Tuesday 10 January 2012

Losing territory

I’m sure that Cameron is technically and legally correct to say that only Westminster can organise a binding referendum on Scottish Independence.  But being technically correct isn’t always good politics, and in this case it seems to show a certain disregard for a clear electoral mandate.
There’s an element of gambling about his approach, of course.  I can’t believe that he doesn’t understand that trying to take control of the timing and the question will probably increase the size of the vote for independence, but I’d guess that he takes the view that the result will be a ‘no’ vote to independence whenever the vote is held. 
And in contrast to many other nationalists, I suspect that he’s right on that point, no matter how much I might wish otherwise.  Whilst there is clearly an appetite in Scotland for a further significant transfer of power from Westminster to Holyrood, my own gut feeling is that the Scots are not ready, as yet, to vote for moving to independence in a single step.  Time will tell.
Cameron’s biggest misunderstanding, however, seems to me to lie in his use of the words ‘settle’ and ‘binding’, as in his suggestion that only a ‘binding’ referendum can ‘settle’ the issue. 
In the first place, I’m not convinced that any referendum at this stage actually needs to be binding.  Even if the Scots voted for independence, there would be a period of negotiation and discussion over the detail before the final shape of the divorce settlement was known, and it is not inconceivable, surely, that a further referendum would be considered necessary at that time.
But more significantly, I’d challenge the idea that any referendum can ever ‘settle’ any issue finally, or be ‘binding’ for any longer than it takes for public opinion to change.  We’ve seen that in relation to the devolution referenda in the past – and in relation to membership of the EU.  The losing side will continue to argue for another referendum at any time when they believe that they can win it; the probability that they’d just say ‘oh well, that’s it then’ and go away is vanishingly small.
In the case of independence, there’s an asymmetry, certainly – a ‘yes’ vote will be harder, much harder, to reverse than a ‘no’ vote.  Whilst a ‘no’ vote would unquestionably not settle the matter ‘for ever’, even a ‘yes’ vote wouldn’t necessarily do so either.  Institutions and structures built by humans can always change, and always will.
Cameron, though, is talking and behaving as though there is a symmetry about a decision; an expectation that nationalists will quietly accept a ‘no’ vote and shut up.  It’s a quaint perception, which I have as much difficulty understanding as he seems to have in relation to Scottish nationalism.
I was reminded of the gulf in perception that sometimes makes it hard to establish a basis for rational argument by the piece that Rhodri Morgan wrote in the Western Mail just after the death of Vaclav Havel.  Rhodri said that one of Havel's regrets would be that, during his presidency, he lost a third of his country.
Now I had thought that it was one of Havel's triumphs that he had presided over the largely amicable divorce between two countries which had been somewhat artificially stitched together in the first place in 1918, as older nations re-emerged from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Two very different perspectives on precisely the same event.  I hadn't really thought about it in quite those terms before but perhaps I should have.  Perhaps when the UK Prime Minister says that he’ll fight for the union with every fibre there is, he is motivated, at least in part, by not wanting to 'lose' part of ‘the country’.  (English history would presumably see it that way; I’d guess that Scottish history would be written from the ‘amicable divorce’ standpoint.)
Perspective is all.  To some of us, it seems that Cameron is being naïve, stupid even, in his approach to Scottish politics.  But it must seem entirely rational to him, and leave him struggling to understand why we can’t simply agree with the logic of his position. 
The gulf in perception is probably unbridgeable, and the two sides will continue to talk at, rather than to, each other.  There will be a vote, and the Scottish people will make a decision.  It's unlikely to be the 'final' one though.


Anonymous said...

There has never been a referendum in the United Kingdom which is 'legally binding'. All previous referendums, whether on EU, devolution or voting system, have been advisory. It's as a result of this advise the government makes a bill law, and the Queen signs it. I'm trying to find logic to the argument that a Scottish referendum should be pre-disposed to be 'legally binding', other than to plant a seed of doubt in the Scottish electorate that their views will not be worth listening to, and the Scottish parliament has 'less worth'.

Anonymous said...

The biggest danger for the David Cameron I see is not the charge of interfering (although it doesn't help), but the confirmation by more and more journalists and commentators on the left and right of what nationalists have known for while, namely there is no appetite in the Coalition Cabinet and Labour Party for more devolution of powers beyond the current Scotland Bill.

With many opinion polls telling us that the majority of Scots are in favour of devo max there is a gulf between the UK Government and Scottish voters that could be exploited by the SNP if its smart. They will rightly be able to say to the Scottish voters you may not be ready for independence but the Unionist parties will offer no more than is currently on offer and will see a no vote as Scots agreeing with their stance.

