Tuesday 19 June 2012

What does no really mean?

There is, as might be expected, much talk of what a YES vote in the coming independence referendum would mean for Scotland. But we hear very little discussion of what might be the implications of a NO vote. There are, I would suggest, two reasons for this. Firstly, the SNP and the pro-independence campaign have assiduously sought to present an entirely positive case - rightly eschewing the grindingly negative smear attempts and scare-stories that have thus far characterised the largest part of the anti-independence effort. Dwelling on the potential deleterious consequences of a NO vote simply doesn't fit with the tenor of the independence campaign.

Secondly, the unionist campaign simply doesn't have an alternative vision for Scotland. Discounting a handful of eccentrics - including David Cameron's benighted deputy in Scotland, Ruth Davidson - there is all but universal agreement that the constitutional status quo is totally untenable. But there is no meaningful effort to spell out what voting to remain in the UK would entail.

This situation is surely unsatisfactory. For all the fuss about "unanswered questions" dutifully carried by the union-supporting media, it is never admitted that there are at least as many unanswered questions about Scotland's future in the UK as about Scotland's future as an independent nation. If there are two alternatives, how might a rational debate about choices proceed if only the independence option is examined in any detail while the union option remains a complete unknown?

Let us not forget that those opposed to independence were offered the opportunity to formulate an alternative. The Scottish Government has made it very clear that it is open to the inclusion of a "more powers" option on the referendum ballot, while also leaving no room for doubt that the Scottish National Party itself would campaign for full independence. The response of the anti-independence parties has thus far been to explicitly rejected this invitation to formulate and advance an alternative proposal. The NO campaign may claim that they are not proposing the status quo, but they refuse to say what else they are proposing.

When examining the possible consequences of a NO vote there are a couple of scenarios which we can safely discount. A NO vote is not going to be the end of the independence campaign. I would wager that, in all of history, there has never been a firmly established independence movement that simply evaporated due to failure to achieve its goal. In fact, I suspect you'd be struggling to find an example of an independence movement with at least 33% support which was not ultimately successful.

Neither, despite all the fervent wishful thinking of the British Labour Party, will a NO vote result in the demise of their political nemesis, the Scottish National Party. If anything, frustration at a lack of meaningful constitutional reform is likely to strengthen the SNP. And even if this were not so, then there is still the incontrovertible (except by the terminally blinkered) fact that the SNP is now firmly established as a party of government. Its presence, if not its place, in Scotland's political scene is assured. Whatever else happens, the virtual Labour hegemony in Scotland has been irretrievably consigned to the dustbin of political history. As has the notion that Scotland's politics could be meaningfully represented in terms of the Tory/Labour faux dichotomy that so regrettably mires politics in England. A notion which has been growing increasingly "quaint" for at least five decades. A NO vote may be something of an earthquake in Scottish politics. But while earthquakes may shoogle things around, they don't tend to neatly restore them to a previous state.

Thinking about a NO vote in terms of its potential impact on the SNP and the wider independence movement may, in any case, be a bit of a distraction from the fact that it would be the proponents of a such a vote who would face by far the biggest problems. The ball would very much be in the anti-independence parties' court. All the pressure would be on them to deliver something. Doubtless, there would be different factions. At one extreme there would be those who would represent even a narrow NO majority as a resounding endorsement of the British state and a justification for rolling back devolution. Then there would be those who insist that the vague assurances of an improved devolution settlement must be translated into something tangible. Anybody who imagines the referendum will end wrangling over Scotland's constitutional future is fooling themselves.

And this highlights a big fat fly in the ointment of our speculation. Reactions and responses in the aftermath of the referendum will depend not only on the bare arithmetic but at least as much on the diverse interpretations and representations of the results which, in turn, will depend upon the turnout at least as much as the actual votes. It is not too difficult to see that a result of 51% NO on a 40% turnout is significantly different from 51% NO on a 60% turnout; and hugely different from 70% NO on an 80% turnout. while I reckon we can safely discount the last of these, the others are surely quite realistic. It is probably safe to assume that there will not be a huge majority either way. I think we're working in a ten point range around 50%. The really big unknown is the turnout.

It is tempting at this point to say something worthy about how a high turnout benefits everyone. But, as we shall see, that is not necessarily true.

