Walter Humes examines scenarios following a Yes or No narrow majority in the independence referendum
The forthcoming referendum on independence has been presented as a critical moment in Scottish history, marking either continuing commitment to the union or a decisive break from the constitutional settlement of 1707. But what if the outcome is a narrow majority for one side or the other?
To imagine that there will be passive acceptance by those who are unhappy with the result is rather optimistic, particularly if the turnout is less than 80 per cent. If the future seems to have been determined on the basis of a few thousand votes out of a population of more than five million, it is safe to predict that the arguments will go on for some time.
This is the second of a series of articles prompted by next year’s referendum on Scottish independence.
Tomorrow: Stephen Noon, former senior policy adviser to Alex Salmond and now Chief Strategist with the Yes Scotland campaign, envisages circumstances in which he might vote Labour or Liberal Democrat in an independent Scotland.
But, it may be objected, the outcome looks fairly straightforward, with nearly all of the polls indicating a clear majority for the No camp. Several factors should lead us to be cautious about that conclusion. Firstly, many people still describe themselves as ‘undecided’, torn between the ‘romantic’ appeal of independence and the ‘safer’ option of continuing as part of the United Kingdom.
Secondly, even the leader of the Better Together campaign, Alastair Darling, has acknowledged that the gap between the two sides is likely to narrow as 18 September 2014 approaches. The new Scottish Secretary, Alistair Carmichael, has not improved the No camp’s chances by a weak performance in early exchanges with the SNP’s Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. And thirdly, it is impossible to predict how the public will react to late manoeuvres by Alex Salmond and David Cameron. The former is likely to pull a few rabbits out of the hat and the latter may hold out incentives to tempt uncertain Scots to stick with the union.
Let us consider the scenario of a result rejecting independence but only by a majority of one or two percentage points. It is highly unlikely that Yes campaigners will say, “Fine. We fought a good campaign but lost. Let’s move on”. On the contrary, they are much more likely to analyse the result, seek to identify what they could have done better, and try to keep the issue alive. After all, the devolution ‘defeat’ in 1979 did not put an end to the matter.
Within the SNP, there may well be recriminations, with fundamentalists, for example, arguing that the party was not radical enough in its agenda. They might claim that by opting to continue with the honours system, the Queen as head of state and the pound as currency, the reformist edge of the campaign had been blunted. Others might suggest that the White Paper was too vague and that the financial implications of independence, particularly in relation to health and welfare, had not been adequately worked out. However, although alternative explanations for defeat might be offered, different groups within the SNP would be united in trying to revisit the question at an early opportunity. One interesting possibility that might be floated would be to make voting in any future referendum compulsory – a provision that applies in some countries which make regular use of referenda – on the grounds that the decision is too important to be affected by the whims of electors or the vagaries of the weather.
Now let us consider what might happen if the result went the other way, a narrow vote in favour of independence. The implications for the UK government would be massive. David Cameron would almost certainly have to resign straight away. Any leader who has presided over the defection of a large part of the country would suffer a massive loss of credibility. There would be a section of the Conservative Party which would seek to make the transition to independence for Scotland as difficult as possible by obstructing negotiations, raising legal objections of various kinds and generally trying to delay the process.
The UK general election which is scheduled to take place in May 2015 would assume even greater significance than usual, with the possibility of a major reconfiguration of the political landscape in England. UKIP might do well in the south and there might be strengthened demands for greater devolution from London in the north. Political fragmentation might make it difficult to form any government which commanded widespread support. Whether, under its present leadership, Labour would benefit from the ensuing chaos, is uncertain.
Underlying all of this are difficult questions which both sides in the independence debate are failing to address adequately. The most important is the depth of public disenchantment with all politicians and the self-serving nature of the political process, whether viewed from north or south of the border. Neither Westminster nor Holyrood has done much to inspire the trust of the electorate.
To that can be added the widespread perception that many public institutions, both UK and Scottish, operate in a defensive, protectionist way that seems more concerned to maintain the authority of those who hold high office within them than to fulfil their stated social obligations. Regulatory bodies are seen as weak and ineffective, sometimes led by people who have been beneficiaries of political patronage. In short, there is a serious crisis of integrity which afflicts large areas of public life across the whole of Britain. It is legitimate to ask how the referendum result, whatever the outcome, will enable us to address this issue.
Two recent conversations provided an interesting and unexpected angle on voting intentions. Both were with people who normally vote for (different) unionist parties. They were thinking of voting Yes in the referendum. One despaired of UK politics and regarded Britain as a nation in decline. He did not expect things to be easy in the first few years of an independent Scotland, but he believed that shaking up the system might lead to improvements in the longer term.
The other also wanted to see change and, although she was not impressed by the quality of current MSPs, thought that the responsibilities of independence might encourage new people to come forward to challenge the orthodoxies of the establishment parties in Scotland. She did not expect to gain any benefits for herself but was thinking in terms of the kind of Scotland she wanted for her children and grandchildren. Both informants seemed to be motivated by an uneasy combination of despair and hope.
No general conclusions can be drawn from these examples. What they do suggest, however, is that the sloganising of the two camps in the independence debate may not be the crucial factor in the final result. Much will depend on the personal reflections that cause undecided voters to come down on one side or the other. There is still a great deal to play for.