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.