Brian Wilson: Nationalists opt for voter confusion

THE SNP seems keen to avoid a clear question and answer on independence for Scotland.

THE SNP seems keen to avoid a clear question and answer on independence for Scotland.

On the morning of 6 May last year, there seemed to be a few incontrovertible facts. The Scottish Nationalists would form a majority administration at Holyrood as a result of winning more than 40 per cent of the popular vote on a 50 per cent turnout.

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The second reality which nobody bothered to dispute was that there would, as a result, be a referendum on the issue of independence. This was a clear manifesto commitment by the SNP which democrats must respect. For Nationalists who had worked honourably towards that day for decades, it was a moment for celebration: at last, the fundamental demand which united them could be addressed directly to the Scottish people.

Indeed, many who had not voted SNP and had no desire to see them succeed welcomed such a cathartic outcome. For too long, the Nationalists had operated on the false prospectus that Scotland was being denied something it wanted: independence from the United Kingdom. Now the matter would be put to the test and perhaps Scottish politics could finally move on from endless constitutional bickering.

So far, so straightforward. Manifesto commitment… SNP victory… referendum on independence; a logical democratic progression which nobody questioned. If, on that glad Nationalist morning, any defender of the Union had decreed that there would not be one question in the referendum but two, and that the second would involve Scotland staying within the UK, they would have been roundly denounced by supporters of independence who believed they were being cheated out of their birthright.

And indeed the Nationalists would have been justified. Independence, like pregnancy, is an absolute, they would have pointed out. There are 101 versions of what constitutional configuration the UK could or should adopt, but none of them, by definition, includes Scottish independence. So if pro-Union forces had panicked and said: “Let’s try and save the Union by adding a second question which might make staying in palatable for more Scots” then the cries of “foul” would have been entirely reasonable.

But no political party supporting the Union attempted any such thing. Then, however, something very odd and extraordinary began to evolve. It was not the Unionists who raised the possibility of a second question but the Nationalists. The leadership of the party which had just won the right to put its age-old demand for independence to the democratic test discovered, without notice in its manifesto or anywhere else, that it really wanted not one question but two – the second of which would retain Scotland within the United Kingdom.

It is helpful to recount that basic history in order to appreciate the curiosity of what is now going on and the intellectual absurdity of the “second question” argument. What surprises me is the lack of resistance there has been from within the Nationalist ranks to what must rate as one of the great volte-faces in political history: a separatist party winning the right to hold a referendum on the clear-cut question of independence and then retreating from it.

Rather than the Theme from Braveheart, the SNP’s retreat into studied ambiguity over a second question reminds me of the old Percy French song about Slattery’s Mounted Fut, one of the less combative battalions in Irish history: “I’m not as bold as lions but I’m braver nor a hen; and he that fights and runs away will live to fight again!”

Professor Adam Tomkins of Glasgow University has described a second question as “a recipe only for voter confusion, for highly ambiguous results and for widespread incomprehension – the very opposite of the features and values that a successful referendum must possess”. Another referendum expert, Dr Matt Qvortrup – the man falsely prayed in aid by Alex Salmond at Holyrood – has pointed out that of 200 referendums on constitutional issues, only four had a second question, and that it is “rarely a good idea”.

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So what exactly is the SNP leadership, which effectively means Alex Salmond, up to and why is he fostering confusion? The favoured explanation of his insistence on a second question is that he is pretty sure he is going to lose the first one. So the second becomes his insurance policy. Instead of going out and fighting for what he has spent his political life proselytising for, he is, according to this version of events, already organising for a retreat to more secure territory.

We are told that “civic Scotland”, most of it pretty close to the Holyrood patronage system, is in favour of a second question, but if this is the case then it only reveals a lamentable absence of intellectual rigour in these circles. Indeed, it is difficult to believe that they really cannot tell the difference between a referendum based on a clear-cut constitutional proposition and an opinion poll on the subjective concept of increased powers for Holyrood.

That debate will carry on anyway – devolution guarantees that. I have no doubt that powers will continue to transfer, as has happened in comparable scenarios, notably Spain. I did not share the view that the 1997 formula was written in tablets of stone, as the recent Scotland Act has demonstrated. But you don’t need a referendum to agree on a broad principle which does not constitute a precise constitutional change.

This confusion was illustrated by the poll which the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations published on Monday to coincide with the Better Together launch. The question asked was whether people thought there should be a “second question”, without any reference to what should be in the second question. We elect politicians to make decisions about powers on an ongoing basis and occasionally hold referendums to decide on major constitutional change. That should not be a difficult distinction for “civic Scotland” to grasp.

Another possibility is that we are all players in a great big game. Alex Salmond has always thrived on rows rather than radicalism or indeed any interesting political outlook that extends beyond the constitution. And there is another theory that, by placing such emphasis on his demand for a second question, Salmond is simply orchestrating a “row” which will lead to there being no referendum at all.

Is it really possible that the SNP will be led into the absurd situation where it is not prepared to ask the straightforward question on independence unless it is allowed to ask another one which would, in any analysis, make a vote in favour of independence less likely? On 6 May, 2011, that would have seemed ridiculous. Nationalists, more than anyone else, might ponder why it no longer does.