Not a referendum, only a public opinion poll

Well, Scottish Nats in the 21st century are handling the politics of independence very differently from their Irish forebears in the 20th. Today, St Andrew’s Day with headline support for independence hitting new recent lows, Alex Salmond has revealed plans for a referendum on, not one, not two, not three, but four options. The cute one is devo max that would remove all powers to Scotland except – except – the monarchy, the army and foreign affairs. I’m with commentator Iain Mcwhirter when he says: You can’t have a referendum with four options”. When I put this very point to the SNPs Constitutional Affairs Minister Mike Russell recently, he said I was accusing him of being a snake-oil salesman. Not exactly Mike, more a huckster for a political Irn Bru.McWhirter goes on:

” Presumably, this inflation of options is an attempt by the SNP to confuse the issue; to turn the debate into a kind of constitutional soup into which all the options dissolve, allowing the SNP to get along with governing under devolution – which, until now, they had been doing very successfully. The “multi-option” option is a also a distraction from the inconvenient truth that Scots really don’t want to be bothered with constitutional change, at least not now. The latest Ipsos MORI poll suggests that support for independence is down to 25% and that only 20% of Scots want an early referendum.”

The Guardian’s Jackie Ashley sees traps in the Salmond scheme for David Cameron in government which Alex could exploit to win independence yet. She thinks Scottish resentment would rise along with Tory spending cuts and fewer Scottish seats at Westminster. But all this will take years, And anyway, find me the Scot who lights up at the prospect of paying higher tartan taxes.

  • Panic, These Ones Likes It Up Em.

    Salmond though he is up against it on the independence issue at the moment is a sly old Scottish fox.

    His sparring with the Tories and labour will make interstin viewing.

  • Harry

    I think whether Scottish independence support rises as a direct result of a Tory government depends on how Cameron approaches Scotland. The reason why Scottish independence support grew under Thatcher and Major was the attitude the Tories had towards the Scots. Experimenting the poll tax in Scotland before introducing it in England was a prime example of the incompetence of the Tory attitude to dealing with the Scots.

    Personally, I think Cameron will approach things much differently – I do think most Scots realise their future belongs in the UK – they get massive sums from the English and spending per head in Scotland is higher than in England. Particularly in a recession Scotland need the English. They have always argued that Ireland have done well economically on their own but where are they now when things are tough? Also, public spending in Scotland is higher than in England, the Scots won’t be able to sustain it on their own. Mr Salmond may talk about the national pride of being Scottish – but practically Scotland should be in the UK. One can be both Scottish and British – just like I am both (Northern) Irish and British.

  • JR

    I wonder if there is an overwhelming vote for independence in all but a few north eastern constituencies will they try to partition Scotland.

    Rope a few places that voted for independence into the new “Northern Scotland” to create the maximum holdable area. Carve up the constituencies so all the people who voted for Independence have no say for about 80 years.

    Anyone think that would be a good Idea

  • Of course you can have a referendum with 4 options. It is called a preferendum. You just get people to rank the options, then use a de Borda count.

    Peter Emerson has been explaining this simply for over a decade (see

  • Harry


    While I fully condemn the discrimatory behavoiur of N Irish Unionists during the Stormont Parliament era – I do beleive the British government had no choice but to partition Ireland. The Unionists of the North of Ireland were in an overwhelming majority – but more importantly, they were threatening violence towards any attempt to create Home Rule that applied to the north of Ireland. The Ulster Volunteers were created in 1913 simply to prevent the implementation and resist Home Rule in the North. If there was a united Ireland back then, the Unionists would have run riot – and there would have been bloodshed within Ireland and then the Irish would have blamed the British for not keeping the North and giving them their wishes.

    The partition solution was the right one – what was wrong was the treatment of the unionists in the North towards Catholics. The Troubles really began because the Catholics were discriminated against and felt like they were living in a “Protestant state.” If the unionists had treated Catholics with more respect, then I think we could have possibly avioded the Troubles. Remember there was no uproar among Northern Catholics of partition.

    Unionists still unfortunately show little respect to Catholics. Mr Donaldson on H&M went on about how the unionist majority of S Belfast should be represented by a unionist when going on about a single unionist candidate but kept forgetting that why should a nationalist majority of F&ST; be represented by a unionist?

  • JR

    Hi Harry,

    Thanks for your opinion.

    I agree unionists would have run riot. But as it turns out there were 4,000 killed in the civil war as a direct result of partition. Nearly 4,000 more have been killed since in the troubles. Whether complete home rule in 1922 would have resulted in more than 8,000 deaths is debatable.

    North Monaghan and east Galway as unionist strongholds found themselves in the south but these areas were very quiet in the civil war era.

    Even if partition was the right answer, why include areas of the country which had democratically elected for home rule?

    It is ironic I suppose that the catchphrase of the unionist politicians through the decades has been not to respond to threats of violence when the state was built on a Unionist threat of violence.

    I suppose we are getting a bit off topic.

  • Belfast Gonzo


    Peter Emerson
    The Guardian, Wednesday 4 March 2009

    By the end of next year, if the Scottish Nationalists have their way, Scotland will vote in a referendum on independence. The ballot is expected to offer a straight choice between the status quo and “a settlement with the government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state”. But what about the options in between?

    Back in 1997 the SNP campaigned for a Scottish referendum of three options: the then status quo, devolution and independence. So in 2010 there could be a referendum offering a third option – what’s become known as Devo Max: more devolution with greater fiscal powers. Indeed, if a more inclusive process were allowed, a commission could perhaps allow four or five options.

