Strategic Review 1: The Referendum Six Months On


On 18 September 2014, the Scottish people in an historic referendum decided by a margin of 55% to 45% not to become an independent country. Despite all the argumentation, the result was a decisive No. That should have been the end of the matter for a generation.

But in defiance of political gravity, the energisation of the Scottish political process led to huge support for the SNP, the Greens and the SSP which had supported a Yes vote and a corresponding collapse in support for the Labour Party in Scotland which had sided with the other unionist parties such as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in winning the argument that Scotland should remain within the British Union.

The battle for increased devolution has now been overtaken by the General Election campaign. Scotland’s emergence from the British shadows has given it a ‘British’ profile not seen since 1974. Even the Broadcasters have found it necessary, if reluctantly, to include the SNP in the roster for election debates.

The Continuing Objective

Amid all the tactical campaigning, it must be remembered that the strategic aim of the Scottish National Party is to win independence. The fact that the 2014 battle was lost does not mean that the issue has gone ‘for a generation’. Sovereignty rests with the people and it is for the people to decide if and when they wish independence and the method by which it will be decided.

The strategic danger for the independence movement is that with all the talk of the Vow, the Vow Plus, greater powers, coalitions and ‘comfort and supply’ as well as election priorities, the public will lose sight of independence as the essential way forward.

Intermediate Targets        

With the General Election Campaign in full swing, attention has concentrated on how well the SNP will do and what role an enlarged group of SNP MPs will have in a potentially balanced Westminster parliament. So far, the SNP has managed to give itself enhanced relevance stemming from its substantial polling performance while playing down the prospects of a landslide victory suggested by the polls. This is wise: underplay now so that the eventual outcome will look better.

SMITH: A Bad Case of A’ Fur Coats and Nae Knickers

The ‘Vow’ was meaningless, vague and ill-defined. Brown was stitched up by Cameron. Far from delivering anything capable of transforming Scotland’s economy, the Smith Commission’s proposal for partial transfer of income tax powers is harmful. The devolution proposals on benefits then and later are incoherent – more powers and less money is a recipe for frustration and anger. The whole process has become a ‘dog’s breakfast’. As the draft legislative clauses have shown, London was never serious despite its ‘near-death’ experience. Worse still, as economists have pointed out, the income tax proposals in the absence of full financial autonomy constitute a poison pill.

The only sensible deal with a post-election government is to start afresh and negotiate fiscal autonomy. The moot point is: will Westminster play ball? If not, then the answer must be full independence.

In all the discussion about coalition, observers have failed to notice that we have been here before. In the inter-regnum between the two General Elections of 1974 the SNP held the balance of power along with other smaller parties and used its vote to back key elements of the Labour programme. From this experience, several lessons can be drawn.

  1. On key issues of the austerity programme and Trident, Labour do not need minority party support. Without entering into pacts, they have the votes in the bag from their real coalition with their British partners, the Tories with whom they share deficit objectives and policies. Even if there is a left wing Labour rebellion harnessed to the votes of opposing minority parties, the combined vote of the ‘Opposition’ Conservative MPs and Labour Government will carry the day. They are both agreed on the austerity programme and keeping Trident! Incidentally, in 1975 when the still powerful left wing Labour Tribune Group opposed the Healey cuts, these were forced through with Tory support.
  2. There will be no coalition. In England it would be political suicide for Labour to join up with the SNP or to concede demands that would outrage English public opinion. For the SNP, the example of the Liberal Democrats is a warning of the perils of coalition facing a minority partner. It is inconceivable that the SNP would agree to vote for austerity that would ravage Scotland’s finances in the year before the Scottish General Election.
  3. In the event of a ‘hung’ parliament, another General Election is predictable as happened in 1964/66 and 1974. So all the Parties will be manoeuvring in preparation for it. In that context, whether with a formal pact of comfort and supply (obviously not endorsing austerity), SNP leverage will be such that worthwhile deals can be done that will benefit Scotland
  4. Labour will get its way on most things as minority governments do (see Scotland from 2007 to 2011). The SNPs influence and bargaining power will depend on the number of Westminster MPs elected in May 2015. Experience shows that it is the imminent threat of independence that will cause the incoming UK Government (Tory or Labour) to make material concessions on the constitution and fiscal autonomy. Despite all the talk, devolution has run its course and is no longer viable.
  5. If any ensuing Election leads to second hung parliament, it is possible that Labour and the Conservatives will form a National Government (as in 1931), in which case Scotland will have no influence and as a result of the impact of enforced austerity will be forced to seek independence. At the very least that would concentrate Westminster minds admirably.
  6. Whatever the outcome based on the experience of the past, the SNP will need to have a long spoon in its negotiations as the chicanery of Westminster government will be manifest at every turn. In other words whatever deal you do, tie it up tightly and be prepared for double dealing.
  7. Ultimately, it is only the threat of independence that will keep Westminster’s feet to the fire!

