In autumn 2014, Scotland will vote on independence. Obviously, the SNP want to win. But realistically, the leaders of the party can read polling data as well as you or I: they know a majority yes for independence is not a likely outcome in 2014.
The SNP have said, ever since 2007, that they would have a referendum on independence only after they had won two elections.
In 2007 and 2011 they won, and so they have a democratic mandate and an obligation to hold a referendum. But they won both elections because of unexpected circumstances.
There was the guddle of the ballots in 2007:
The outcome was that almost 142,000 votes were rejected as incorrectly filled in (85,644 in the constituency vote and 56,247 from the regional list). In a small country where only 51% of the registered electorate turned out to vote, this meant that about 7% of the votes cast were disqualified. If the result of the election had not been so close, locally and nationally, this disaster might not have mattered so much. But when the last declarations had been made next day, and when the final computation of seats was made, the Scottish National Party (SNP) had emerged as the largest party by only one single seat.
In sixteen out of the sixty-four constituency seats, the total of rejected votes was higher – often far higher – than the majority of the winning candidate. Understandably, there are already demands for recounts (by manual counting) and threats of legal challenges under European human-rights legislation. In other words, if only one single seat or list-place changes party hands through a recount, the SNP could lose even the minimal majority it won. It’s arguable that the whole election should be declared invalid and rerun. But no leading politician dares to say that in public.
And in 2011, the Liberal Democrats had a meltdown.
In Scotland, on the constituency ballot, there are usually just four candidates – a Labour, an SNP, a LibDem, and a Tory. The Scottish Green Party does not stand constituency candidates because (as I understand it) they cannot afford the lost deposits. But votes cast for a constituency candidate count towards the candidate’s party on the list vote.
On the regional ballot, there is a list of parties, each with a list of candidates, and you cast your vote for the party. This is where the Scottish Greens always do well, but they don’t – as Labour, SNP, LibDem, and Tory always do – get the benefit of votes cast for a constituency candidate. [Update: *facepalm* I had managed to confuse "regional party vote" with "votes cast on the regional ballot". The Electoral Commission very kindly explained to me the formula system which can also be found here. The number of constituency candidates for a given party in the region affects how the votes on the regional ballot are counted: the constituency ballot vote does not otherwise affect the regional results.]
The Tories are not loved in Scotland. In 2011, the LibDem candidates in many constituencies (including mine) made the mistake of associating themselves with the Liberal Democrats in Westminster, who had put a Tory government back in power over Scotland, and across Scotland, voters rejected the LibDems like they were Tories. And, overwhelmingly, the SNP benefited from the LibDem rejection, and won a majority in the Scottish Parliament, which had always been thought to be impossible.
But unfortunately, this meant the SNP had fulfilled the conditions under which they had said they would hold a referendum for independence, without actually convincing a majority of Scottish voters to support independence.
A Scot who voted SNP because they’d taken a scunner to Labour and weren’t going to vote Tory or for Tory-lite LibDems isn’t likely to vote Yes in the referendum.
It puzzled me – because it seemed such an obviously bad idea, which only got worse when I looked at it more closely – why the possibility of two questions kept coming up. A referendum for a big change like independence ought to have a clear answer, and the best way to achieve that is to have just one question with a Yes / No answer.
The Scottish Parliament referendum in 1998 had two questions: Did we want a Parliament: did we want it to have tax-raising powers? and I can’t be the only one who wondered what would happen if we got a majority “No” verdict to Parliament but “Yes” to tax-raising powers.
We got a clear “Yes” to both questions, and the referendum was designed to make it unlikely that people would get muddled and vote against having a Parliament but for it having tax raising powers. It’s possible that a two-question referendum for independence or devo-plus might be designed to have an equally clear set of answers, but I doubt it.
Individuals can float ideas but devo plus must stand up to scrutiny or look as vague as the promise of “more powers” recently dangled by David Cameron. While we’re at it, is devo plus what he has in mind or is devo diversion more the prime minister’s style? A pre-referendum promise by Alec Douglas-Home for a better option never materialised in 1979 – Scots are now deeply suspicious of constitutional jam-later pledges.
Obviously the SNP want to win in autumn 2014. But a canny politician like Alex Salmond will also want to preserve his political career and his party if Scots reject independence. And one way of doing that, it occurs to me, is to set up the independence referendum to make sure of a muddled answer.
Two questions, four answers. The possible combinations are:
- Yes to independence, yes to devo-plus.
- Yes to independence, no to devo-plus.
- No to independence, yes to devo-plus.
- No to independence, no to devo-plus.
However clearly phrased the questions, this would be a referendum heading for an answer that could mean whatever the person analysing the votes wanted.
We know it’s not likely there’s going to be a majority Yes to independence. Even if there is a majority Yes to devo-plus, this then has to be legislated at Westminster, before May 2015, when the UK goes to the polls for the next General Election – or wait on the next government, who are unlikely to have re-writing the Scotland Act as a priority. None of this will be SNP or Salmond’s responsibility: a vote for devo-plus puts the onus on Westminster to act in response to Scotland’s vote.
A two-question ballot ensures Alex Salmond probably won’t win, but it’s not likely he’ll actually lose.
Update, 2nd August: Further analysis of the poll by Lallans Peat Worrier, who notes:
The YouGov poll also asked its 1,029 respondents: “Do you support or oppose Scotland becoming independent from the rest of the United Kingdom?” It is a mildly curious question to ask. It isn’t in the Scottish Government’s preferred or secondary wording – but don’t let’s cavil.
Update, 13th August: Salmond in secret push to obtain a devo max option?
This story in the Herald today is based on an email they “obtained”:
The message was sent from Mr Salmond’s special adviser Alex Bell to Martin Sime, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Services (SCVO) and a leading proponent of a two-question poll.
The SCVO is the driving force behind the Future of Scotland group, a loose coalition of charities, churches, student organisations and trade unions which, since launching earlier this year, has been developing a possible second question on greater devolution.
Mr Bell’s email, on June 14, provides a link to an internal report by the Unite trade union showing 62% of their members favoured a second question on devo max, according to a poll.
A message attached said simply: “Read this.”
The SNP issued a press release on the Unite poll a few days later, with SNP MSP Linda Fabiani describing it as a “huge blow to the anti-independence campaign”.
Also, I somehow missed this when it was posted at Better Nation on 3rd July, but:
Indeed, in my view, Salmond’s intention to have Devo Max on the ballot slip is simple game theory and quite contrary to ‘abandoning’ independence as his detractors would have it.
Let’s look at two mutually exclusive scenarios:
There is a 35% chance of winning a Yes/No ‘one-question’ referendum.
There is a 20% chance of winning the independence element of a Yes/No ‘two-question’ referendum and a 60% chance of winning the Devo Max element.