Has the devolutionary ‘trap’ sprung?

Nationalist movements always face a dilemma with devolution, to reject it or work it. All the elected nationalist parties in the UK have opted for working it in the hope their good governance leads to increased support for secession. However, they run the risk of being used by voters who in an unitary state seek a ‘local hero’ against the central government but baulk at the final step e.g. Quebec. The 2007 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey shows support for independence at its lowest level for over 10 years following a peak in 2004-2006. It indicates the SNP’s popularity is driven by Alex Salmond rather than a desire for independence and a reason the Labour party suffered is it was deemed to be failing as a champion for Scotland.

According to Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, the May elections for Holyrood were determined more than before by how much people felt politicians were willing to stand up for Scotland. Labour did poorly in that.

Professor Curtice, a co-director of the study, summarised the main outcome: “The SNP’s victory in May was a success for the party rather than the cause of independence that it espouses. It had a popular leader and tapped a feeling that Holyrood should put Scotland, rather than partnership with London, first.

  • I wish it was that simple, but I believe the likes of the SNP are, in government, perfectly placed to influence public opinion on independence by stirring up populist nationalist sentiment among the voting public.

    All they have to do is make a demand of Westminster that they know central government can’t meet, then bemoan the unfair anti-Scottish bias and bam. OK, not bam, but certainly a growing discontent, no?

  • fair_deal


    “All they have to do is ”

    That is the standard game plan but is it particularly successful? Try and list the number of places a nationalist party in a western democracy taking control of the relevant local assembly has then achieved full independence?

  • Michael

    Although this thread is dealing with the devolution dilema on a UK basis, it is obviously comming from an NI perspective. The critical question being, will devolution in NI have the same effect as observed in Scotland. I.e. to deminish nationalist sentiment.

    But NI is clearly a differnt environment. The approach that Beano mentioned would be rather difficult to achieve given the power sharing set up that we have. Also, the main question being raised in NI is not full independence, it is integration into an existing state. Thus nationalist sentiment is not only subject to the internal devolutionary set up, but those of the external state also (I.e. ROI). Thats not to mention the influence of cross-border initiatives. Probably the NI/IRL equivalent of schemes undertaken by the Scottish Government.

  • dewi

    Interesting – Curtice clever bloke. SNP also clever and careful. PQ came v close you know and if had been a bit more proactively inclusive of minotities I think would have suceeded.
    Salmond almost been against the casual anti Englishness prevalent among many of us. It’s a modern civic nationalism. As for comparisons in the countries of Spain its the state that regards secession as treasonable and ban referenda on it in the Basque country.
    Interesting here I don’t think anyone disputes Scotland’s right to determine own future.

  • Sean

    From a Quebec/Canada perspective for years Quebec leveraged a fear of secesion to earn concesions from english Canada, but in the long run it has backfired to the point whwere most of english Canada would prefer if they stayed but if the decide to go so be it!

    The shift ion attitude by the rest of Canada has had a chilling effect on Quebec nationalism and its at an ebb for the time being

    Western Canadians, one of which I am, are particularily ambivalent to the Quebec question so I may well be overstating it but I do not believe I am

  • As someone who was an organiser for the SNP in the 1980s what can be said with some certainty is that independence is now THE agenda in Scotland.
    Whether it is rejected or embraced-it is the national conversation.
    Everything else (health, education etc) flows from that question.

    Salmond was always a gradualist (post his 79 group daliance).
    the inescapable direction of the politics he is mobilising is that the scottish parliament will accrue greater powers.
    With greater powers scotland will become more and more distant from Westminister.
    the hostility of English Tories to “feather-bedded Scots” only helps Salmond’s agenda.

  • Fair deal-what you miss is that the SNP are campaigning for independence within the EU-Jim Sillars was the first politician in these islands to see the long term significance of the 86 Madrid treaty.
    An empowered and emboldened Scottish parliamnet (still within the UK) will increasingly start to deal directly with Brussells and Strasbourg.
    Westminster starts to become increasingly irrlelevant.
    The Czechs and the Slovaks might be a model.