In the hope of kick-starting some discussion of the implications of a NO vote I will posit three scenarios. In each, I will assume only one option on the ballot, a straight YES/NO choice on the question proposed by the Scottish Government. The variables are the size of the NO vote and the turnout.

Scenario 1 - 51% NO with 40% turnout

This will, of course, be represented by the British political parties and the media as a "resounding victory" for the union. But in reality it will not be accepted as decisive by large swathes of Scottish society. All of what ensues will be coloured by growing demands for a further referendum on more specific proposals for Scotland's constitutional settlement. The response of the UK Government will be shaped by the imperative of avoiding such a referendum. In many ways, the situation would be similar to that which prevailed prior to the 2007 Scottish election.

The UK Government will resort to its customary tactic of buying time by setting up yet another commission to look at ways of making it look as if devolution is being improved. Great care will be taken to ensure that this commission does not report before elections in Scotland with the hope that this will bring a reliably compliant Labour administration. The terms of reference of the commission will be framed in such a way as to make it all but impossible for the SNP to participate.

In short, we would be pretty much living through a replay of recent events. A sort of "Groundhog Decade".

Scenario 2 - 51% NO with 60% turnout

This scenario illustrates the difference that a decent turnout can make. It would be all but impossible for anyone to question the validity of such a result. The anti-independence campaign will unquestionably represent it as a solid endorsement of the union and a mandate for the UK Government to do... what? That is the big question. There are no proposals on the table in the event of such a result. Depending on ones perspective, the UK Government is ether under an obligation to deliver something undefined, or it has a mandate to maintain the status quo.

Whereas our first scenario gives us an indefinite result with no resolution of the issue and a broadly unaltered continuation of existing power relationships, this scenario gives us a definite result which still offers no clear resolution but puts a big chunk of political power in the hands of the UK Government. There really is no telling what will ensue. Such a result produces vastly more uncertainty than even the narrowest of victories for the pro-independence campaign.

It is difficult to see how this is any kind of progress. And, as there is absolutely no incentive to deliver meaningful reform of any kind, there is a very real danger that the situation will develop as a more gradual and insidious playing out of our third scenario.

Scenario 3 - 60% NO with 70% turnout

I have included this in order to illustrate a worst-case scenario. Such a result would clearly be a devastating blow to the independence campaign. But we are here concerned with the effect it would have on the victors and how this would inform the response of the UK Government.

We would have to expect a period of gloating triumphalism. There will be no magnanimity. Scotland will have been well and truly reminded of its place in a union which will come to look more and more like a thinly disguised Greater England. The British political establishment will rapidly move to assert the sovereignty of parliament and affirm the subordinate nature of the devolved Scottish institutions. Certain journalists may well expire in an orgasmic frenzy of goggle-eyed glee and spittle-flecked schadenfreude.

The British political parties will see an opportunity to play to some of the baser prejudices of "Middle England", with proposals to restrict "Scottish" influence at Westminster. In many cases there will be a veiled but nonetheless discernible ethnic flavour to much of this.

The Barnett Formula will be scrapped in favour of a block grant fully under the control of the UK Chancellor. The Scottish Government will be put in a budgetary stranglehold that will totally cripple its capacity to pursue progressive policies distinct from those being imposed on the rest of the UK. With the power of the administration thus undermined, the UK Government will increasingly find excuses to intervene, urged on by the British parties in Scotland. Devolution will be rolled back with a new Scotland Act.

Efforts will be made to "adjust" the electoral system in Scotland so as to ensure that Holyrood is permanently dominated by British political parties. There will be calls from some quarters for the SNP to be banned.

The Scotland Office will be given a much bigger role with scrutiny and oversight powers giving it effective control over much of the work of the Scottish Parliament - even to the extent of significantly expanded veto powers for the Secretary of State.

All of this will, of course, be aided and accelerated should unionists be returned to power at Holyrood. The combination of a NO vote in the referendum and a Labour administration determined to punish Scottish voters for the error of their ways would be devastating. In every way imaginable the country would be set back decades.

Different as they may be, all of these scenarios have one thing in common. Extrapolated making only reasonable assumptions, they all tend to point towards eventual independence. We either have a rerun of the whole referendum campaign; or we have the entirely unsatisfactory status quo; or we have a significant deterioration of relations between the two countries. It is not a matter of whether independence is achieved. It is a matter of when. What the referendum will determine is not so much the question of independence as the amount of turmoil we must endure before it is achieved. This brief analysis suggests that there is no way that a NO vote can alter the eventual outcome. But the lack of any clear definition of what a NO vote means could cause a lot of problems in the interim.


