The SNP’s long game to independence has been up ended by the Prime Minister
David Cameron has hugely raised the stakes by announcing that he wants to hold a binding referendum on Scottish independence. By proposing that the timing should be brought forward and that Scottish voters be offered a straight choice between staying in or leaving the UK, he has transformed the long game being played by the SNP into a penalty shoot-out. Whether his intervention is in the interest of the country remains to be tested.
The SNP’s strategy has been a gradualist one, to build momentum slowly for independence and to hold the referendum at a time of its choosing, probably in 2014. This strategy was in part forced on it by the limited powers of Holyrood, which cannot declare Scottish independence: only Westminster can do that.
So the farthest Holyrood can go is to hold an advisory referendum, which would ask voters to authorise Scottish ministers to begin negotiations. In its 2007 White Paper the SNP proposed the following question: “The Scottish government should negotiate a settlement with the Government of the UK so that Scotland becomes an independent state.”
If the Scots vote “yes”, negotiations would begin on issues great and small, such as how to divide the national debt and North Sea oil revenues, nuclear bases on the Clyde and the sharing of defence capabilities, and Scotland’s membership of the EU. (Most international lawyers say that Scotland would have to reapply.) The division of Czechoslovakia in 1992 required 30 treaties and 12,000 legal agreements.
Once the negotiations had concluded and the terms had been approved by the two Parliaments, the next stage would be a further Scotland Act, whereby Westminster granted independence to Scotland on the agreed terms. We argued in Scottish Independence: A Practical Guide that this stage should be preceded by a second referendum, in which Scottish voters confirmed that they wanted independence on these terms.
However, the SNP has never accepted the need for a second referendum, stating that one is enough to give “sufficient clarity and confidence that the people wish Scotland to become an independent state”. With or without a second referendum, this is a leisurely timetable in which the Scottish government can gradually test the appetite for independence and then negotiate with the UK Government. The final vote and independence legislation would not happen until after 2015-16.
Mr Cameron has transformed that, by offering a decisive referendum in the next 18 months. He may want to achieve a similar effect to Canada’s Clarity Act 2000, which requires a clear answer to a clear question in any future secession referendum by Quebec. The Act specifies that a multi-option referendum is not allowed because it will confuse things. But it does not seek to impose a timetable.
The UK government might have been expected to let the Scottish Government make the running in the expectation that its advisory referendum would be defeated. But Mr Cameron has dramatically turned the tables. Now, however, the SNP might in turn decide to sit on its hands, decline the coalition’s offer and reserve the option to hold an advisory referendum in slower time. There are good democratic and deliberative reasons it could offer for doing so.
Mr Cameron’s new strategy is high- risk, for three reasons. First, the Scots risk being invited to make a hugely important decision on the basis of inadequate information. Second, there is nothing that Alex Salmond likes better than a political fight and while for him this is the only game in town, for Mr Cameron there are many other competing ones, from the eurozone to Iran. Third, Mr Cameron’s resolve may not be shared by his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.
But this is more than a game between two heavyweights. It is a battle for the future of the UK. What matters in the end is that the people whose future depends on it are given the time, clarity and facts to reach a wise and well-informed decision.
Professor Robert Hazell is director of the Constitution Unit at University College London
Article from the Times 10.01.12