Could Indy Referendum Become A ‘Border Poll’?

As Brian Walker notes elsewhere on these pages, David Cameron’s pronouncement that a binding Scottish independence must take place within the next 18 months has significantly altered the dynamic of the debate on Scottish sovereignty. SNP deputy Nicola Sturgeon has warned against impositions from Westminster on the timing of the vote and the nature of the question(s) asked.

An article in today’s Scotsman suggests that such interference from London could lead disgruntled Nationalists to boycott any independence referendum, drawing a direct comparison with the Border Poll in 1973.

If Westminster was to press ahead with its own poll, it is likely to lead to a situation similar to the 1973 Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum.

That vote, on whether the country should remain part of the UK or join the Republic to form a united Ireland, was seen by many as having been discredited after a Nationalist boycott, which resulted in 98.9 per cent of voters backing the status quo. However, there was a still turnout of 58.1 per cent – well above the 50 per cent at the last Holyrood election in May.

Comparisons between Scotland and the 1973 poll in Northern Ireland were also drawn a couple of months back by Scottish commentator Gerry Hassan in, who described the Border Poll as an ‘important precedent’.

Right now Nationalists in Scotland are a long way from issuing a boycott for a referendum many have spent a lifetime campaigning for, but continued interference from London could change that position. Meanwhile, the effect of the independence debate on Northern Ireland and its constitutional future has – these pages excepted – been surprisingly quiet. Given its strong cultural and historical ties with Ireland, and particularly Ulster and indeed Unionism, any move by Scotland away from the United Kingdom could provoke an existentialist crisis both in whatever remains of the union and among Northern Irish unionists, and even nationalists.

In 1936, US sociologist Robert Merton published a seminal paper on the ‘law of unintended consequences’. Over 75 years on, could the Indy campaign in Scotland have some unexpected repercussions in Northern Ireland?

  • Are there other precedents?

    Clearing the shelves, I came upon a deciduous copy of George Dangerfield’s The Damnable Question.

    There is the curiosity that the present fracturing of an island of 32 counties was latent in measures like the 1908 Old Age Pensions Act and the 1911 National Health Insurance Act (let alone the reform of the Wyndham Act). These created financial burdens that a “stand-alone” Irish economy could not afford — the Pensions Act, for example, generated a “charge” in Ireland of £1m+ per year, on an budget take of half that. The result was Westminster could claim, by the post-WW1 period, the 26 counties “owed” a nine-figure sum — that one lumbered on to the “Economic War” of the late ’30s. Shades of the inevitable return of “Scotland’s oil” as a battle cry.

    Then there’s, in my mind, a parallel between Dicey, “the greatest constitutionalist of his generation”, and the impending legal stand-off between Edinburgh and Westminster. Dicey was somehow able to formulate a principle that Ulster’s armed resistence would be lawful before 25 May 1914, a date which Liberal squeamishness later deferred, but after Royal Assent “would, I can hardly doubt, be treasonable”. Such poodling around may have its counterpart in the ramifications over the referendum. Dave Bullingdon and his LibDem mouthpiece seem to believe they have rights to set a deadline, whereas Salmond mouths stuff that sounds familiar to anyone who knows the inscription on the Parnell monument. When Salmond & Sturgeon (a fishy combination, think’ee?) declare they shall be seeking legal advice, I’d reckon they mean from the Lord Advocate/Morair Tagraidh. What happens when, as sure as eggs are eggs, the Rt Hon Frank Mulholland QC’s opinion is contrary to that proffered by the Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke’s?

    Then there is the analogy of the Treaty Ports to Holy Loch …

    And so the mad rush careers on, further and further into inanities.

    The bottom-line is that bringing forward the referendum solves little. Presumably the Cameron (Gaelic: “crooked nose”) belief is that the boil can be lanced. Whereas the SNP notion is the campaign for independence continues, whatever the result. Whatever the outcome of this referendum, whenever it is held, it is only part of a parliamentary process which goes back to 1978/9 — there have been Scotland Acts at 20-year intervals, and there is no end in sight.

    Most divorces happen when the two parties cease squabbling and can no longer bear to speak to each other.

  • Brian Walker

    Cameron has already backed down on setting a timetable and today’s consultation paper wil emphasise how and why any referendum should be open and fair. That probably boils down to the wording of any referendum, whether binding or indicative and whenever it’s held. Pro union forces ought to try to agree an alternative to separation – the exisitng powers, new powers in the Scotland Bill or Devo Max. The cute choice wouid be devo max to spike Salmond’s alternative guns, as John Curtice suggests, but this looks unlikely at the moment, as they fear it strengthens the SNP case in the medium term by giving them another big steepnig stone to ” full” independence.( though what sort of independence, with the same currency, Queen, even Army perhaps and a” social union” with England, beats me, other than allowing Alex to desport himself at international conferences. Cameron’s gambit, like his euro “veto,” prompts more questions than it answers but at least it will force pro- union parties to try to reach an agreed a position . But can they?

    And yes, a Union flag with the saltire removed but keeping the flag of St Pat is an intriguing prospect.and it would of course raise the question of NI’s place in the revised Union. But maybe we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves…..

