Friday 19 September 2014

Scottish Independence Referendum: six reflections

So it wasn't "neck and neck" after all, but a fairly substantial majority, 55% to 45%*, for remaining in the United Kingdom.  Nevertheless, Alex Salmond is to be congratulated on two massive achievements:
  • initiating a debate which encouraged nearly 85% of the electorate to turn out and vote;
  • placing devolution for the whole UK, including England, firmly on the political agenda, something the Liberals/Liberal Democrats have been trying, but failing, to do for much longer than the half century that I've been a member.
The campaign has raised some interesting questions.

1.  Salmond was clever in obtaining the right to pose the question, and he rightly chose the one: "Should Scotland be and independent county?" to which the answer was Yes.  Both psychologists and psephologist tell us that, whatever the question, people are more likely to vote Yes than No.    Had the question been : "Should Scotland remain in the United Kingdom?" then the majority for remaining in the Union would probably have been even greater.

This has profound implications for any referendum on our place in  Europe.  "Should Britain remain in the European Union?" is more likely to produce the answer to keep us where our future really lies, than, "Should Britain leave the EU?"  Let's hope Cameron or his replacement  is a bit more alert if and when Tory/Ukip mavericks force such a referendum on us.

2. Salmond complains that the Scots were bullied by the Westminster establishment into voting No.  However it is my belief that the aggressive and often baseless threats of the No campaign actually helped the Yes campaign.  Certainly had I been a Scot I should have been jolted into a Yes vote by the patronising and self satisfied emanations from the rUK.   The visit of the three Westminster party leaders would have been a particularly turn-off.  They seemed mainly  concerned with their own international prestige and fear of the humiliation a Yes vote would bring.  John Major's intervention, on a Radio 4 broadcast, was particularly revealing: we might lose our seat on the Security Council, our  influence in NATO and in the EU  would be diminished, we must hang on the Trident at all costs.  None of it  much to do with how best to govern Scotland.

3.  Salmond wanted the option of Devo Max (home rule) on the ballot paper and Cameron turned this down, presumably judging that with only the "all or nothing" options the status quo would win easily.  When this judgement appeared so badly wrong Cameron's offer of Devo Max in the event of a No vote is a particular humiliation for him. Neither he nor the other two party leaders who supported the last minute capitulation appear to have consulted their parties on the matter.  Given the eventual result the bribe was probably unnecessary, and, by guaranteeing the continuation of the Barnett formula, which results  a higher level of public spending per head in Scotland than in Wales or England, along with  legislation before next spring, this panic measure has unnecessarily tied the hands of whatever body is set up to hammer out the details of devolution the the rest of the UK.

4. Devolution of power from Westminster to the nations and English regions is  a complex matter which merits careful consideration, consultation, and examination of how other countries deal with the matter.  The last minute offer of Devo Max to Scotland has pre-empted this, and we shall be lumbered with a piece-meal solution which will probably result in almost as many anomalies as the present hotch-potch.  My own preference would be:

  • Devolution to Wales, Northern Ireland and, say, eight regions of England  on similar lines to what is offered to Scotland.  I prefer the existing economic regions of England to the city regions which have suddenly become topical, as I believe the former will provide a better balance between the needs of rural and urban areas.
  • A Council for England, sited in York, to deal with matters of English law and other truly national domestic issues (eg trunk roads, main-line railways, national parks, environmental issues.)  This could be a fairly minor body and might even be indirectly elected from the regional assemblies.
  • A  Westminster parliament to deal with foreign policy, defence, the currency, the meteorological office, national broadcasting, relations with the UN. EU and other international bodies, with the necessary taxation to support these functions and to provide equalisation grants to the nations and regions.
The above is just a proposal for starters. It is a complex issue, needs a lot of thought, and should not be rushed.

5. For the first time in any part of the UK  16 and 17 year-olds were allowed to vote.  In spite of the fact that a huge proportion of them did, and appear to have been very active on both campaigns, I am not too keen on this reduction.  I have spent most of my professional life  teaching this age group and have gained the very strong impression that the overwhelming majority of them at 16 merely parrot the views of their parents .  By 18 they are beginning to think for themselves but I suspect that most, in general elections, cast their first vote in the same way as their parents..  In the early 20s they begin to be more independently minded.  Hence I think the original age of adulthood, 21, was about right.  Now that it has been lowered to 18 we must accept that, but, in my view, so far and no further.

6.  Alas the referendum genie is out of the bottle and this issue will undoubtedly resurface.  Alex Salmond, in the speech in which he accepted defeat, was careful to say that Scotland has decided against independence "at this stage."  Commentators have talked of the matter being settled "for a generation."  Well, a generation is about 25 years. Let's hope that by then devolution will produce such successful domestic government, and international organisations are  so responsive and effective, that  nationalism is reduced to supporting football and cricket teams and athletes.

*For the record the actual figures are:

Total votes cast:              3 623 344   (84.6% turnout)
Yes to independence:      1 617 989    (44.7%)
No to independence :     2 001 926    (55.3%)


  1. Cameron is again acting too hastily. In a panic he offers 'devo max' and then tries to square his right wing by tying it to English votes on English issues. He then increases Scots' hostility by involving the monarchy in the union. The Tory press then attacks poor Ed for making policy on the hoof! Meanwhile Cameron's glamorous friend Rebecca tries to get the state to pay her £7 million pounds legal costs. We are seeing democracy as farce.

  2. You're right: the press ignores Cameron's errors, often, as in this case, highly significant, but hones in on any minor mistake made by Miliband. I regret that he's about to get, indeed is lready getting, the sort of treatment that ruined Kinnock's , and therefore Labour's, chances, in the 90s.

    There are two solutions:

    1. Less emphasis on leaders and more on the policies and potential of all the senior figures (Atlee wouldn't have won under the present style of reporting.).

    2. Diversify press and media ownership.

    Not much chance of either in the near future, I'm afraid.