  1. I think, in the event of a No vote, of any percentage, two things would happen. The nationalists would split into "Constitutional" nationalists, and "Militant" nationalists, paramilitaries would organize, and within a year, a campaign of violence would start. Look at Northern Ireland. A group of republicans who were enver more than a few hundred, kept pinned down 50,000 troops and police for 30 years. The cost was enormous. In Scotland, with its larger population, it would lead to Sectarianism, and communal violence, but, more importantly, a sort of low level Scottish Intifada would start, that would make Unionist rule ungovernable. It would be far worse than Ireland, and could be started by a mere handful of paramilitaries of strong will. Like the Baeder Meinhoff gang in Germany, they would have the State in Turmoil. They would not need to win, merely to survive and operate. This is such an awful vision, that it does not bare thinking about. There is nothing romantic about terrorism, or resistance, as the French discovered. It is very, very bloody. The thing is, this will happen, as a large section of the Scottish population will be beyond anger, and will become dangerous.

    1. A cannot agree. Terrorism is the resort of the powerless. It is the voice of those who cannot otherwise be heard. So long as there is a functioning democratic process by which a political goal can be pursued, the seeds of militancy will not take root.

    2. Irish terrorism arose out of a long tradition of "physical force" nationalism in Ireland. It was sustained after independence by the real and exaggerated grievances of Partition. It appeared in Northern Ireland in 1970 when tiny group of militarists, mostly based in Dublin, took advantage of civil strife in 1969. It was sustained and grew because the British Army and the Westminster Government had a very steep learning curve about how to deal with the alienated Catholic minority from whom the IRA was recruited. The latter might be as obtuse about Scotland, but the British Army, especially its Scottish regiments will not. There will be no violent outcome to a "No" result.

  2. I think you're being optimistic Peter. If there is a no vote then the Establishment will take that as Scottish nationalism giving it its best shot and failing.

    Scenario 3 will apply regardless of the vote turnout or winning percentage and I suspect that one of the first things a Westminster Government will do is to make it impossible for the Scottish Parliament to call another referendum by making referendums a reserved matter.

    I also think you're being optimistic about the chances of independence happening in the future if we lose this referendum.

    Without nationalism as a threat it will be open season on Scotland's finances, government, legal system, public bodies, national sports teams and any other institution which differentiates Scotland from England. The Unionists will make damn sure they never get into this situation again by locking Scotland even more closely into the Union.

  3. Have to say I completely agree with both Graham and Doug on this.

  4. DougtheDug and Paul

    Please pardon my cheery disposition. ;¬)

    But at least there is some discussion going on the matter of what a NO vote means. And the pressure on anti-independence parties is growing.

    1. Peter,

      surely you can see that the tactics open to the SNP are pretty obvious, they just have to leave the people with the choice of playing the game with out any political power or playing the game with all the power, i.e. vote yes. Either way the win-win situation of independance gives the scottish electorate the choice (Union-lite on Scottish terms), rather than being told what they are getting after a NO vote. The risk is pretty obvious.

      I like the idea of the bearded-one of the Telegraph passsing away from an overdose of chadenfreude. :-))

    2. You seem to be saying that it would suit the SNP to have only the one question on the ballot. In which case, I agree. But the SNP administration cannot be seen to be pursuing partisan interests. The Scottish Government cannot be deaf to demands for a devo-whatever option.

  5. """"""""""""""The Barnett Formula will be scrapped in favour of a block grant fully under the control of the UK Chancellor. The Scottish Government will be put in a budgetary stranglehold that will totally cripple its capacity to pursue progressive policies distinct from those being imposed on the rest of the UK. With the power of the administration thus undermined, the UK Government will increasingly find excuses to intervene, urged on by the British parties in Scotland. Devolution will be rolled back with a new Scotland Act."""""""""""""""""""""

    I agree with this scenario but I believe that this scenario will become fact under any circustances of a 'NO' win at any % turnout. The day after a NO win will begin and put directly into motion massive cuts in the Scottish budget. There will be no call for the SNP to be banned but it will make little difference as the blow of a loss is likely to kill the SNP anyway. A NO means dark times and dark deeds. I have nothing positive to add... sorry about that but I see no positive outcome.

