The Scottish referendum – don’t write off a yes vote
There are three golden rules: It’s not over till it’s over; never get involved in a land war in Asia, and never, ever, write off Alex Salmond. At some point in the next five years – probably in 2014 or 2015, Scotland will vote on its constitutional future. As an exile in England, I am often asked what my country will conclude. And the simple answer is that it isn’t simple.
On the one hand, most (but not all) recent polls have had the unionists ahead. The SNP victory in May had little to do with increased support for statehood. But the significant difference in results from survey to survey surely shows one thing: most people haven’t made up their mind. If people know their opinion when the pollsters phone, then they will give the same answer however the question is put. But if this isn’t a matter they’ve pre-pondered, if it’s not something they’ve chewed over at tea time, then they will give whatever thought occurs at that moment. Most people don’t have opinions on most matters until they are asked. And most people seem not to have made up their minds on the coming referendum.
And so everything is open. And, perhaps it is more open than we realise. Because it is important to remember the context of these polls. We have now had four Holyrood elections. In each one, Labour has used its voice to attack the idea of independence. Rather than go for the SNP, they have shrieked that a vote for the Scottish Nationalists is a vote for divorce – for expulsion from the EU, for passports on the trip to visit your Geordie Granny, for a dangerous constitutional experiment, or whatever other fear-mongering is in vogue. Labour have worked hard to make each election a referendum on independence, and they have passionately explained the case for a ‘No’ vote.
Rather than respond to these attacks – rather than allow elections to become about the constitution, the SNP have replied by booting the issue to the long grass – a future referendum. And they have talked instead about abolishing tuition fees and opposing trident, cutting tax for corporations and building roads, investing in green jobs and abolishing council tax. And so, as Peter McColl as pointed out, they have never really used their air time to make the case for independence. They have never had their say in the conversation about the constitution. For more than a decade, they haven’t taken the time to persuade anyone to support the cause. And now, they have three or four years – a long time – to present their arguments, and to frame the debate. Like the march to Mongolia, this is going to be a long campaign.
In January 2011, the SNP polled at 33%. Labour got 49%. By May, Alex Salmond won with a record majority. In part, the early polls were dodgy – a hangover from the Westminster election the previous year. But this shift is a testimony to the fact that the SNP are Britain’s best electoral machine.
Their tartan army has a ground game that is matched by no one. Anywhere in Scotland, in any elections, there is a simple way to find out what’s going to happen – ask the local SNP activists. Their canvassing samples are impeccable, their data a delight. If an electioneer marches on her canvass returns, then the SNP’s return to government should have come as no surprise.
But of course, elections aren’t just ground campaigns, and the referendum will be about much more than knocking on doors. The framing of issues will matter, the use of both conventional and social media, fundraising and, significantly, the leadership making sure that all of these dominoes are lined up and being the faces persuading the people. And whilst the Yes campaign must be about much more than the Scottish Nationalists, it will surely be led by The Maximum Eck. And agree with him or not, Alec Salmond is probably the best electioneer in the UK. The relentless hope, the endless ability to inspire confidence whilst sharing a joke, the fearsome strategy, and the decades in the political trenches mean that beating him is no easy feat. At his side, Nicola Sturgeon – again, one of the heavyweights of British politics – compare her Newsnight performances to those of Osborne or Gove and you begin to get an idea of what she’s capable of. Again, a fearsome campaigner. And who will be leading the charge against this pair?
The figurehead of the no campaign is less clear. Perhaps it will be whichever leader of Labour in the Scottish Parliament replaces the soon-to-be-eaten-alive minnow selected in the current process? Need I say more? Maybe it will be the Lib Dem Scottish Secretary. OK, stop laughing. So, that leaves the man who has already pledged to fight this: the Prime Minister. In his mind he is, with all the gravitas of his office, going to ride North and sway the rebellious Scots. In my mind, I have the image conjured by my fellow Bright Green editor Gary Dunion: for the people, politicians and press in Scotland it will be like bullying the supply teacher. The Tories are already as unpopular in Scotland as they ever were – so much so that the Scottish Conservatives are seriously considering a split. Cameron never got the bounce he did in England when he was first chosen to lead his party: Scots weren’t conned by this smug Southerner. And by the time of the referendum, he and his party – with their sole Scottish MP – will have forced through massive cuts and delivered spiralling unemployment. In this tough terrane, the man who couldn’t even properly beat Gordon Brown will surely stumble.
Perhaps more likely, the opposition will be divided – Labour, Tories, Lib Dems, independent bids to ‘save the union’, no clear message, no narrative, constant squabbling: a recipe for snatching defeat from Salmond’s jowley jaws.