  • JR

    One way or another if there is more than 30% support for independance this is a game changer for Scotland. To borrow a phrase “The North’s awake”. If hundreds od thousands of people in the Highlands and Islands get mobilised into supporting Indipendance with a realistic possibility of achieving it how will they go back to being UK citizens the morning after the vote if it fails narrowly?

    For Ireland We will have to have a border poll before 2020. No-one below the age of 57 has had the chance to vote in a border poll here.

  • Drumlins Rock

    so over 57% of the entire electorate voting for the union was discredited? umm some dodgey maths there…

    The chances that Cameron of Blairmore will push this through are slim, but it puts the pressure on and starts the debate now, in the Jubilee and Olympic year. The debate is only beginning with the SNP stetting up their stall, and the Unionist just getting out of bed, the one thing I can say is despite the increasing support it would only take one crack in the independence case to appear and it starts to crumble, Salmond cand be as infalible as he appears !

    As for Northern Ireland, an independant Scotland would have only a minor impact on NI Unionists, and not a completely negative either, espically if there are “teething problems” in the new nation, to put it in context the on-going Euro discussions will with hindsight possibly paly a larger role in the future of these isles!

  • JR


    It is hard for me to see how an indipendant Scotland wouldn’t effect Northern Ireland. I for one dont think a union with England and Wales is the same as the one we have.

  • Drumlins Rock

    JR, I think it would be a wait and see issue but I think Nationalists are playing up its significance.

    As for the border poll here, the GFA makes it clear the SoS will only call such a referendum when he thinks their is a likelyhood of a Yes majority, at a constant 42% total Nationalist vote I think that is unlikely in the next decade.

  • As a certain blog-artist calculated on a previous occasion:

    Let’s get this right:

    Prime Minister David Cameron is the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of King William IV.

    William IV was third son of George III, whose elder brothers were the future George IV and … Frederick, Duke of York and Albany.

    Said Prince Fred is generally accounted to have been the Grand Old Duke of York, who:

    … had ten thousand men.
    He marched them up to the top of the hill
    And he marched them down again.

    We should not be surprised that yesterday’s “deadline” is today’s retreat. Just as “cast-iron” pledges prove very friable. Cameron’s Scottish troops seem to be down to about 8,000 anyway.

    This one looks like being game, set and match to Wee Eck. But why, suddenly, should the Tories require “the other unionist parties” to come on board? My impression is that Johann Lamont (as her statement yesterday, quoted below) and the SLP are reaching toward a different, perhaps devo-lite approach:

    I want the referendum to be held as quickly as possible; Alex Salmond has had five years to bring forward a poll but hasn’t done so. I want the Electoral Commission, with its office in Edinburgh, to set the rules and police the spending limits; Alex Salmond doesn’t.
    At heart, this referendum is not about the procedures, and we should not fall into the trap of substituting process for substance.
    The referendum does not belong to politicians, or parliaments, or governments. This referendum belongs to the people of Scotland and on an issue this important, we deserve a clear and fair process that will not see the decision dragged through the courts. If the latest proposals from the UK government help there to be a quick, clear and decisive referendum result I would welcome them, although I am yet to see the details.
    But one thing I welcome. In two separate interviews this morning, Nicola Sturgeon confirmed the SNP supports a single question referendum. All the Scottish parties now agree on that point. That is good progress and once the decision is make we can get on with the process of improving devolution so we can improve our country.

  • JR Unionist politians will no doubt affect to be unconcerned at the prospect of Scots exit, especially so as not to give any comfort to themmuns. But the closer it gets to the referendum we’ll find out what they really believe if we hear talk of getting an upgrade in the status of Wales in the UK, as at present the welsh aren’t counted as a distinct part of the UK. The obvious problem for unionism after a n effective partition of Britain, will be N Ireland and unionism being seen as directly subsidized by the English. The UK provides cover for them as now. The dependence would be laid bare in a Union contrived after Scotland left..

  • Dewi

    Alex breaks his silence:
    “The UK Government is in a state of total confusion. Overnight, yesterday’s 18-month sunset clause had disappeared into the sunset; the coalition is riven with tensions; and Westminster is backtracking in the face of the massive thumbs down from opinion in Scotland to Tory interference in the Scottish democratic process.
    ….The issue is not Section 30 of the Scotland Act. The issue is the entirely unacceptable Tory attempt to impose London strings on Scotland’s referendum, from a Westminster government with absolutely no mandate for these matters.
    ….In stark contrast to Westminster’s disarray, the Scottish Government will continue with the orderly process of bringing forward the referendum in the second half of this parliament. And this afternoon the Cabinet will put the final touches to a consultation document setting out the Scottish Government’s detailed proposals for the referendum, which will be published later this month.”

  • More power to Salmond’s elbow. The Scots have the right to decide one way or another absolutely. The strong arm tactics from London only reveal they don’t accept that democratic right.

  • HeinzGuderian

    More power to Salmond’s elbow. The Scots have the right to decide one way or another absolutely. The strong arm tactics from London only reveal they don’t accept that democratic right………………..

    As the good people of Northern ireland have.
    It’s just a pity that the ‘strong arm tactics’ emplyed by militant republicans,were rather more deadly.