Last week marked the fifth anniversary of the 2014 independence referendum, giving rise to questions as to how attitudes might have changed in the intervening period.
This was all helpfully informed by a new poll by Survation, commissioned by the campaign group Scotland in Union, which disclosed that 59 per cent of Scottish voters wanted to remain in the UK, including 36 per cent of those who voted Yes in 2014. Only 27 per cent of those polled supported Nicola Sturgeon’s plan for a second referendum within the next 18 months. In response, the First Minister tweeted: “If anti-independence campaigners believed the findings of the poll they have published today, they’d be clamouring for IndyRef2”. It is hard to know whether this was intended as a joke, or if it was serious. If it was the latter, it demonstrates an astonishing lack of awareness of the mood across Scotland from the leader of the devolved administration.
The 2014 independence vote was, we were told at the time, a “once in a generation” event. Indeed, this very wording is contained in the Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence. Nicola Sturgeon herself went even further, stating in the Scottish Parliament on the 21st August 2014, in the very last debate before the referendum was held, that the vote was “once in a lifetime”.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that the SNP are now disowning that section of the White Paper, when so much of the rest of it has had to be ditched: the claims that oil would sustain the public finances of Scotland; the promise that sterling would continue to be our currency post-independence; and the ludicrous suggestion that an entire independent sovereign state could be created within 18 months at a total cost of just £200m (which, it turns out, now just covers the cost of two new ferries).
I am not clamouring for another referendum because I fear the outcome, quite the contrary, but because I simply do not want my country to go through again what it suffered in 2014. I still recall the toxic atmosphere around the independence debate, the bullying and intimidation, the aggression on our streets, the likes of which I never thought I would witness here. That was not just my experience, but also that of so many other pro-Union campaigners I know.
Those on the Yes side of the campaign will claim that it was nothing like that, that it was a joyous celebration of democracy and engagement. Maybe that was their experience, and if so it is probably because they were not on the receiving end of what so many of us on the other side had to put up with.
So, First Minister, I am certainly not clamouring for another independence referendum. I care about Scotland too much to want to put my country through that again. But what I am clamouring for, like so many others, is for your administration to get on with the job of tackling the key issues that matter.
In the last few weeks we have seen exposed almost on a daily basis the failures within our NHS and education systems, and we have two Cabinet Secretaries in your Government woefully out of their depth in trying to address these issues. That is where the focus of your administration should be, not this relentless push for another referendum.
But already the groundwork for a re-run of 2014 is being laid. Scottish Parliament Committees are currently scrutinising the Scottish Government’s Referendum Bill, which creates a framework for a future referendum to be held. It is a Bill which has been roundly condemned by experts and stakeholders. Under the Bill as proposed, the detailed terms of a referendum would be determined by SNP ministers, and not subject to detailed debate and scrutiny in the Scottish Parliament. The Faculty of Advocates, the Institute for Government, the Law Society of Scotland, and a host of others, have condemned the blanket authority that this Bill gives Scottish ministers to call a referendum by secondary legislation.
Just last week, the Cross Party Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee at Holyrood produced a unanimous report saying that primary legislation is necessary for referendum questions and issues of national significance, including constitutional issues. But the SNP are still trying to bypass full parliamentary scrutiny with their power grab. This issue has been particularly relevant in relation to the wording of the referendum question. Normally, it would be for the independent Electoral Commission to advise whether a question wording would be deemed appropriate. But the SNP’s Constitution Secretary, Michael Russell, has sought to exclude the Electoral Commission from the process, claiming that the 2014 question can be rerun without any further consideration.
This is an issue that matters. It is now generally understood that when a Yes-No question is asked in a referendum, whoever owns the “Yes” response starts with an inbuilt advantage, because Yes is a positive and affirmative word. It is this understanding that informed the decision to have the 2016 EU referendum offer a Remain/ Leave choice, rather than Yes/No. But now, despite all we have learned since 2014, the SNP want exclusive powers to Scottish ministers to set the wording of the question, without Electoral Commission interference. That approach is clearly unacceptable to campaigners on the pro-Union side, and represents a crude attempt to gerrymander the referendum rules. The 2014 independence referendum was regarded as the gold standard for such events. All parties agreed the basis on which the referendum would be held, and the key elements: the franchise, the timing, the spending rules and, crucially, the wording of the question. If there is to be another referendum, the same thing must happen again, or the outcome of any vote will seriously lack credibility.
Michael Russell is appearing in front of Holyrood’s Finance and Constitution Committee this morning to address these issues, and I hope that he will take the opportunity to back down, and agree that it will be up to the Electoral Commission to advise on the question wording, and not have it the exclusive preserve of SNP ministers. The polling evidence shows that people in Scotland don’t want another independence referendum, at least any time soon. But, if we are to have one, it needs to be conducted in the fairest possible manner, and not rigged by the SNP to give the outcome that they want. Scottish democracy deserves better than what is currently being proposed.