Why two questions?

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.

As Lesley Riddoch noted in February this year:

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:
Scenario 1
There is a 35% chance of winning a Yes/No ‘one-question’ referendum.
Scenario 2
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.


Filed under Elections, Politics, Scottish Culture, Scottish Politics

20 responses to “Why two questions?

  1. It’s not my understanding that the constituency vote counts towards the regional vote total at all. Can you point me at something to clear this up?

    • I’ve emailed the Electoral Commission for clarification.

    • I got “number of votes cast for a party in a region” confused with “votes for a party on the regional ballot”. *facepalm* Thank you very much for asking the question – the Electoral Commission was able to explain and clarify. Have updated and corrected my post.

  2. Oh, and also – a really good reason not to have a second question is that nobody knows what “Devo Max” really means. “Being your own country” is a well-defined concept, and one that Scotland can deliver if needed. “Devo Max” means negotiations with the rest of the UK over an ill-defined “Give us more” option that they probably don’t want to give us.

  3. Andrew, according to the Additional Member system, each time a party wins a constituency seat , they lose one place on the list vote. http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/scottish-parliament/

    • Kind of. The list vote is used to add new MSPs to the right place to balance the proportionality. Which means that if a constituency seat is won then there’s less chance of that balancing being needed. The end result is much the same, I agree.

  4. The thing is, once the show gets goindd, it is going to be apparent that a vote for the status quo (which will definitely be put in reverse gear if it wins), or for ‘devo max’ is a vote FOR Trident and FOR allowing English Tories (of whichever party) to savage the welfare state. That will serve to focus the Scottish mind, and deliver a YES vote.

  5. It seems pretty defeatist to be saying that opinion polls taken over two years ahead of the poll mean “We know it’s not likely there’s going to be a majority Yes to independence”, especially considering how spectacularly wrong most of the opinion polls in the run up to last year’s election were. Most people have never properly considered the idea of independence, with many naysayers simply blithely repeating the “Scotland couldn’t be independent” mantra they’ve read or heard elsewhere. Away from the political bods on Twitter and on blogs, the normal people I’ve spoken to who are against independence are completely incapable of backing up their statements, which is a testament to the fact they’ve never given proper thought.

    As for the two questions, it’s just not going to happen. The Scottish Government have always said they favour one question, and are only open to having a Devo Max option if there is support for it. It’s essentially a gambit to get the No side to admit they don’t want more powers, which will ironically make the eventual single question referendum far more clear than it would be if the unionist parties were able to say “oh, voting no isn’t a vote against more powers, it’s just a vote against independence”. By having Devo Max floating around, it is forcing the idea of increased powers to be part of the debate, meaning both sides have to say how their campaign would bring those powers to Scotland. With Yes Scotland, it’s obvious (independence by it’s nature means these increased powers come to Scotland); with Better Together, it remains undefined. At some point, they have to tell us if “no” means “no further” or if it means “not independence, but more powers”, which then means they either make “no” look completely unappealing, or they get themselves in a guddle trying to argue why some powers can be devolved, but others can’t, as well as explaining how it would work.

    The only way Devo Max will be on the ballot paper is if the unionist parties turn “no” into “more powers”.

    • It seems pretty defeatist to be saying that opinion polls taken over two years ahead of the poll mean “We know it’s not likely there’s going to be a majority Yes to independence”

      “Defeatist” is the wrong adjective. I’m entirely undecided about independence. It’s really up to “Yes Scotland” and supporters of independence to make the case for it: so far, David Cameron and Ed Milliband are doing a much better job of that.

      (I probably belong in what Kenny Farq describes as “I’m not a Nat, but” group.)

      But the fact is: “Yes Scotland” got off to a shaky start, hasn’t impressed me so far with its campaigning style, and as far as I can see most pro-independence campaigners have no idea how to engage with people who disagree with them.

      Even with two and a half years to go, a 20 point lead would take some beating.

      As for the two questions, it’s just not going to happen.

      I hope you’re right.

    • Peter A Bell

      You are perfectly correct about the NO vote, of course. The realisation has not yet dawned on the majority of people but, as things stand, the UK government is free to interpret a NO vote in any way it pleases. And anyone who imagines that their interpretation might work to Scotland’s advantage is the kind of fool who climbs into a lion enclosure with naught but a Bible and a beatific smile.

  6. Peter A Bell

    “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.”

    This is just nonsense! All the polls can possibly indicate is that a majority for independence may not be a likely outcome AT THE TIME OF POLLING. It does not, and cannot say anything at all about what might happen two years hence.

  7. Peter A Bell

    “We know it’s not likely there’s going to be a majority Yes to independence.”

