Scotland votes today: 8 things that have struck me about the independence campaign

by Stephen Tall on September 18, 2014

My own position remains unchanged from February:

“If I were a Scot with a vote in September, I’m not sure which side I would favour. I see no reason why an independent Scotland wouldn’t do quite well out of new arrangements, but it would of course be a risky venture into the unknown (which is why I don’t think the SNP’s bid will succeed). As that great liberal Ludovic Kennedy once rhetorically asked, “I still believe that if Denmark can run its own affairs, why can’t Scotland?””

The debate has been depressing:

I don’t actually mean the acrimony between the two sides or the reports of intimidation – though the finding that 46% of No voters and 24% of Yes voters have felt personally threatened by the other side is shaming. No, I mean the quality of the arguments. Better Together got hung up on the currency issue and forgot about the issues that connect with voters’ everyday lives. Yes Scotland has been dominated by Alex Salmond’s hectoring blandishments. There’s been much back-slapping at how ‘energised’ the electorate is by the vote – but are they better informed? Not according to Professor Paul Cairney: “public knowledge of the issues is patchy – as expressed in polls as general uncertainty or incorrect answers to specific questions.” The tighter the election has become, the more inflated have been the claims.

Just think how much worse the in/out EU referendum will be:

If the Tories form the next Government an EU in/out referendum by December 2017 seems inevitable. I think ‘In’ would win, but it would be tight. We’ve seen how close the Scottish referendum is, and the Better-Off-Outers would be assured a much more sympathetic newspaper reaction than Yes Scotland has had. There’s a definite parallel with the current debate: I think the UK could do okay outside the EU, just as Scotland would be fine in the long-term outside the UK; but there would almost certainly be short-term pain owing to the instability of an uncertain situation. However, expect such nuances to be lost in a debate that will pit alternative apocalyptic versions of in/out against each other. And if it’s been bad enough seeing Alex Salmond on your TV screen every night for the last two months, think what three more years of Nigel Farage’s golf club banter will do to us all.

The status quo will probably prevail:

It usually does, as I noted in May 2012: “1. A good rule-of-thumb is that the public will vote for the status quo when asked in a referendum. Put simply, voters tend to dislike change (no matter what they may tell pollsters when asked an abstract question). It’s a variation, I suspect, on the ‘loss aversion’ explanation of human behaviour: people prefer to avoid losses than to make gains; 2. The exceptions to this rule-of-thumb being when the change proposed in a referendum is backed by a coalition of most/all the major parties.”

A No vote is likely to boost the SNP:

Too many people are assuming a No vote will be disastrous for the SNP, that it will slink away, tail between its legs. Not likely. If I were Scottish Labour I would be fearful of next May’s general election – buyer’s remorse may well kick in. As I wrote in July: “At least one senior Labour figure, a former cabinet minister, has privately highlighted the danger to his party of a No vote at the May 2015 general election. His reason? Having rejected independence, the Scottish voters will want an insurance policy their wishes won’t be ignored by Westminster. A large SNP representation there would be the best way to ensure that. He predicts up to 30 Scottish nationalist MPs will be returned.” Given how effective the Yes Scotland campaign machine has proven to be – and how ineffective Better Together has been – that doesn’t seem far-fetched to me.

Gordon Brown may well make a comeback:

After the first televised debate, won by Alistair Darling, all the talk was of his certain return to the Labour front-bench. Then Alex Salmond opened up a can of whoop-ass in the second debate: Darling never recovered. Cue the return of his comrade/foe, the former Prime Minister who wanted to sack him as Chancellor. Gordon Brown’s already-famous speech yesterday didn’t do it for me: passionate assertion, yes; effective persuasion, no. But I expect it will have galvanised Labour’s get-out-the-vote operation and its undecideds in particular. And it raises the interesting possibility whether Brown would be tempted by a return to front-line politics in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP has long gained the advantage from ambitious politicians north of the border in other parties over-looking Holyrood in favour of Westminster. Gordon Brown might just be the man to take the fight back to the SNP and succeed Alex Salmond as First Minister.

David Cameron’s problems won’t end even if there’s a No vote:

The panicky decision of all three party leaders to co-sign a vow to protect the Barnett formula was mis-judged – though in Nick Clegg’s case he’s simply setting out party policy to be approved in the Lib Dem pre-manifesto in Glasgow in a couple of weeks. Funding should, of course, be on the basis of need, something the party has recognised needs to be corrected for Wales but not for England. That leaves a gaping injustice we can be sure Nigel Farage will be only too happy to exploit. That’s a problem for all parties, nut especially David Cameron, and one of his own making.

An English Grand Committee seems increasingly likely:

Just don’t call it an English parliament. With the Scots promised devo-max, the likelihood the parties can dodge Tam Dalyell’s infamous West Lothian Question any longer seems forlorn: it simply cannot be right that Scottish MPs vote on English-only issues when English MPs cannot return the favour. An English Grand Committee – English MPs voting on English-only matters to be ratified by the UK Parliament – is the quickest, easiest alternative that will avoid prolonged discussions about regional parliaments and the like.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.