The Isle of Man and Channel Islands

Whatever the talk of increased powers, it is salutary to remember these tiny communities have full domestic and taxation autonomy. Why should Scotland, with many times their populations, be less generously treated, especially when there was a 45% vote for full independence! Instead of empty talk of ‘more powers’, the simple demand should be for at least the same status as the Isle of Man which has its own fiscal system and makes payment to London for foreign affairs, defence, national insurance and other shared costs. That’s a simple target to follow. And one that London has already conceded!

What now for Independence?

Despite the wishes of the Unionists, this issue has not gone away. The huge swing of electoral support to and increased membership of the Yes parties has seen to that! Yet, it could all dissipate unless there is a clear strategy beyond the distractions of  the current series of elections for Westminster and Holyrood.

Here are the key areas.

1.     Europe

If the Tories win as is feasible, then the UK will be faced with an in-out referendum on the EU. This will be decided on English votes given the disparity in populations amongst the component units of the United Kingdom.

If that vote is to leave the EU, then provided the SNP has campaigned for a mandate, the Scottish Government will have a democratic majority to retain membership the EU through a declaration of independence and as a preliminary step to seek immediate access to the European Economic Area. Were a further confirmatory plebiscite politically desirable, the economic arguments will be undeniably in favour of the status quo of staying with Europe as against going over the economic cliff with London!

2.     A Second Referendum

If the European outcome does not lead to immediate independence, the timescale for a second referendum lies between 5 to 20 years. In the September 2014 referendum, Yes failed to win the economic arguments. They were too timid and failed to present a  case on the currency, a central bank and fiscal policy that was credible. That must not happen again. The remarkable post-referendum conditions make a second referendum possible. As sure as fate, Scotland will not be given a third chance. But with this warning! Yes activists must recognise there is no point in holding a referendum for the sake of having one. This time it must be won. It must not be held until there is sustained support of over 55% and substantial public demand. As 2014 showed, London is entirely ruthless in seeking to keep possession of Scotland and its assets. Even a narrow victory last year could have provoked a re-run or have been subverted in the negotiations. Any one in doubt should examine the draft legislative clauses implementing the Smith Commission where powers were given with one hand and hemmed in with another.

     Longer Term Vision Needed

In last year’s referendum, the surge came from people who responded to the vision of a fairer and more socially just Scotland. The lack of a longer term vision of a country which would be economically progressive and efficient giving a future for its families and younger people was ultimately the weak point. The Scottish people deserve a picture of how Scotland will look over a period of 5 to 20 years, not on what would occur on an 18 month timescale

What to Do?

It is accepted that the primary activity of the SNP in coming years will be to win elections – something that it has become good at doing. By necessity, it will concentrate on these short term targets. There is currently no mechanism in the Party to progress the medium term aim of increasing support for independence to a level that would permit the holding, and winning, of a second referendum.

Having looked at the structure of the SNP when researching my latest history Scotland: The Battle for Independence, it was clear apart from a need for decentralising rebalancing that some research functions ought to be transferred from parliamentary control to Party Headquarters. In the context of preparing the ground for the next independence referendum, the SNP should set up an autonomous Independence Research and Communications Unit based in its Headquarters whose sole purpose would be to project the case for independence to the wider Yes movement outwith its membership and through them to the Scottish public. Oversight should lie with the Deputy Leader or National Secretary.