Let me be clear. I am not making a prediction. The Scottish press is surprisingly UK nationalist. UK nationalist parties still have the vast majority of Scots MPs. Most polls show a significant hill to climb: those of us who support independence are certainly behind. But the referendum campaign is already getting going. Mr Cameron faces a long, long march. Over the next three long years at least he will be battling one of the masters of politics in these islands, who will be standing on his own turf and leading the fight of his life, the battle he’s dreamt of every night. It’s not over till it’s over. Never get involved in a land war in Asia, Mr Cameron. And never, ever write off Alec Salmond.
Yes of course the result will matter, Matt. Although in theory all referendums held in the UK are merely “consultative”, because the Westminster parliament is alleged to be sovereign, in practice, there has never been a referendum in the UK or any part of the UK whose result was ignored. Also, when Scotland delivers an emphatic “yes” to independence, as there is every reason to believe it will, that will be headline news on CNN, Russia Today, Al Jazeera, Press TV, Telesur, France 24, etc etc etc, in fact, it will be headline news world wide. Internationally, the British government will be quite unable to get away with just ignoring the result. So what will happen after the referendum? Negotiations, that’s what. In EVERY case where a country has become independent from being ruled by London, sooner or later, there were negotiations. That is true even where there was a period of conflict, as in the case of the USA, and of Ireland. Of course Scotland has to get control of all the oil etc in Scottish waters; but there might be some tricky negotiations on the details of how that is to be done, and, indeed, there might be some argument about what exactly counts as “Scottish waters”. There would also be tricky negotiations about dividing up both the UK national debt, and the UK’s assets. Then there’s the question of military bases. Of course I think there is no way Trident should remain on the Clyde, but what about other, non-nuclear, military facilities, what about NATO planes or ships using Scottish air or sea space? The British government will try to hold on to as much strategic advantage as it can. So there will be a lot of things to be negotiated about. Of course I’m in favour of the Scottish negotiators taking a firm line, and refusing to have anything to do with NATO. But there will still have to be negotiations. Only after the negotiations are concluded is there likely to be an official “Independence Day”.
Good article Adam.
I’m still undecided myself on this – Of course, a cynical view of this though is that it doesn’t really matter what the result will be as Scotland doesn’t have the power to declare itself independent anyway. And, with all the natural resources Scotland has available you can just imagine the UK government finding every excuse under the sun to tell us why independence can’t, and won’t, happen.
It’s a mistake to think the only use of oil is for energy. Oil also has other uses, in pharmaceuticals, and in manufacturing, in fact, without those “other” uses you wouldn’t be reading these words because there would be no such thing as computers, in fact without those “other” uses the entire modern world would collapse. I know a guy who works in the oil industry who thinks that future generation will look back and find it incredible that in the bad old days folk actually BURNED this valuable (and depleting) resource. Dan, it doesn’t follow that “stocks are diminishing” means “Scotland will be poorer”. Despite moves towards “greener” energy, global demand for oil continues to rise. When stocks diminish, they become worth more. As stocks become worth more, it becomes profitable to exploit “marginal” fields, in deeper waters, for instance. And despite the regular refrain of “diminishing stocks”, new fields are constantly being discovered in Scottish waters, which will be exploited, sooner or later. Time is on the side of them becoming more valuable.
For the record, I’m pro-Scottish independence, I was merely raising some concerns about its implications. I didn’t mean to cause offence.
@pictishbeastie, sorry I meant ‘general elections’ instead of national elections. Thank you, I am aware that Scotland elects MSPs at Holyrood, although I was under the impression that laws made by MPs elected in the general election 2010 have a big impact on Scotland, such as voting through, say, the cuts.
I think its debatable about whether separation is purely a ‘good’ thing – currently, due to the Barnett formula (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barnett_formula),Scotland receives a public spending premium when compared to the average in England. Scotland’s latest Government Expenditure and Revenue exercise (http://scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/352173/0118332.pdf) shows that Scotland borrowed 13.4 percent of GDP from the UK. This amount falls when North Sea oil is factored in, but as these stocks are diminishing, question marks on sustainable financing of government projects remain. But as you point out, the ability to sell wind and other resources to your neighbours will help out here, and should provide a wake up call to the UK energy policy as well, as @Dave Coull mentions.
@Dave Coull, your right, I think Scotland are already leading by example in terms of politics, and I’m definitely taking note of, as @Adam Ramsay puts it, ‘the fact that the SNP are Britain’s best electoral machine’. I’ve underestimated the Green Party in England & Wales in my previous post, and yes I think they have a lot of answers to hitting CO2 targets, I’m just fearful about politics in England and the Eurozone at the moment and feel the Green Party and other organisations aren’t getting enough airtime to demonstrate coherent solutions to the problems, or haven’t developed coherent strategies yet.