It's high risk for Alex Salmond and the SNP but given what's at stake its surely worth it.

Anonymous said...

For detailed analysis of the legal position, follow the erudite and loquacious Peat Worrier http://lallandspeatworrier.blogspot.com/2012/01/michael-moores-machiavelli-impression.html

Anonymous said...

Good post.
Anon 12.08 is right in that soverignty rests with Parliament, is indivisible and no Parliament can bind its successors, but with those caveats last March's referendum on moving from Schedule 4 of the 2006 GoWA was 'legally binding' in the natural meaning of the term, in that it was the final step in following the proceedures laid down in thw GoWA for switching from one schedule to another. I stand to be corrected, but I don't believe there was any further Parliamentary vote to 'note' the March 2011 or anything ...

Secondly you acknowledge that independence referenda are asymmetrical. I'd suggest they are more than that, since rejoining the union is not something that the Scots could decide for themselves. Divorce is for life. OTOH you are right to say that a no vote will settle the matter for no more than a decade or so - perhaps less if it's close.

Finally you make the correct point that a referendum yes victory is only a start. The mechanics would include issues such as the UK national debt, territorial waters, EU and NATO membership (both of which the UK govt could in principle veto), rights of former UK nationals resident in Scotland and vice versa etc, etc. As you acknowledge, it's not inconcievable that all this could mean a second referenda, which could produce a different result!

It seems to me right that if we are going to consult the people, they should be given the full terms of what they are voting on. If Mr Salmond desires the vote to be held in 2014, perhaps the two Parliaments might in the meantime appoint commissioners (in the UK case probably cross party - suggest Nick Clegg, George Osbourne and a senior Labour nominee, such as Alistair Darling or Ed Balls - to thrash out the broad lines of the new settlement?

Spirit of BME said...

Anon 12:08 is correct that sovereignty rests with the monarch. It is given when holly oil is dunked on her bonce by the C of E.. Being a Capel Wesla boy this Anglican voodoo stuff holds no legitimacy with me, but to monarchists and their running dogs ,it’s the real thing. Passing a binding referendum does change some of the fundamentals, but Anon 21:47 does point out an interesting question on the HMG in Wales recent referendum that might well have established a change in the position.
I think there should be a referendum in England, as they are told that their taxes are keeping the rest of us afloat, the question is “Do you wish to pay higher Income Tax to keep Scotland and Wales governed from London or do you want a tax reduction?”

John Dixon said...

Anon 19:21,

Thanks for the link.

Anon 21:47,

There isn't really a right time to hold a referendum on an issue like this - before the detail is available, and some will argue that they don't know what they're voting for (or against); after all the detail has been sorted out, and there will be accusations of wastage of time and effort if the answer is 'no'. If Scotland already had 'devo-max', it would probably be much more straightfoward to explain the difference between that and independence without too much work.

I think that the approach being taken by the SNP is probably the right one - find out in principle what the people favour and then do the detailed work (even if tehre's a danger that that then requires a second referendum later). But then, I would say that, wouldn't I?


Your proposed question would certainly be a good way of seeking English support, but it's not exactly an honest approach. And I'm not sure that perpetuating the myth that Wales and Scotland are a drain on 'England' is helpful either.

Unknown said...

Alan Trench, and others, are certainly of the view that all plebiscites in the UK are advisory.

Unknown said...

Spirit - under Scottish Law, the people of Scotland are sovereign, not parliament. Now that makes things even more complicated, doesn't it? When it goes to the courts, which law will it be considered under - English or Scottish?

Peter Freeman said...

I find myself fascinated by the similarities between Wales and Quebec. They are many differences of course but it's the similarities that I find most intriguing.
In the light of your post and the discussion that followed, Quebec has had two Referenda, both taken after the Parti Quebecois had won majorities in the Quebec regional parliament. Both referenda were lost and yet it hasn't deterred the separatist movement.
The similarities are important; The largest support for sovereignty and/or independence comes from the French speaking community with the main opposition votes coming from anglophones and immigrants. All of the Welsh arguments for and against independence can be heard in Quebec, including the phenomenon of proponents of Sovereignty (their version of Devo-max) to supporters of outright independence being in the same party. There are also periods when the Parti Quebecois has put nationalism to one side and placed their promises of good government to the forefront. All of this is remarkably similar to the journey of the SNP and Plaid.
What I see occurring in Wales and Scotland, similar to the situation in Canada is that no loss will ever prevent another referendum. There are no defeats, only setbacks. Referendum after referendum will occur until separation happens.
The history of the British Empire from the American colonies to the present day would seem to suggest that no referendum is binding until the No vote loses.