Global Policy Forum

Scotland's Independence Referendum: All to Play For, Whatever the Polls Say

On October 15, Scotland's Alex Salmond and British Prime Minister David Cameron signed a historic 30-clause agreement that would break up the 300-year-old union by allowing a referendum for independence before the end of 2014. While polls indicates that popular support remains weak, Michael White argues that “in turbulent times like these, too much can happen in the next two years to swing the result either way.” The Scottish case might in fact be symptomatic of a global trend: the economic crisis and unpopular austerity policies amplify the popularity of separatist parties and threaten long-time established states, as electoral successes have recently shown in Catalonia, Flanders and Quebec.

By Michael White

October 16, 2012

With the polls reporting that Scots are currently two-to-one against breaking up their 300-year-old union with England, the part-time unionist papers in London are already taunting Alex Salmond that he is engaged in "mission impossible" in seeking to win the referendum he agreed with David Cameron. Don't you believe it; that is foolish, complacent talk.

No one can safely predict the outcome of the ballot the first minister plans to hold in the autumn of 2014 – around the time of the 700th anniversary of Scotland's famous (rare) military victory over the English at Bannockburn. In turbulent times like these too much can happen in the next two years to swing the result either way. Here's Severin Carrell's excellent guide. And here's Steve Bell's view from the Green People's Republic of Brighton.

The governments in both London and Edinburgh can do things that make them deeply unpopular with voters. Or events outside their control can tilt the outcome either way. Consider the wider world, which – against the trend of decades – is getting more fractious and difficult to govern in so many ways that the go-it-alone appeal of small states is attractive to many, delusional to others.

It's not just Scotland or even crisis-torn Europe. It didn't command many column inches in the London press or Scotland's own, but Flemish nationalists made sweeping gains at the socialists' expense in local elections across northern Belgium on Monday with the New Flemish Alliance's Bart de Wever set to become mayor of Antwerp, a major European city. It ratchets up pressure for an independence referendum to separate them from the French-speaking south (cue for Flemish chatter about lazy Catholic welfare addicts).

In warmer southern climes, the Guardian and other papers have been full of articles about Catalonia's renewed demands for an independence referendum from Madrid – something the Spanish conservative government is refusing to concede, in sharp contrast to David Cameron's accommodation of the SNP demand in Monday's Edinburgh agreement.

Barcelona fell to Spanish armies in 1714 – seven years after Scotland's parliament signed itself into the union – and the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barça is still reflected on the football field. But Catalonia is one of the richest parts of Spain (7.3 million people out of 47 million, against Scotland's 5.2 million out of 62 million) and its historical relations far more fraught – not least in the Spanish civil war of 1936-39 when it was a republican stronghold. Orwell's Homage to Catalonia is still a gripping read.

Every case is different but let's not stop there. Among the world's more stable and mature societies, Canada is again threatened with a divisive battle over the independence hopes of the Parti Québécois now that the PQ – up and down over the decades – has again won power in Montreal. Pauline Marois is now provincial premier in francophone Quebec. Under economic pressure centrifugal forces vie with centripetal ones.

Does Salmond follow these developments? You bet he does. So does Whitehall, which, so the Guardian's even-handed editorial notes, has surprised Ottawa as well as Madrid by the ease with which it has exercised its reserved constitutional power to allow (not block) a Scottish referendum. It's a gamble for both sides.

As noted everywhere, Salmond has also won over timing – a long runup – and over votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, though how this will be done is unclear, as Alan Trench writes on UCL's ever-authoritative Devolution Matters website at some length here. Cameron has won the battle to impose a binary question – yes or no – and to see that the neutral Electoral Commission supervises the detailed question (always important) and the referendum itself.

Listening to Salmond and his deputy/successor Nicola Sturgeon at their press conference on Monday – Cameron thought it unwise to hold one too – I couldn't help but be struck by their emollient tone. That's only sensible. This vote will, as usual, be won by the undecideds who are neither passionate for the union nor for independence. Best to be civil and persuasive, best to ignore the uncouth heckling of Thatcherite hardliners like Lord Mickey Forsythe, a not-very-successful ex-Scottish secretary who accuses Cameron of being a Pontius Pilate. Politics is more subtle than that.

But both Salmond and Cameron agreed that the deal was fair and that they would respect the result. The SNP claim to have won the battle for a "Made in Scotland" referendum – London had the power to block it – is important, because it makes it harder to cry foul if the polling results in 2012 are repeated in 2014. Alex Salmond says he is confident of victory, but he has to say that, just as his team has to say they will respect a no verdict, which we doubt, don't we?

Yet Trench makes an important point when he says that by excluding the most popular option from the referendum ballot in the interests of a clear result the Edinburgh agreement makes Scottish voters the big losers. What option? English voters (more of whom would like to say goodbye than Scots would on some polling evidence) don't know much about "devo-max'', the soft-independence option Salmond wanted included. But most Scots seem to favour more devolved powers, something London may concede after a no vote.

It's possible in the unknown circumstances of 2014 that voters forced to say yes or no may decide that a yes is closer to their wish to see what Salmond – echoing the Irish debate of 100 years or so ago – is now calling home rule. The analogy is not perfect (no Ulster problem) but London's failure to grant it to Dublin in the 1880s and before the first world war led to the tragedy of 1916 and partition in 1921. As Ian Cobain reports here, the poison still drips.

Though I'm a gut unionist I can see that life will go on if Scotland wants to go its own way, though it will consume unimaginable time, money and energy to unpick the union for uncertain outcomes. I'd say the effort would be better spent on improving the UK's economic and social performance as the unit it currently is. But sometimes the heart rules the head, which must be why Alex is so keen on giving votes to 16-year-olds. It does not suggest great confidence – and may well backfire.

My problem in recent years has been the extent to which the SNP has chopped and changed on pretty important building blocks of the new state it hopes to create. In the 70s the message was a small modern state in a thriving new Europe, free of the anchor which was fuddy-duddy old England. That model doesn't look so clear-cut during the eurozone crisis when small peripheral states like Ireland are having more problems – and consequently less independence from EU control – than makes them comfortable.

At least they are our own mistakes, say Irish patriots. It's a fair point. But Salmond now wants to keep the pound rather than embrace the euro, two states with one currency, not a fashionable formula. He wants to keep the Queen as head of state – much as James I and his heirs sat on two thrones from 1603-1707. It's a case of cheerfully making it up, adapting to changing times, which is what politicians are supposed to do. But it does make it all feel a bit rackety.

Until recently Salmond also argued that both Scotland and Rump UK would have to reapply for EU membership – clearly not true, as Brussels has since made clear. Paris doesn't like the idea of breakaway states any more than other EU leaders do: 27 is quite enough of a headache without adding more, they feel. You can see their point of view too. Scottish business leaders, still unionist at heart most of them, want the uncertainty ended.

But there has to be a proper debate and it has now been formally launched in a civil atmosphere, a good start. If I were Cameron or the "Better Together" campaign team – "no camp" sounds too negative – I'd be busy number-crunching the SNP's dramatic claim that an independent Scotland would be the sixth richest country in the world. It's a powerful claim. Let's find out how they did the sums.


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