  • The SNP remain a minority government that is going to find it very difficult to push through its policies, the game-plan that Salmond is apparently playing therefore makes a lot of sense.

    Interesting to see also this week he has (a la his dalliance with Paisley) made a tentative reaching out to the English nationalists, specifically calling for an English parliament.

    Although outwardly the SNP want the independence referendum asap, it’s in their interest to continue this death (helped by the strangest of alliances) by a thousand cuts approach. This way electorate will wake up one morning to find the Union’s gone, although they are not quite sure why and how.

    The unionist parties should thus call his bluff and agree to the referendum, let’s bring all the pros and cons out into the open

  • Oneill-cant disagree with any of that.
    Salmond is a clever man.
    Labour in Scotland dont know how to play him.

  • WOhw, excellent observation on Québec!!

  • páid

    OK, Scottish Independence has low support at the moment.

    But I detect is a flow to these things.

    Powers are granted, demands for independence retreat.
    And then slowly grow, fed by disaffection with new powers.
    Further powers are granted, demands for independence retreat.

    Et cetera.

    The Welsh only voted for an Assembly by the skin of their teeth, having rejected it 20 years beforehand.
    Now demands grow for a Parliament.

    Where will it all end?

    One thing’s for sure – Nothing will ever be the same again. 😉

  • fair_deal

    “what you miss is that the SNP are campaigning for independence within the EU”

    The addition of the EU adds little to the dynamic and the recent treaty shows how much it is still the national governments call the shots in the relationship with the EU

  • kensei

    Can’t find it because the BBC’s search functions are appalling, but Brian Taylor did an excellent blog on the SNP a few months back.

    He drew the distinction between “de jure” independence – with seats at the UN and the like, and “de facto” independence, where effectively England has no say in Scotland some, mostly symbollic, links remain. Salmond undoubtedly wants de jure independence, he’d probably settle for de facto independence, at least in the medium to short term.

    Devolution is very good at delivering that. Already the context of the debate in Scotland is more powers or independence. If more powers are granted, is it not only a matter of time before someone frames the debate in the same way again, especially if they fall short of full fiscal control?

    One thing is certain – it almost politically impossible to row back from devolution. It doesn’t seem to be quite as unthinkable going forward.

  • German-American

    As an outsider I don’t have a local’s feel for Scottish politics, but based on my reading I agree with other posters that FD is misreading the situation. If people didn’t feel Labour would “stand up for Scotland” and were looking to Alex Salmond to be a “champion for Scotland”, to me that indicates increased consciousness of Scotland as an political entity in and of itself, and that in turn indicates a potential appetite for further devolution of functions on the road to de facto if not de jure independence. In that connection, two things struck me in reading the SNP’s “Choosing Scotland’s Future” document and commentary on it:

    First, the way the document framed the possible choices was in my opinion quite clever, sort of like the “Goldilocks pricing” strategy in marketing: The (implicit) first choice (no change in current devolution arrangements) is “too cold”; if Scottish voters were happy with the status quo then they wouldn’t have rejected Labour. The third choice is “too hot”; full de jure independence likely seems too complicated and scary at this point, as evidenced by the polls. However the inclusion of the independence option makes the second choice, further devolution, seem “just right”, i.e., a reasonable option in comparison to the two extremes. But taken as a whole the devolution proposals in section 2 of “Choosing Scotland’s Future” are quite far-ranging, well beyond the present arrangements.

    Second, as noted in section 1.10 of “Choosing Scotland’s Future”, further devolution could be initiated relatively simply from a legislative standpoint under the existing Scotland Act, without the need for another devolution referendum. However the SNP goes out of its way (in sections 5.3 and 5.4) to point out that it might be a good idea to hold such a referendum anyway before proceeding with a “wide-ranging review of the devolution settlement”.