Dan, it is up to the “poor lefties” of England to work out their own destiny – although, having said that, I think there could be an element of Scotland leading by example. An independent country next door, taking a very different course from a right-wing government in England, could be a boost for radical forces down south. As for “how would the UK hit ambitious CO2 reduction targets without Scotland” – are you seriously suggesting the Green Party in England has no answer to that question???????!!!!!!!!!!
Adam, I for one am not prepared to just resign myself to the idea that the SNP will automatically be in complete charge of the pro-independence campaign in the referendum, with no input from anybody else. Yes of course they’ll run an effective campaign, and good luck to them, but that will be THEIR campaign. There has to be more than that. My point is there can be more than one pro-independence campaign. Not fighting with each other, not competing with each other, just different. Why not? Such diversity isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. Like I said, in the run-up to the referendum, there can be a non-party-political pro-independence campaign which is INDEPENDENT of the SNP.
In response to Dan’s reply it would appear that you are yet another of these English folk that just don’t seem to understand Scotland! You talk about “national elections” apparently failing to realise that Scotland is a nation and the UK is a multi national kingdom,not a nation! We elect MSPs to Holyrood in our national elections! You also use the word “separate”,as if it’s a bad thing! It may be for you,but it certainly won’t be for us! What on earth makes you think the rump UK has a claim on our North Sea Oil? You can certainly have any that falls within your maritime boundaries and we’ll have any that falls within ours,including the 6000 square miles that Tony Blair and his cronies stole from us in 1999! We’ll happily sell you any excess power generated by our windfarms,that’s what independent nations do! As for a lot of Lib Dem MPs,I’m not sure 11 qualifies as a lot and it’ll certainly be a helluva lot less than that after their coalition with the Tories! Don’t you think that before you comment on Scottish politics it would be useful to know a wee bit about Scotland? You also seem to fail to realise that the decision to become independent should be made by the people of Scotland and no-one else! SAOR ALBA!
Fine piece, just came across you.
I agree with Dave C that the independence camp is probably stronger than you suggest but overall I agree with the analysis.
Dave – thanks for that and, yes, indeed. As a pro-independence Green, I’m very aware that there has to be a campaign that is about much more than the SNP. I just think that in practice, you need infrastructure to deliver such a campaign, and the spine of that infrastructure will come from the SNP…
If anything I think you underestimate the strength of the independence camp. Suppose Alex got run over by a bus tomorrow. After an appropriate period of mourning Nichola Sturgeon would take over as First Minster, and, as you rightly state, she is a fearsome campaigner. She could run rings round David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Milliband, and whoever their Scottish stooges happen to be. But also, don’t forget that it will be a non-party-political referendum. In the 1975 referendum on European Communities membership, the Leadership of the Conservative Party campaigned for a “Yes” vote, but some Tory MPs and many rank-and-file members of the Tory party campaigned for a “No”. As for the governing Labour Party, even members of the Cabinet openly campaigned on opposite sides. So far as the referendum on independence is concerned, even if the political parties attempt to whip their supporters into line, significant numbers of Tories, Labourites, and LibDems could vote for independence; so to that extent the referendum will be non-party-political. Since it involves the SNP’s very reason for existence, of course members of that party are likely to campaign for a pro-independence vote. HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean the referendum as a whole has to be conducted on party-political lines; and it doesn’t mean there can’t be a non-party-political pro-independence campaign INDEPENDENT of the SNP and not linked to the policies or performance of that party. In a situation where the yah-boo of party politics counts for nothing, I really think Cameron, Clegg and Milliband will all be completely out of their depth.
Really interesting Adam. It’s going to be a fascinating few years. The SNP are going to have to convince of independence for whose sake?
If Scotland has been independent in 2010 and everything else had remained equal the results would have been as follows:
In this smaller parliament of 591 MPs, 296 would have been required for a simple majority, thus, the tories could have ruled without the coalition.
Naturally doesn’t take into account boundary changes etc.
English folk concerned about this should probably consider sending an ambassador for their cause other than David Cameron…
Nice article Adam, good to hear more about this issue.
Yes or no vote potentials aside, what do you think are the implications if Scotland *did* separate from the UK? I ask as I’ve noticed there are a lot of Labour and Lib Dem MPs in Scotland in the national elections, so if these were ‘wiped off the map’ so to speak, it would make a Tory majority all the more likely for us poor lefties in England (unless of course Labour or Greens can win enough seats, but on the current party performance I am hesitant about calling that too).
Also, what do you think would happen with natural capital? Would the UK get North Sea oil, or Scotland (for the record I don’t like that we use oil, but during the transition to a low-carbon economy it looks likely we will be using this resource to a certain degree)? How would the UK hit its ambitious CO2 reduction targets without Scottish wind farms?
Look forward to hearing some of your thoughts.