    Such a multi-option referendum could be conducted by “consensus voting” – inviting the electorate to express an order of preference, for, let us say, the three options, so that something approaching consensus opinion can prevail. In a three-option vote, a first preference gains three points, and second and third preferences are awarded two points and one point respectively. The winning option is that which gains the most points.

    The outcome depends on the preferences of every voter, not just those of a majority. This promotes a grown-up debate in which the advocates have to acknowledge other points of view and engage with those who hold them. In Westminster decision-making, by contrast, issues are always decided – or left unresolved – by majority votes. Everything is reduced to dichotomies, because this allows those in charge to control the agenda. No matter how complex the debate, everything is boiled down to a closed question.

    When more than two options need to be considered – as with the 2003 debate on Lords reform, or the dispute on police detention powers – majority voting is often found wanting. There were five options in the Lords on reform in 2003: all members appointed, all elected, 50-50, 80-20 and 20-80. Each option was put to a majority vote, each vote was lost, and progress was deadlocked. Yet one of those options was more popular than the rest. If all members had cast their preferences, as Hansard records that Lord Desai had suggested, it would have been possible to identify the collective will – the option with the highest average preference.

    The Commons debate on detention powers centred on six options: maximum detention without charge of 2, 7, 14, 28, 42 or 90 days. Were parliament truly sovereign, all six options would have been subject to a consensus vote.

    Having more than two options but sticking to single-preference voting is not the answer. Consider the Welsh referendum of 1997, when the votes for and against devolution were 50.3% and 49.7%. Had independence also been on the ballot paper – as Plaid Cymru suggested – and had such a plurality vote taken place, it would have taken just 1% of those who voted for devolution to vote for independence and the status quo would have won. What is needed is a multi-option preference vote – a system to let consensus be identified.

    When elected representatives attend international conferences on issues such as global warming or rogue states, they tend to use a process of negotiation rather than a straight vote on predetermined options. Everything is “on the table”. A similar process is used in conflict resolution, where mediators rely on open rather than closed questions.

    Isn’t it time we embraced new approaches that could help in a similarly consensual way to resolve delicate and divisive issues closer to home – such as House of Lords reform, party funding and Scotland’s constitutional status?

    When citizens meet in focus groups or vote in referendums, should not the relevant ballot paper allow for up to six options? And should not trades unions, company boards and other committees also cater for some pluralism?

    If the will of the Scottish people is to be identified accurately, then (as a minimum) next year’s referendum should surely include a list of options representing the full spectrum of the debate, and the electorate should be allowed to cast their preferences through consensus voting.

    The leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Tavish Scott, has offered some hope of this by suggesting he might support a multi-option ballot – although he is likely to have had a single transferable vote in mind. Now all eyes are on the SNP. If it sticks to its original course in the face of implacable opposition from all the other main parties, it risks oblivion for its referendum plans. Let us hope it will see the value of a multi-option consensus ballot that attracts support from voices in all parties and gives the people of Scotland both a real choice and a workable way of expressing it.

    • Peter Emerson is director of The de Borda Institute, a Belfast-based advocate for inclusive voting methods

  • Multi-option referendums are a can of worms. De Borda counting is only one possible voting method. And even if independence doesn’t come out on top in the official count, a sufficient number of spoiling non-independence options could ensure that it “wins” the first-preference vote. One only needs to look at the way EU elections in NI are spun by the parties to see that the SNP could claim a propaganda victory regardless of the official outcome.

    The only fair solution is for the parties to negotiate a settlement and present it to the people in a simple yes/no vote. But that won’t get the SNP what it wants…

  • Dewi

    Gonzo – what’s your point?

  • gonzo’s mate

    While I agree with my mate Gonzo and with Peter Emerson that you can have multi-option preferendums, I disagree totally with the notion that you can ‘count’ them fairly by giving x points for first preference, x-1 for second and so on. There is no logic in the idea that the difference in voters opinion between 1st and 2nd choice is exactly the same as between 2nd and 3rd and so on. Also the number of options influences the result: several similar options make it easier to defeat a single different one. For example, one out of three broadly similar versions of devolution is almost certain to win over a single option of independence, even if there is a narrow majority for independence.

    A simple STV-style count gets away from all this, eliminating least popular options and transferring votes to next available preference. It’s what we are used to and it works to elect MEP’s, MLA’s and Councillors.

  • Mr Brightside

    What would our own options be I wonder in a constitutional referendum? Perhaps:
    1. Direct rule from London
    2. Direct rule from Dublin
    3. Joint rule from London/Dublin
    4. Devolved NI assembly within the Uk
    5. Devolved NI assembly within Ireland.
    6. Independance (=bankruptcy)

  • BonarLaw

    Anyone else note the Charles Stuart Parnell quote in Salmonds’ launch document?

  • Dewi


    No man has a right to fix the boundary
    of the march of a nation; no man has a
    right to say to his country, “Thus far
    shalt thou go and no further”.

  • Dewi

    Interesting observation on Barnett.

    “3. The United Kingdom Government
    can also unilaterally decide not to
    pass to Scotland consequential
    increases from United Kingdom
    expenditure in a devolved policy
    area (known as “formula bypass”).
    For example, Scotland did not receive
    consequentials from the capital
    expenditure on urban renewal
    associated with the London Olympics
    or from the increase in prison
    expenditure in England in 2007,
    following the recommendations of
    Lord Carter’s review of prisons.”