    1. I was at pains not to overstate my concerns and thus open myself to accusations of the same kind of scare-mongering as is indulged in by the unionists. But it seems that the fears may already be there, lurking under the surface and not being expressed.

  6. There is a very big element in all of this which has the absolute might to render all predictions to dust and that's peoples awareness of a future UK with Scotland, or as seems to be important to many, the future of a UK without Scotland.

    That psychologically cultivated hurdle has first to be cleared, misinformation and distortion overcome, to then open up ambitions for an independent Scotland, but I have never known so many voices, increasingly aware and in favour as there are now.

    What formerly was a unified and solid UK, politically un-opposed and denied to others thinking otherwise, is well and truly changed. Now there is a demand to hear debate from both sides and the status quo will not survive that scrutiny.

    As you look to be saying Peter, things have irrevocably changed. People at last are getting hungry for the facts, a NO vote will not end it there - but, there will be wholesale damage done to Scotland in its aftermath - that's what has to be presented to the Scottish people. Good article.

  7. I think the most dangerous effect of a "No" vote whatever it's size will be that action will be taken by the UK government to ensure that no such referendum can ever take place again.

    The unexpected consequence of that may be that the SNP will have to fight some future Scottish election on the basis that any future overall majority will represent authorisation of a declaration of independence to be made at Holyrood.

  8. Although wiser Unionist heads would call for restraint the rank and file Unionists would never be able to contain their glee at the outcome

    The inittial response from the government would be the issue is dead we welcome the decision of the Scottish people, we wont forget you and understand your desire for more powers

    The media would lambast Alex Salmond ,mock the temerity of calling a referendum

    The labour party would taunt and goad.

    However, we have been here before when devolution failed the first time. Alex Salmond would come under pressure to relinquish the leadership and the SNP would go off to lick their wounds and re think the strategy

    I do fear the rise of paramilatries but that would lead to sectarian conflict and as democrats it must be resisted as a dangerous blind alley

    However the temptation for the backwoodsmen in the Unionist camp to punish and the complacency of the two main unionist parties will enable the SNP to recover

    By mocking the result they will be alienating a part of the population and the neglect following such a result will in time radicalise a new generation that will see a UK sink lower in the league of nations still addicted to trying to play the worlds policeman with their big brother the US

    It may take a decade or even two but as the Unionist parties fail and fail again to resolve the issues in Scotland they must in the end fail to retain the support of the Scottish people

  9. Dr. James Wilkie21 June 2012 at 22:55

    I am in complete agreement with the author that independence is going to happen eventually, come what may. In the light of the most recent global developments it is the only feasible form of government, given Scotland's unique geographical, geoeconomic and hence geopolitical situation. Furthermore, it has been building up since the mid-19th century at the latest, and this long-term strategic trend is not going to be reversed at its present advanced stage.

    Of course it is possible that a NO result could be obtained by manipulation, given that the average voter does not have a degree in political philosophy and can be swayed, temporarily at least, by a campaign of concentrated propaganda over a short period. Remember what happened in 1979, when a massive opinion poll majority for devolution was reduced by a perfect orgy of corruption, vacuous slogans, twisting of facts, and not least manipulation of the voting system.

    Perhaps it would be best in the longer term if that were to happen again, when, as with devolution, the eventual reaction to the opposite extreme the second time round would sweep everything before it.

    Peter Bell is perfectly correct. We know the potential advantages of independence. What we don't know is what will happen in the event of a majority rejection of independence in the referendum. There is every reason to believe that the result would have such negative effects in Scotland that independence would in a very short time represent the only way out.

    1. I am grateful to Dr Wilkie for his contribution. The point about how people in Scotland might react to the kind of Draconian clamp-down of our worst-case scenario is a pertinent one. And which takes the discussion forward to the aftermath of the aftermath, if I may phrase it so clumsily.

      It might be posited that the British government being aware of a potential backlash would lead to them being more cautious than I have suggested. But does experience indicate either the capacity for such awareness or any inclination to be sensitive to Scotland's political realities? I rather think not.

  10. A facinating article with interesting takes by the commentators. My first blush reaction to the third scenario was for that to occur there would have had to have been vote rigging. Wether or not that would be true, I think that a significant portion of the "Yes" population would take that view. Right there is the pool in which would be people who feel disenfranchised. Which goes to your your resonse to Mr. Ennis, Peter.