If the SNP is unwilling to prepare for the future, then it would be appropriate for it to be implemented and funded by a reconstituted Yes Scotland Alliance.

In any event after the distraction of the Westminster General Election is out of the way, an Independence Convention should be held to consider the strategies needed to win a second referendum and lead it to victory.  While the SNP and other Yes parties should form the political wing, the talents and energies of the Yes movement should be harnessed to restore Scottish identity and self-confidence after the No vote. It should be a creative process to heal divisions and recruit those who contributed to and regret the lost opportunity of September 18, 2014.

I therefore propose there be an Independence Convention involving all essential elements of the Yes Alliance on Saturday, 19 September 2015, a year to the day the result of the referendum was published

And in case there are those who think there is time for quiet reflection, the Unionists have persistently been undermining the case for independence on a number of fronts, including the drop in oil prices. If they have not given up, why should campaigners for independence.

Towards a New Scottish Democracy

An essential step towards independence must be the creation of new Scottish structures, free from London control. If the British Labour Party in Scotland suffers major losses in the forthcoming Westminster and Scottish General Elections and loses the ‘dinosaurs’ , it is for Labour Party activists to take charge and reconstitute Labour as an independent Scottish Party which is no longer a branch office of London. Jim Murphy may be active in putting a ‘kilt’ on to British Labour in Scotland but there have been no constitutional changes securing autonomous status. So any remaining Labour MPs can be whipped to vote for London’s austerity package. Labour will revive only when it is freed from London control and middle England policy stances. Otherwise it will become extinct like the old ILP and be replaced by some new socialist party.

Ruth Davidson has proved a competent leader of the British Conservative Party in Scotland but her Party remains indelibly associated with its past and exhibits no sign of making a comeback. It is a matter of conjecture whether Murdo Fraser’s more radical strategy of reconstituting the Scottish Conservatives under another name and free of the London association would have created conditions for its revival.

What is clear is that post-referendum changes in voting patterns will force the present British political units in Scotland to discover an independent Scottish identity which will permit them to function effectively in the new Scottish political environment. It is not inconceivable that independent Scottish Labour could switch to Yes in any future independence referendum just as over the last few decades it moved from hostility to devolution to its support!

In the meantime, Jim Murphy’s pretence of ‘tartan’ control is useful as one more step down the slippery slope to independence. And he doesn’t even see it!

Independence Options

  1. Prepare constitutional demands for second Westminster General Election within two years.
  2. Base Westminster negotiations on what is good for Scotland and resist temptation in what will be an intoxicating atmosphere of power broking to dilute Scottish national interests.
  3. Given the dangers of transfers of income tax alone, freeze legislation till the final Treasury package is known and carefully analysed.
  4. Better still dump the inadequate Smith proposals and press for full fiscal autonomy and powers broadly comparable with the Isle of Man where all income goes to the Government with refunds to London for reserved functions such as defence and foreign affairs.
  5. Consider campaigning in any in/out EU referendum for a mandate to stay in without need for a further referendum.
  6. Start campaigning on the economics of the benefits of independence and a vision of Scotland’s longer term future NOW, regardless of the timescale for a second referendum, noting that this could be in a timescale of 5 to 20 years.
  7. Establish an autonomous independence Research and Communications Unit preferably at SNP HQ dedicated to presenting the case but if that is not possible through a reconstituted Yes Alliance.
  8. Recognising that as there is now a national movement larger than the SNP, convene an Independence Convention for 19 September 2015 of Yes Alliance constituent bodies to see how the dynamism and momentum generated last year can be maintained and enhanced on a co-operative basis.
  9. Do everything to build and strengthen Scottish institutions and refrain from scorning genuine attempts of other parties to establish Scottish identities independent of London which might in time permit them to challenge the SNP in post-independence elections, all in the interests of a new Scottish democracy.

Gordon Wilson

Director, Options for Scotland.

Mr Wilson, a former Leader of The Scottish National Party and MP for Dundee East between 1974 and 1987, has held most of the major offices in the SNP. He will complete his ‘first’ 60 years of activism for independence in April this year and is therefore uniquely placed to assess the progress made by the national movement over a long period of time.


10 March 2015