    In my opinion this points to a possible future strategy on the part of the SNP: Keep the “national conversation” going, and see which way the wind is blowing. If it keeps blowing the way it is now, go for a three-choice referendum: 1) no change in devolution arrangements; 2) approval for Scottish government to negotiate major changes to devolution with the UK government along the lines of section 2 of “Choosing Scotland’s Future” (exact wording of this option left to smarter people than I), and 3) approval for the Scottish government to negotiate full independence with the UK government (with wording per Annex B).

    Including the independence option would both enable the SNP to keep its campaign pledge and at the same time work via the “Goldilocks principle” to make the “lots more devolution” option likely appear the most reasonable proposition to most voters; even so, a substantial minority would likely go even further and choose option 3. If a clear majority of voters go for either options 2 or 3 (which I think is quite possible) then this would presumably greatly strengthen the SNP’s hand in getting a set of fairly radical devolution proposals through Holyrood and then having them be rubber-stamped at Westminster.

  • interested

    phil macgiollabhain
    Salmond is indeed a clever man and a very astute politician – hence why he had to come back and lead the SNP because they couldn’t find anyone with half his ability to lead them in his absence.

    But isn’t that precisely part of what F_D blogged? A part of the SNP is a personality thing with Salmond and some of it is about an unhappiness with Labour. Some of it clearly is about those who strongly want independence.

    In most of the pro-SNP/pro-independence posts everyone has ignored the survey resuts. Why in the immediate aftermath of an SNP Government (albeit a minority one) in Scotland would support for independence be at its lowest level for a decade? Surely support should be on the crest of a wave or is it that pro-change/get rid of Labour feelings have been mixing around with pro-independence feelings and now that Labour has been given a sound kicking in the elections that element has been reduced and you actually see in the survey the true support for independence.

    That doesn’t mean that if an election was held again tomorrow that the SNP vote would fall. The whole point is that a vote for a pro-nationalist party doesn’t actually equate to you having a pro-nationalist viewpoint. Surely that explains why surveys in Northern Ireland also show people who vote for nationalist parties but if push came to shove either might vote for the Union or just wouldn’t come out to vote in favour of a united Ireland.

  • The most significant thing in the survey is the majority support for more tax raising powers. Even the unionist parties seem to be moving in this direction. The big battle though, will be over oil revenue.

    If the Scots can get that and they can block a new generation of Trident on the Clyde, they will be a long way towards de facto independence.

  • ulsterfan

    Independence for Scotland will not be granted simply because the majority of people living there wish it to be the case.
    It will only be given if Westminster think it is in its own interest to grant it.
    Has Scotland claimed any control over the oil at Rockall.
    The ownership of this will be a factor as to whether or not Westminster wish to hold on to the reins. There are other similar national questions to be answered.

  • Nevin
  • PQ came v close you know and if had been a bit more proactively inclusive of minotities I think would have suceeded.

    Possibly. 1995 was an awfully tight referendum, with the federalists holding out by about 54,000 votes out of nearly 5 million. Not only did the Yes campaign alienate recent immigrants to Quebec through a tub-thumping, insensitive, campaign, but they also ensured absolute maximum turnout among Anglo-Quebeckers and ensured a heavy turnout and massive No vote among the Cree and Eskimo in Northern Quebec.

    Then they cocked things up with the same groups for another generation by being rude about them for exercising their democratic right in a way that PQ didn’t approve of.

    And now idependence really does seem to be off the agenda in Quebec for a generation at least, because people just seem bored with the debate.

    it almost politically impossible to row back from devolution. It doesn’t seem to be quite as unthinkable going forward.

    Kensei – I think that’s a very good point but you yourself have often pointed out that the current settlement is a long way short of even de facto independence for Scotland.

