Time for a closer look at what’s under the bonnet of a Scottish referendum?

1974 and 1975 were rich years for student politics at the University of St Andrews – not one, but two general elections in 1974, followed by the ‘EEC’ poll of 1975; throughout the endless debates stimulated by the miners’ strike and consequential three-day week, the narrow Labour leads in February and October, followed by a large vote in favour of remaining in the European Economic Community I can never recall the possibility of a referendum on Scotland’s future being posed by my Nationalist friends and opponents, as we sharpened our political skills on each other’s ankles. The discourse concentrated on whether it was possible to win a (simple) majority of Scottish seats at Westminster, as the mandate for change.

Now 40 years later Alex Salmond, who landed many more bites on my ankles than I on his, I’m certain, is within sight of his prize, even if he had not predicted it would arise in referendum shape, as opposed to the traditional UK-wide electoral contest; even though Nationalists were small in number, at our very ‘English’ seat of learning, they were more than vigorous in debate, and not bad, in Salmond’s case, at prediction, referendums apart.

Now, we must all become more rigorous in the conduct of this most critical plebiscite on the future not just of Scotland, but of the UK.

First, ten rules about the referendum as a constitutional tool:

  1. Referendums are not elections – they have different political characteristics, focussing on issues, not parties or candidates, and therefore conform to different rules of campaigning; they require specialist understanding (just look at last year’s UK referendum on AV debacle for evidence)
  2. Most referendums are lost – only just, across over 10,000 that have been held over three centuries, but the lesson is that nothing can be taken for granted; for example, only eight have passed, out of 44 in Australia over the past 106 years; there are no certainties and voters cannot be ‘told’ what to do, as European Treaty tests demonstrate (Remember Nice l in 2001 and Lisbon l in 2008, both of which necessitated second outings, one year later, prompting the cynical cry of ‘Neverendum’!);
  3. Most referendums proposed by governments towards the end of their term are lost – timing and the political cycle are key here; honeymoon periods are popular for polls of this sort (e.g. Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland quickly after Labour’s landslide in 1997) while delay until end of mandate risks attacks of gimmickry and desperation; think Scotland 1979
  4. As Charles de Gaulle, a strong proponent and user of the tool, opined, ‘the trouble with referendums is that people tend to answer the wrong question’; voters often use their votes to punish the government of the day, responding to other current issues or scandals; remember the Monarchy poll in Australia in 1999, when the unclear issue of the elected replacement, became the fatal flaw, dividing the generally republican electorate which had been expected to deliver a clear Yes vote for change
  5. Voters, as Bill Clinton famously observed, follow ‘the economy, stupid’; there is substantial evidence that in referendums, too, they weigh up their economic interests – ‘will I be better off?’ or ‘can I take a risk on my economic future for a point of principle’. In St Vincent and the Grenadines the people voted against a new constitution in 2009, fearing isolation in the global downturn, but returning the same Prime Minister, Ralph Goncalves shortly thereafter; voters don’t vote for change unless the outcome is overwhelmingly and obviously beneficial (recall Danish and Swedish votes on Euro entry)
  6. Nationalist referendums usually win? Whilst the SNP is correct to point out that most secessionist polls since the second world war have been successful, their circumstances (former soviet states, Balkan realignment and Southern Sudan most recently in 2011) are highly unusual and not analogous; think Quebec 1980 and 1995; not to mention Western Australia in 1933, the only known example where the mother government declined to respect a majority vote for independence
  7. Multi-option questions confuse voters – there are very few examples of this; famously Sweden voted inconclusively between options on the speed of nuclear decommissioning, after the Three Mile island disaster; but positively on pension proposals in 1957; Belarus voted clearly on four options in 1995, but variously only a year later on seven alternatives, after the leadership pushed too far, too fast for more; although they were arguably different and non-contradictory or overlapping questions
  8. Voters do not take their cue from their favoured political party – research shows they do nod to party views, but are significantly less bound by them, feeling that if an issue is so important as to deserve a poll, they must look more widely to civil society and other opinion-formers; the Catalan and Basque experience is instructive here
  9. The people take advice from far beyond the political class – because the referendum poses a wider policy or national question, and is not about which candidate best serves their interests, voters look to others – sometimes to famous actors, celebrities and sports stars, often to business, trade unions, faith groups and civic society, often, however, as mediated and interpreted by the media
  10. Citizens like to see their politicians working together – they expect legitimate differentiation for elected institutions, but in referendums especially, expect to see coalescence around issues; the Good Friday / Belfast Agreement ‘YES Campaign’ of 1998 represents a case in point, based indeed, by me, on my observation of the critically essential cross-party campaign for ‘Yes, Yes’ in the Scottish outing the previous September; what if the SNP had boycotted that ‘halfway-house’ option?