    ‘We’ know nothing of the kind. We know that current polls indicate only a minority for independence. But if we have any sense we acknowledge that a lot can happen in two years. Two years in which the Yes Scotland campaign will surely gather momentum while the No Scotland campaign remains mired in negativity.

    Two years in which the UK government will have ample opportunity to further discredit the union in the eyes of all who dwell on the periphery of the British state.

    Two years in which the people of Scotland will increasingly come to realise that the devo-whatever that the majority prefer cannot be delivered and, even if it could, would not satisfy their aspirations.

    Two years for people to become better informed about the potential benefits of independence.

    Two years for the realisation to percolate through the Scottish electorate that a NO vote would be a disaster for Scotland.

    What we know for certain is that the referendum will take place in an atmosphere very different from that of today. Knowing that, we would be foolish in the extreme to attach any significant weight to opinion polls.

    • Cameron’s chances of winning a second term look increasing less likely, though, which takes away most of of the “I’m not a Nat, but” supporters for independence.

      Of course a poll two years ahead of the referendum isn’t definitive. But “Better Together” consistently shows a major lead. To get a majority “Yes” vote, a significant proportion of No/Undecided voters have to be convinced to change their minds.

      So far the most successful method of doing that is the spectre of Tory government in Westminster, but as Cameron’s government fails, strong Yes Scotland supporters really would have to learn to engage with and convince undecided voters. Thus far, I haven’t seen much signs of this happening.

      • Better Together does not have a “major lead”. It is made to appear so by counting all those who actually want devo-whatever in with the NO camp. But Better Together represents only the status quo which, far from having a “major lead”, is consistently shown to be the least popular option.

        The UK general election does not happen until after the referendum. There will still be a massively unpopular Tory government in power. In Scotland, Labour will be increasingly associated with that government through its involvement in the anti-independence coalition. Labour will have the doubly difficult task of convincing people that they might win and that it would make a jot of difference if they did. And the old, “Vote Labour to keep the Tories out!” line has already lost whatever credibility it once had among Scottish voters.

        As to engagement, the campaign has barely begun. Yes Scotland can only grow and develop. Better Together has nothing more to offer than the vacuous romanticism that we’ve seen already. It has been almost entirely reliant on this year’s massively over-played festival of Britishness that will will be a distant memory by 2014.

        When looking at these polling figures it is essential that one takes due account of the effect of this British nationalist propaganda effort. And the almost universal antipathy of the media which daily regales us with smears against the SNP; attacks on the Scottish government; and stories slanted or contrived to talk Scotland down. That support for independence has held up against this barrage must be a matter of profound concern to those who would keep us bound to the corrupt and anachronistic British state.

      • “To get a majority “Yes” vote, a significant proportion of No/Undecided voters have to be convinced to change their minds.”

        Kind of. It’s that 35-40% of “devo max” supporters who need to be convinced, so I wouldn’t really call them “no” voters as such – they just currently default to that position in yes/no polls. These are people who reject the status quo, but are not yet convinced about independence. Whichever side can convince two-thirds of those voters to vote their way will win the referendum.

        This is why the idea of a third option is being kept alive – because it keeps the idea of increased powers alive. If we ruled out a third option straight away, then people might think “oh well I don’t want independence, so I’ll be voting no”, and would be more difficult to sway. But while that third option is hanging around, people are encouraged to consider that these sort of powers – taxation, borrowing, welfare and pensions – could be brought to Scotland. Having gotten their minds used to the idea of Scotland getting more powers, they suddenly find that the only option which offers that is “yes” in a straight yes/no question to independence. Much the same as how if you held a referendum today asking if Scotland should continue having its own parliament, you would get a far bigger majority than in the referendum in 1998.

        As a consequence of this, as well as none of the unionist sides picking up the devo max option and defining it (although realistically we mean Labour here, since many Tories would actually reverse devolution, and the Lib Dems barely exist now), people are encouraged to consider which powers they would like devolved, and in doing so, they’re forced to examine why certain powers shouldn’t be devolved. And when people are thinking about things carefully, they’re less susceptible to scaremongering, which is the main (only?) unionist tool.

        “Tax, yes; welfare, yes; borrowing, yes; defence? No. Although I would like to get rid of Trident. And it might be nice not to be brought into illegal wars. Hmmm, how does Westminster controlling defence actually benefit Scotland…?”

        • That’s an interesting angle on it, which hadn’t occurred to me. If that’s how the SNP leadership are thinking, it’s an extremely smart piece of electoral manipulation.

          One problem the pro-independence side has consistently had for me is a studied reluctance to commit themselves to defining an independent Scotland, beyond a kind of fuzzy “It’ll be just like now only we’ll be independent! Same monarchy, same currency, same BBC…”

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