Lots of people it seems are getting quite excited about the prospect of another independence referendum in Scotland. In large part this is due to the double outcome of the recent UK election – a massive win for the SNP in Scotland alongside the return of a Tory government at Westminster. Some people are keen to start a campaign to put pressure on the SNP to hold another referendum in the near future. I think this is unwise. First of all because the SNP made it clear that this election was not about another referendum. For them to suddenly change their mind on this would be severely damaging to their own credibility with the Scottish electorate. But more importantly to call for another referendum without the confidence that we will win would be disastrous for independence. To lose another vote close after the first would set back the prospect of independence decades or more. It is jut not worth it. We need to take a bit of time and think carefully about when and how we can demand another referendum.
55%+ This was the winning share of the vote in the last referendum and just about everyone has regarded this as a clear victory. Particularly those on the No side, who have made much about 55% being a substantial and clear result. 55% was also the target set in the Montenegro referendum in 2006. Independence was achieved with 55.5% of the vote. Interestingly the rest of the world recognised this result, including Spain! This then should be our minimum target for a future referendum. I know that 50.1% is legally a win, but we should aim for much more. 50.1% can hardly be claimed to be the settled will of Scotland. Independence is not something to be taken lightly. I want a clear majority of my fellow citizens to be convinced of independence. That way we can all confidently move forward. 55% should become our base line. No talk about another referendum until we are convinced that we can get over this figure.
60%+ In any future referendum we can expect once again the whole might and machinery of the British establishment and their allies in the media to be thrown at us. Project Fear will be resuscitated and if possible doubled in resources. We must be prepared for some people to be swayed by this fear factor again. Hence the 60%+. We need to have the support of well over 60% of the population before thinking about calling another referendum.
Consistent support will also be a requirement. I would want polls to show over 60% in favour of independence for at least a year and preferably longer. This lead also needs to be stable. It is no good if polls fluctuate widely with some over 60% and others much lower. Remember, losing another referendum is not an option.
The above outlines my views on the level of support for independence we will need for another referendum. This will determine when that referendum could be held. There is also though the not so small matter of who has the right to call another referendum and on what basis. It would be nice to just call a snap referendum when you are 99.9% certain you will win, but that is almost impossible to do. Other than expecting to win, there has to be some kind of justification for holding another referendum.
The SNP has raised the notion of “material change” into the debate. This is suitably vague, but the actual material change that is deemed serious enough to give rise to another referendum would need to be accepted as sufficiently serious by a clear majority in Scotland. Otherwise there is the risk that many voters would be alienated enough to vote No again. Voters do not look kindly on being asked to vote on someone else’s whim. This means that there is a second hurdle for us to overcome before calling for another referendum. The justification for the referendum has to be accepted by a majority.
There is one final hurdle to overcome before another referendum. That is who can legally call one? The SNP long argued that the Scottish Parliament had the right to call one. This interpretation of the Scotland Act was vigorously challenged, and not just by Unionists. When the last referendum did come about it was by virtue of an agreement with the UK government and legislation passed at Westminster. The fact that the SNP agreed to this, leads me to believe that the SNP had themselves come to the conclusion that Holyrood does not have the legal right to call a referendum on what is still regarded as a reserved matter, i.e. the constitution.
Our new masters at Westminster have made it pretty clear that they will not allow another referendum in the lifetime of the current UK parliament, which is due to run until 2020. It does not look likely that either Labour or the LibDems would favour another referendum either. Though both these parties are so weak and likely to remain weak well after 2020, that their views are not that important. While things change and we cannot rule out the possibility that the Tories might agree to another referendum, I doubt it very much. They only agreed to the last one because they were super confident they would win and win by a mile. They got a bit of a shock. The next time, another referendum would only be called when the SNP was super confident of winning.
In these circumstances, with polls consistently, over a number of years, showing a big, big vote for independence, the UK government might, just might, realise the game is up and concede gracefully. I wouldn’t bet anything on it though. UK governments are not known for acting gracefully. At least not until after the event. If the UK government were to stubbornly refuse another referendum against the clear wishes of an overwhelming majority of Scots, what then? The only option I can foresee is that the next election, UK or Scottish, is turned into a plebiscitary election. If a majority of the electorate vote for parties in favour if independence, and this vote is over 50%, preferably well over 55%, then the Scottish government declares independence.
This would work, both domestically and internationally, provided that there was a large enough majority for independence in Scotland and the UK government was seen as denying Scots their right to a democratic vote. At present we are a very long way off from this possible outcome. As I have outlined above we are also a very long way off the conditions for calling for another referendum. We need time to increase support for independence so it becomes the clear and settled will of well over 60% of all Scots. Much work to be done.