    Nor do I think that reaction would be limited to the third scenario. The unionist parties have previous on skirting voting norms, and the powers-that-be (Electorial Commission) too have previous in shading over such shenanigans.

    I feel that there would not be a graduated response such as you have outlined, my guess is that the response to any "No" vote would be authoritarian and severe. I think the SNP (& I am not a memebr of any political party) would be seen as damaged goods long term though short term they would suffer an immediate loss of fair weather members and a blow to morale generally and that within a few long years they and possibly another party (not seen as damaged goods) would emerge to carry forward the independance banner. However, by that time the electorial odds would be heavily stacked against any Scottish based movement. However, these two parties would occupy different areas of the political spectrum and get in oneanother's way.

    I'd be interested in your views of what the dynamic would be within England (not the Westminster England - the real people). I think that they would take a little time to realise that as the politicians clamp down on Scotland they too are being clamped down upon. Maybe that's where the next democratic thrust for constitutional change will come from in the event of A "no" vote in Scotland?

    There's maybe another part of this worth your considerable celebral effort, that is what would be the outcomes within a polarised Scotland between "Yes" areas and "No" areas - a new bigotary?

  11. Interesting article.

    I do think that the 'Yes' campaign will have to go negative at some stage to deal with the - probable - dystopian outcome that a 'No' vote would imply.

    It would not happen immediately, but everything that does make Scotland a different country from the rest of the UK would be destroyed. There would be no Hollyrood, no separate NHS, no arguement aboout nuclear power stations or the placing of WMDs on our land. Our legal system would be fully under the control of Westminster dictat. All resources would be exploited for the greater good of the short termism of the Treasury. People would flood out of a country which was unable to attract inward investment. Education would be decimated.

    All of this and more would be couched in completely 'reasonable' terms. We would, after all, have agreed that we needed to stay close to nurse.

    We, by tweaking the tail of the Lion, because we elected an SNP government, would be expected to conform to a Unionist agenda when we bottled it.

    So, what is at risk is not the status quo. It is our very being.

  12. Independence from Westminster and Brussels is the only way Scotland will have any say in its own destiny.
    The Czech president has said it will take something like another Velvet Revolution to change the EU and he knows what a centrist,corrupt Politburo looks like.He's not alone,all across Europe,people are waking up to the fact there is a huge democratic deficit at the heart of Europe.
    Independence would be meaningless subsumed within the EU in its current form.
    So yes to independence from Westminster and yes to independence from Brussels.

    1. We are here discussing Scotland's independence referendum. If people want to make a case against Scotland's membership of the EU then I am happy to listen. What they should not do is imagine that the case for independence makes that argument for them.

  13. Can I just say that anyone contemplating sitting on the fence come the referendum should watch this wee video by Ryan before finally making up their minds. He gives a really POSITIVE case for the union.

    ENJOY! :lol:

  14. I think we will have a high turnout. And interestingly, if we omit 'don't knows' and take the latest poll, the No vote is currently slightly above 60%. So the commenter who said that Scenario 3 would suggest vote rigging is talking mince, I'm afraid.

    In fact, there's a huge amount of OTT drama-queen level doom-mongering in the comments - 'no more Hollyrood'(sic), terrorism - gimme a break. This is nonsense that paints both sides in cartoonish terms. However, I do agree that the period after a No vote will be a very depressing time for nationalists, Unionists will not be under any pressure to deliver increased devolution, and we are likely to see the Barnett formula come under renewed fire.

  15. Earl of Easterhouse9 September 2012 at 13:16

    Guess in the event of a NO vote of any size then a look back to 1979 would be In order.
    The SNP went into the wilderness for a couple of decades.
    Maybe even longer if you look at it from 1979 through to 2007 and forming a Scottish Goverment.
    I'd guess turnout in 2014 will be massive.
    Without a move to independence by a sizable chunk of Labour voters in Central Scotland i don't see how we can win.
    A serious beating would set us back a generation.
    Live to fight another day and all that.
    The key to all this is those Labour voters.

    1. The difference between 1979 and the present is that the SNP is now firmly established as a party of government. Despite the wishful thinking of anti-independence campaigners a NO vote in the referendum won't significantly impact the party's standing with the electorate. In fact, a NO vote will make an SNP majority in the Scottish Parliament even more crucial.