will vote along similarly practical lines. I'd like to see that in the surveys as i imagine a large slab of the undecideds would be turned most easily by such cold financial logic.

Also surely the multi-option ballot is a no-go? The parliament was two separate questions, I'd imagine this would be the same: More powers: y or n? Indep.: y or n?

Finally, of course Cameron is prepared to give democracy it's course in Wales, if they split they take Dragons (cool admittedly, but worthless) if we go there is a the very real possibility we take Oil (& Berwick).

J. R. Tomlin said...

Also 60-70% NOT being Unionists doesn't make them pro-independence either.

No, of course it doesn't. I was merely pointing out the hypocrisy in assuming that the undecided are pro-union. They are undecided--a perfectly reasonable stance.

You say you are yet to be convinced and I can absolutely respect that. My one problem what you ask for is that it is something that Westminster has keep hidden for decades and continues to hide.

Although the current GERS (cold hard sums) show funds GOING outwith Scotland not the other way, they have consistently hidden and under-reported oil and gas taxes and tinkered with other sums.

No, this isn't "conspiracist" theory. There is ample evidence such as the hiding of the MacCrone report--and anyone who thinks that is the only time has a lot more belief in the openness of government than I do. It is to the benefit of the unionists to make it appear that Scotland NEEDS the union.

But where does Scotland benefit from a union that has (see recent news articles) been supported for decades by Scottish oil?

I agree that people want and need hard figures. I have absolutely no doubt that the SNP is going to fight to get those in a referendum campaign. That they aren't there is the choice of Westminster though which you can BET means they are NOT to the unionist benefit.

J. R. Tomlin said...


Scottish Oil

Yes, indeed.