Turning now to the present and the situation prevailing in Scotland, in as far as I can judge it from outside, there are three textbook flaws in the execution of the SNP stratagem thus far:

  1. Risking the long delay from triumphant electoral success in 2011, until autumn 2014 risks everything; it falls foul of rules 3, 4, 5 and 6 above; what state will the SNP government be in? Where will Scotland be economically? What question will voters really prefer to answer?
  2. Arguing over process, entitlement and conduct confuses and irritates the voter – do we really care about the Electoral Commission not being devolved, so we will set up our own? Does the voter be excited about whether a manifesto commitment on the date was indeed inserted? Consultative or binding? Scottish or UK? Give us the central arguments, please!
  3. The debate on Devo-max or Indy-lite risks further disenchantment; is the SNP serious about its central mission; does it need a fallback position; is it manoeuvring for a consolation prize; can it explain what it actually means for the average hard-pressed Scot; above all, is it being honest with its electorate?

Nevertheless, the game is only really just starting, after the phoney war of words between Holyrood and Westminster about the terms of engagement over recent months. Westminster has all but conceded the date; the SNP has conceded on the Electoral Commission’s role, obviating the hugely risky option of setting up its own version (which might have dogged the campaign and diverted attention from the issues). The only matter of substance remaining appears to be the matter of the single or multi-option question.

My first observation here is the absence of much serious commentary that I have seen, on deployment of the recently tested (although rejected in the UK) Alternative Vote as a way out of the ‘Sweden Conundrum’, when voters in 1980 opted indecisively for conflicting alternatives on the speed of decommissioning the nuclear industry, one of which actually included an increase in nuclear turbines.

One could easily devise and negotiate the wording that would allow voters to opt in order, by the now familiar 1,2,3 for independence, for Devo-max or for the status quo; if the lowest successful option were then eliminated, and preferences transferred, a simple majority would then have been achieved for one of the three. The natural bias towards the ‘middle’ option, however, may become a political barrier to this simple solution, unless a credible ‘outlier’ to the status quo is found. It also treats the electorate with more sophistication, albeit short of the contested ‘preferendum’.

My second thought is that, notwithstanding some of the above commentary, every referendum brings its own characteristics and dynamics; the allocation of resources (whisky, oil, wind) and debt (RBS, HBOS), the redistribution of ‘UK’ resources (‘National’ galleries, museums, academies and institutes), the status of the Crown Estate, the future of the BBC and its lucrative licence fee, the UK non-ministerial departments (like OFT and FSA), consumer affairs, cross-border transport, civil aviation and air-traffic control, DWP and benefits, taxation and the currency… the list, and soon the debate will go on and on, for three years -and rightly so.

As an aside, remember that when the Electoral Commission tested the words ‘powers’ and ‘devolution’ in Wales, before their successful referendum in March 2011, they found many voters uncertain of their meaning. What will they make of ‘Independence Lite’ or ‘Full Fiscal Autonomy’, I wonder?

First published in Holyrood Magazine

Lobbyist with Belfast-based Stratagem