How many questions will the Scots be asked?

I was surprised to read in Gareth Hughes' blog yesterday that Alex Salmond had compromised his position on the independence referendum and:

... all but acknowledged this weekend that he would put a second question on the independence referendum ballot paper. The second question would offer Scotland economic autonomy without leaving the UK.

I wondered which interview this had been, and after a bit of Googling found that it was almost certainly a Comment is Free piece in the Guardian which said:

Alex Salmond is preparing to stage a referendum on Scottish independence that will offer voters a second option – full financial autonomy while remaining part of the United Kingdom.

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, the first minister said that allowing Scotland to have fiscal autonomy without full independence was "a very popular option" with "plenty of evidence" of public support. "I think there's a case for that. The case is essentially a democratic case," he said.

Guardian, 9 October 2011

One slight problem is that I can't find the interview with those words anywhere in the Guardian. In the short snippet that's quoted Alex Salmond merely acknowledges that there is a case for another option; it's far from being a commitment to it. And if anything, he says the complete opposite in the interview that the Guardian published on this page, which has both an edited 10 minute video and a longer 33 minute audio version which I've embedded.


When asked about what would happen if the SNP were to lose the referendum, he said, "I've always hypothesized on success rather than failure" and then added " ... incidentally, I won't lose." So I can't help thinking that the Guardian has got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Let me explain what I mean.

In every opinion poll in which the Scottish public is given a three way choice between the status quo (i.e what will exist at the time of the referendum), more powers and independence, the most popular option is more powers. Of late "more powers" has come to be called "devolution max" and is broadly taken to mean a fiscally autonomous Scotland responsible for all its domestic affairs but remaining part of the UK for matters of defence, foreign policy and monetary union. However if a only a two way choice is offered, the section wanting more powers has to choose between independence or the status quo. Some will opt for independence, which increases the pro-independence vote.

Therefore, if the SNP expect to get a vote in favour of independence they will not offer the "devolution max" option, because it will reduce the chances of getting a Yes vote. The SNP will only offer this option if they are in any doubt about whether they will get a Yes vote. If it is included, it will essentially be an admission that they are not sure whether the Scots are ready to vote for independence.

Whatever else happens over the next few years, this is the number one political fact of life with respect to the independence referendum.


Because of this it is highly improbable that any decision on the options in the referendum will be made in the near future. The SNP will wait to see how public opinion moves over the next couple of years. If a clear margin in favour of independence becomes apparent, there will be a simple Yes or No choice on independence.

As for the date, I think it will be in 2014: this will give the Scottish government time to negotiate with the Condem Coalition government on the exact terms of the independence settlement, but also allow for a second bite if Labour win the 2015 Westminster election. The SNP must allow time for the process to be complete before the 2016 Holyrood election, because they might just loose it.

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Anonymous said...

"Therefore, if the SNP expect to get a vote in favour of independence they will not offer the "devolution max" option, because it will reduce the chances of getting a Yes vote. The SNP will only offer this option if they are in any doubt about whether they will get a Yes vote. If it is included, it will essentially be an admission that they are not sure whether the Scots are ready to vote for independence."

My understanding, and the likely understanding from Gareth Hughes, is that it would be multi-question, rather than multi-option.

So the first question is a yes or no to independence. The second question is 'if Scotland votes no, would you support 'devo max' ', though worded not as crudely! That would mean they would have the fall back option.

This is all speculation but seems to be the most likely outcome. There's no way there would be two 'no' answers. Yet something in me just tells me Salmond will win...

MH said...

I agree about the question format, Anon. That's why the post is called "How many questions will the Scots be asked?"

My point is simply that some people who want change will vote No to independence if they know they can vote Yes to full fiscal autonomy. But without that second question, some of those same people will vote Yes to independence because it's better than the status quo.

Anonymous said...

Won't Salmond leave it as late as possible, ie after the 2015 election?

Anonymous said...

Might the questions not also be the other way around, i.e "Should Scotland gain certain competences including fiscal autonomy?" and then "Should Scotland also become independent so that it has control of defence, foreign policy, etc.?"

