Comment: referendum won’t end independence debate

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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A No win in the independence poll would not definitively settle the constitutional position, argues Gregor Gall

Ever since the launch of the Yes Scotland campaign in May 2012, the proportion of voters indicating they will vote Yes has doggedly remained at around a third. And, the “movable middle”, hovering between committed Yes and No voters, has shown little sign of going the way of theYes campaign.

In other words, a No vote is the most likely outcome on 18 September, 2014. Does this mean the best the Yes campaign can achieve is a “neverendum”?

The neverendum is a scenario whereby the question of the constitutional position is never definitively settled despite a No vote next year.

Unlike devolution being the “settled will”, as Donald Dewar described it in 1999, the proportion in favour of independence – while a minority – would be sufficiently large as to keep the prospect of another referendum alive. By contrast, a resounding victory for the No campaign would see a situation of a high voter turnout where the Yes vote was less than a third and the No vote was more than two thirds.

For the neverendum to be possible, not only must this outcome be avoided, but the Yes vote must move upwards from its current third of support to around the 40 per cent mark by either gaining many of the current “undecided” voters and/or making incursions into the No vote.

While necessary, in itself this would not be sufficient to make the prospect of a neverendum a realisable one. The next most vital component for such is, despite losing the referendum, the SNP wins a working majority in the 2016 and 2020 Scottish parliament elections and is able in the legislative and political arenas to press for another referendum.

Current polling evidence suggests an SNP government in 2016 is more than possible, even if it seems counter-intuitive. The main reason for this is that support for independence has never been synonymous with support for the SNP, especially when considerable numbers of SNP voters do not favour independence and desire continued and enhanced devolution.

Moreover, the SNP in government has shown itself to be more than competent, yet to be landed with anything like fatal blows from either Labour or Liberal Democrats. And, as a party, the SNP has shown what some called “maturity” – in others words, it has not been prone to splits and infighting like some others.

Sure, it will take an SNP leader with considerable dexterity to exist in a situation of losing the referendum, being returned to government and keeping the flame of having another go at winning independence alive. But it is possible. Whether it is probable will depend upon factors that are largely outside the control of the SNP.

First up is the attitude towards devolution by the unionist parties in the post-2015 general election period. Although Labour, Lib Dems and Tories in Scotland have for some time supported further devolution, questions remain over the strength of this commitment. Most obviously, is it merely something being contemplated because there is a referendum and, even more importantly, what do their effective parents in London say?

As the Westminster general election takes place before the Scottish elections, it seems to indicate – in the context of a No vote – that the unionist parties in London (and not Edinburgh) will have the upper hand in setting the agenda for any devo max or devo plus. The reverse would be true if the Holyrood elections preceded the Westminster ones.

A Conservative victory in 2015 would seal off the prospect of substantial enhanced devolution whereas a victory by Labour might not. The point here is that if the popular demand for enhanced devolution is not met or the experience of enhanced devolution is not satisfying, the arguments for independence (via another referendum) will have more purchase.

Clearly, the best scenario for a neverendum is the kind of pig-headed bullishness amongst the London-based unionist parties that declares a No vote killed independence “stone dead” (to play on George Robertson’s memorable view of devolution in 1995) and so no further devolution is then required.

But second up is what state the forces for independence will be in after a defeat. There is more than ample room for battle fatigue, burnout, demoralisation, and even recrimination amongst activists and professional workers. And, the big beast figure of Alex Salmond will have departed the battlefield (or at least its frontline).

With the SNP under Salmond having taken independence to its closest point of reach so far, yet still failing, their strategy of cautiousness and conservatism will clearly be subject to an intense post-mortem. The most obvious conclusion to be drawn will be that maintaining the monetary union, monarchy and the like abjectly did not give voters a sense of how a new Scotland could be different from the old. Consequently, the compulsion to vote Yes was not sufficiently strong.

Post-vote introspection may set off a civil war not so much between SNP fundamentalists and gradualists but between its more clearly defined right and left wings. And, the SNP’s growing membership would take a big hit.

How long it would be before another referendum could take place will affect these factors. The longer it takes, the harder it will be to maintain momentum and gird the loins again. Having another referendum too soon would be decried as sour grapes by opponents. These are experiences Quebec went through after its first referendum in 1980 and second one in 1995.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford and a resident of Edinburgh

The Scotsman Conferences is hosting a series of events capturing the many facets of the Scottish independence debate. 3 December sees a formidable line up of expert speakers tackle “The Independence White Paper: A Business Plan for Scotland?” For more details on this and other great events please visit