This article is from the August issue of Total Politics
The last thing the prime minister wants in his in-tray is Alex Salmond manoeuvring for a referendum on Scottish independence.
Here’s the context: Labour took a thumping in the 2011 Scottish elections and, by winning an overall majority, the SNP surprised everyone – including fans of proportional representation, as it’s supposed to prevent this sort of thing.
As expected, Salmond campaigned on a platform of an independence referendum which, he assumed, would be negotiated with a fiercely unionist Labour coalition partner.
That obviously didn’t happen, but Salmond had downplayed the referendum’s urgency, having expected difficult negotiations with a coalition partner.
So now we’re on course, heading inexorably towards a referendum – or perhaps two. The politics of it are delicious. Imagine that by 2014 David Cameron looks like remaining prime minister after the next election.
Salmond wants a referendum timed so that, in its run-up, he can present it as a choice for Scotland between life under a powerful Tory government with little Scottish representation, and a glorious, free life of prosperous self-determination.
In January 2012, the Scottish government published the proposed referendum question – it’s Westminster’s right to decide its wording – doubtless to show Salmond’s desire to take charge of the process.
Cameron grudgingly agreed to Salmond’s referendum timing, but wants a straight choice between independence and the status quo. Salmond, by contrast, has floated a second question on the ballot paper about devo-max.
Why not full independence? Because it’s clear that it will be very tough to win it. The SNP has long been a broad church containing refugees from many other parties; for instance, Labour’s collapse helped the scale of their 2011 victory. Salmond, therefore, has the levers of power but not the popular support for independence that his victory at first suggested.
Polling consistently shows that Scottish opinion is divided three ways between support for independence, devo-max and status quo. It’s not a new thing that SNP support is higher than support for independence, and it’s understandable that people are supportive of Scotland getting more powers – who would argue against that?
There are, however, two big problems looming. First, it’s the job of the Electoral Commission to make referendum questions accessible to all voters, focused, factual and lacking in bias to ensure that voters do not consider one option more favourably than another.
I do not need to compare that aim with the SNP’s draft question published in January – you can make your own mind up: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”
Such a referendum question is fundamentally flawed because the mere concept of ‘independence’ – leaving aside devo-max – is so packed with uncertainty that a mandate based on it would be no mandate at all.
All we can say with certainty is that the former outcome would mean no Scottish representation in Westminster, and the country would be represented by a London High Commission.
By its very nature, irrespective of whether it refers to independence alone or anything else, that question cannot be the final word until the terms of any settlement have been properly thrashed out and presented to voters as a package that both Holyrood and Westminster will accept.
Secondly, there’s the problem that the UK could be changed forever, whatever one thinks of its merits, by a potentially small number of people. That, of course, applies to a result where 50.01 per cent of people voted for independence or the status quo, but it would lead to uproar if, say, a plurality of 34 per cent of voters supported independence; ie, more than for other options, but on a turnout of just 60 per cent.
There’s no easy solution. There are some imaginative poll options buzzing around, including one that takes account of competing sub-optimal alternatives, known as the Condorcet method. Another option would be to do what New Zealand did in 1992–93, which was to hold two referenda.
This would mean holding a non-binding one to get a mandate to negotiate on either independence or devo-max, and a later second one that negotiated the package. If that were pursued, then there should also be a minimum threshold for the first referendum of, say, 40 per cent.
That would make change really achievable, but would also require a measure of significant constitutional impact to be considered more cautiously than a straightforward first-past-the-post poll.
There is one salutary example of what not to do. Quebec held referenda in 1980 and 1995, having had the issue of independence lurking in the background since the 1960s.
Some believe the issue blighted the province’s economy as well as its politics over a period that became known as the ‘Neverendum’. Scottish independence must be settled for the long term, but over a much shorter timeframe.
There is a huge amount to play for. Salmond, Britain’s canniest politician, will emerge either as Scotland’s hero or the man who destroyed its independence prospects for a generation. Cameron will emerge as the union’s saviour or the prime minister who presided over the break-up of the UK.
Andrew Hawkins is chairman of ComRes