  • interested
    Nothing is inexorable, of course, however the SNP administration under Salmond will exlpoit Scottish alienation with Westminster/Iraq/New Labour etc.
    Scottish independence is a process not an event-or even an opinion poll……….

  • Dewi

    Sammy – for once in this miserable life I absolutely agree with you – we wrote to the useless bastards about the importance of including the native Americans in their project _ an inclusive approach would have won more than just their votes – one more heave heh ! – and Sean if England let me have my cornflake packets bilingual I might re-consider my approach to the Union !

  • Sean

    they arent native american

    they are first nations or Aboriginals

    we thank you to keep your american aphormisms to yourself

  • Dewi

    Sorry Sean – you speak Cree ?

  • All very informed and instructive, but can we back track to Fair Deal‘s original post. It seems to confirm the findings of P.D.Knuthausen:

    Knuthausen’s first law of political dynamics:
    Don’t assume that when the electors get what they voted for it’s what they want. Fickle buggers.

    Knuthausen’s second law of political dynamics:
    Local electorates always tend the opposite way to their vote for national government. It’s called swings and roundabouts, and wanting to be able to blame everyone indiscriminately.

    Knuthausen’s third law of political dynamics:
    The electorate dislikes “good governance” and excessive stability: it spoils the fun of having someone as scapegoat. Corollary: when the going gets tough, the voters continue to heap odium the incumbent, then grab firm hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse. It helps if nurse is elderly, rubicund, male, and smokes a cigar, or blonde, brassy, shrill and foaming-at-the-mouth. PR merchants and snake-oil economists salesmen need not apply.

    [Professor Philbert D. Knuthausen is currently being detained under the sanity laws.]

  • Sean

    Nope Dene

    You will never find a Cree calling himself a native american

    He might call himself a native Canadian
    Aboriginal, First Nations and some even still call themselves Indians and do it with some pride!!

    Trust me Dewi I have had a lot more contact with natives then you get in the UK

  • Sean

    should probablys say “Nope, Dene”

  • kensei

    “In most of the pro-SNP/pro-independence posts everyone has ignored the survey resuts. Why in the immediate aftermath of an SNP Government (albeit a minority one) in Scotland would support for independence be at its lowest level for a decade?”

    Just before the election they were the highest ever; and this one poll. It’s a bit like the Labour / Conservative polls at the moment – they are all over the place and the electorate doesn’t seem to have a settled view.

    I think the presence of the Goldilocks option naturally draws off support too. But that can you can end up in the same situation again, except with further powers, relatively quickly given the right conditions. I’m not sure if it can ultimately produce independence, but it can create the conditions to allow it.

    It’s incredibly clear that Unionism allowing the SNP into government in the hope they screw up was a huge mistake.


    “Kensei – I think that’s a very good point but you yourself have often pointed out that the current settlement is a long way short of even de facto independence for Scotland.”

    No, but the SNP can use favorable headwinds to move things forward. I’m not so sure Unionist parties could do the same to row it back. I’m a believer in the long game, so it suits. Nothing is inevitable, but you ignore how much a party can do in Government to create the weather.

    Fiscal autonomy seems to be the whole game for me, at least as far as de jure independence goes. The fissure moves from being the West Lothian question to diverging interests within Europe and over foreign policy. Imagine the British Government acting against the wishes of the Scottish Parliament in European negotiation, or the UK Parliament voting for a war the Scottish one had voted against.

  • Dewi

    The referendum campaign would be fascinating. It is unfortunate but negatives work in politics and whenever the referendum is called you can guarantee that it won’t be solely decided on that subject.

    But first Alex needs to win a majority and as the sole reason for the PR system to be used in Scotland was to prevent that it’s going to be difficult. Started very well though and a National Conversation is a very nice, inclusive phrase.

    On the very postive side it doesn’t seem, from the last election results, that there is an “Ulster” style area in Scotland. SNP support even reasonable in the Northern islands.

    Very best of luck.

  • dewi

    And Sean, I always thought Canada was in America…