MH said...

Anon 13:47. I think he'll go for it as soon as he thinks he has a reasonable chance of winning it, which will depend on what the opinion polls show. It won't take long for the Referendum Bill to go through parliament, so he'll be able to move quickly. The problem with a late referendum is that after a Yes vote Scotland won't become independent immediately; there will need to be very detailed negotiations about the split of assets and liabilities between the governments of Scotland and the RUK. I can't imagine them taking less than a year, and might take two. Throughout that time the SNP needs to be in government. If they leave it too long, and then lose their majority in the 2016 election, a new Scottish government will take over the negotiations. They would of course report that the negotiations are "going badly" and that Scotland is going to get "a poor deal". On this pretext they would then try to call for another referendum in the hope of reversing the previous result.

Anon 13:58. Yes, if there are two questions they might well be in that order.

Anonymous said...

The question could well be "How many questions will the eWelsh be asked?"

Will latest Silk commission findings on revenue raising be subject to referendum? What about the 2nd part?

And since all this is due before what happens in Scotland is played out, will there be a new referndum on something else which will better suit the new political landscape after the Scottish result?


MH said...

That's a fair point, Dai. Labour in Wales had previously been adamant that any tax setting powers for Wales would require a referendum. Yet they're not so adamant about that now, and Carwyn Jones indeed wants Wales to get taxation powers on certain smaller taxes, and says that he expects Wales to be offered the power to set corporation tax as well if that power is given to NI and/or Scotland.

So as the principle of the Welsh Government being able to set taxes has been conceded, it becomes very much harder to then argue that there needs to be a referendum simply on income tax. That doesn't mean to say that some in Labour won't argue that a referendum is needed, though.

In broad terms, those who are opposed to devolution (or further devolution) would like to have a referendum on every change ... primarily to slow the process down. But it's interesting to note that one phrase repeated twice in the Silk Commission's terms of reference is "likely to have a wide degree of support". So if they (for the SC includes representatives from all four elected parties) can come up with something they all agree on, what would be the point of a referendum?

Anonymous said...

I know Wales is a left-leaning country but a majority is not going to vote against lower taxes. What a strange situation. A referendum would be yet another waste of money and a sign of Wales' lack of confidence in our own politicians to make decisions.

Cibwr said...

At one point, the original Government of Wales Bill did not even permit the National Assembly to keep the profit from the Assembly gift shop (spotted in the Lords by Dafydd El) so there is a long history of prohibiting any fundraising powers. Overdue in my view.

Anonymous said...

Have you a link for that Cibwr?

Siônnyn said...

The sensible thing for the Scottish referendum, if indeed it is to be multi question, is to use STV. Number your options 1-> 3 (or 4 or whatever).

Salmond is a master at the long game, and so far he has been faultless. He has allowed the unionists to show their very poor hand, while keeping his own very close to his chest. The disarray in the English Cabinet, with the SoS of defence resigning for being a twpsyn, the dismemberment of the NHS attracting ire and derision from all quarters, and the dire results of British foreign policy in recent years will, on their own,without any SNP input, will make the Devo-Max proposition look more an more ridiculous. And Salmond has yet to make his move! A Grand Master at play!

MH said...

I think it's almost certain that any other option will be put in the form of another Yes/No question rather than as a single multiple choice question, Siônnyn.

But I agree that the case for the union is looking more and more unattractive. I'm beginning to think that the opposition to independence will just crumble. When the opinion polls show a consistent margin of about 20% in favour (say 55% to 35%) it will be time to act. That could be as early as next spring, for a referendum in late 2012 or early 2013. I've checked the SNP manifesto and there is nothing in it that commits them to holding it later, even though that is the commonly accepted wisdom. Bear in mind that someone actually needs to define what "devolution max" is, and that it needs to be agreed with the UK government ... particularly the tricky matter of who gets what proportion of the revenue from offshore oil, gas and renewable energy. Would there be time to do that? At present, the unionist parties are calling for an early referendum, Salmond could wrong foot them by doing just that.

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