With a referendum now a near-certainty, how will the SNP play it?
The 2011 Scottish Parliament election was probably the most historically significant since devolution. Not simply for confounding all expectations by returning an overall majority, but for what that majority plans to do: stage a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future.
That was the subtle realisation that sunk in on 6 May as Scotland digested these unprecedented results. The issue, which had been kept low-key by the SNP during the campaign, was suddenly front and centre. So now that the party has this once in a lifetime opportunity within its grasp, how will it handle it?
First and foremost is the issue of timing. As the party well knows, timing is a crucial factor, and for that reason it is handling it with care. Whilst First Minister Alex Salmond has guaranteed he will bring forward a referendum in this Parliament, he has refused to be hemmed in by setting a date, confirming only that it will be “well into the second half” of the five-year term. Despite unionist calls for an early poll to settle the matter, the SNP has the power to set the terms. And when it comes to the referendum, it is not going to be pushed into anything.
Holding the poll in three to four years’ time has several potential advantages for the Nationalists. Most importantly, it will give the SNP the opportunity to further demonstrate their competence in government – this time as a majority with the full power to get their plans through Parliament. Three years is a long time in politics and there are no certainties. But the party will surely be hoping to contrast three years of popular policies from an SNP government at Holyrood – like a council tax freeze and free higher education – against three years of cutbacks from a Tory government at Westminster.
What’s more the SNP can use this lead-in time to push for more powers for the Parliament –a key part of their strategy, according to Dr Nicola McEwen, Co-Director of the Institute of Governance at the University of Edinburgh.
“From the SNP’s perspective [holding the referendum in the latter half of the term] is probably the sensible thing to do. It also heightens the possibility that they can use it to gain concessions in the Scotland Bill, which is really important for their overall constitutional agenda. And I think that’s one of the main reasons,” says McEwen.
“There’s another argument that would say: ‘Maybe we can use the goodwill that’s there in the wake of the election victory, and build on this momentum towards a referendum sooner rather than later’, but I don’t think the SNP vote in the election was about independence; I don’t think the SNP believes their vote was about independence. The election campaign and the independence campaign are separate now.”
Another unknown is the question(s) that will be asked. Studies show that the language used in referendum polls has a significant impact on people’s responses. When negative words like ‘separation’ are used support goes down, while support goes up when more positive words like ‘independence’ are employed. With that in mind, the SNP will surely opt for a softer phrasing, emphasising self-determination and not separatism.
Neither is it clear how many options will appear on the ballot paper. The White Paper on independence that the SNP produced in 2009 proposed a multi-option vote, with a choice between the status quo, the Calman Commission proposals, devolution-max and independence. But now that it has a majority in Parliament and no longer needs the support of other parties, it might be more inclined to opt for a straight ‘Yes/No’ poll. Given this historic opportunity, it will hardly want to settle for the middle-road option.
But most pivotal could be the campaign. As the Quebec independence referendum of 1995 demonstrated, campaigns matter. Support for independence in the Canadian province rose from 38 per cent before the campaign to 49 per cent after it, with the ‘Yes’ vote losing in the end by just 1 per cent. So although backing for an independent Scotland has tended to sit around the 30 per cent mark, there is nothing to say that that won’t change when the prospect becomes a reality and both sides of the argument are played out.
And as this election has shown, campaigning is one of the SNP’s strengths. With a sophisticated campaign team and a highly motivated grassroots, it has the intelligence and manpower to create a powerful momentum.
But, for both sides, getting the message right will be key, and the decision of whether to go positive or negative could have a significant impact. The indication from the SNP so far is that it will be sticking with its strategy for this election and putting forward a positive message.
Stephen Noon, a highly influential former SNP Special Adviser, thought to be the mastermind behind its optimistic campaign, has given a possible insight into what the SNP’s offering might look like. Separatism is “not the agenda”, he writes in a recent Blog post. Noon paints a picture of an independent Scotland as an equal partner in the new “united kingdoms” and in Europe. The image is of a smooth transition towards a situation where Scotland is on an equal footing with its southern neighbour – not separate from it.
“Ultimately, we will be stronger together, but as equals,” Noon says. “Instead of an old Union based on the power politics of the 18th century, we will have a new, more modern partnership fit for this 21st century.”
Given the seeming victory of positivity over negativity in this Holyrood election, it could be just as powerful a force in the referendum contest. Indeed, that would seem to be the experience from abroad. Professor Daniel Turp, Vice-President of the Parti Québécois, the Quebec independence party, who was adviser to the party leader during the ’95 referendum, advises nationalists to focus on what independence will mean for Scotland – and not get caught up in squabbles about the referendum.
“One thing that we learned that would be of use to people promoting independence in Scotland is that it’s more important to talk about independence in terms of what it is; what it means in terms of new freedom; new powers; and what it could change in the lives of the people,” Turp tells Holyrood.
“Putting emphasis on that is much more important than discussing the whole issue of a referendum: should there be a referendum?; when should the referendum be held?; how will the question be drafted?
“We realised that our opponents love that. They love talking about referendums and they only talk about referendums because they have a lot of difficulty challenging the benefits of independence so they decide that their opposition will be on refrendums – on holding referendums; on the cost of a referendum; on spending money on a referendum rather than spending money on education. So if I have one piece of advice it is talk more about independence than the referendum that will be held to allow people to decide about independence.”
But it is not only the nationalists that have cottoned on the importance of optimism. In response to the threat of a referendum, Prime Minister David Cameron has also been playing it positive. During Prime Minister’s Questions last week he promised to make an “uplifting and optimistic case” for why Scotland is better off in the UK, and not resort to “threats” or “saying that small countries can’t make it”.
If both sides keep to their word, this bodes well for a constructive debate. However, it is, by definition, difficult to argue positively against something. In that sense the ‘No’ side could find it a challenge to maintain a positive message.
Another crucial factor is who will head up that campaign. If the figurehead is David Cameron, that could present a gift the nationalists who will be keen to exploit the Tories’ unpopularity in Scotland. If the unionists are not careful, Cameron could have the same effect on the ‘No to independence’ campaign as Nick Clegg had on the ‘Yes to AV’ campaign.
So if a referendum on Scottish independence was passed, how would the UK Government respond? Scottish Secretary Michael Moore has indicated that, in that event, he believes a second vote would be needed to ratify the settlement. However, McEwen sees this prospect as unfeasible.
“Logically and politically, I think it’s very difficult to have two referendums because then what happens if you have ‘Yes’ in the first and ‘No’ in the second?” she asks.
“And it also means if you knew there was going to be a second referendum then the incentive for the UK Government may be to let independence negotiations stall, or to ensure that the independence settlement that would be put to the people to confirm their support in that second referendum would be less attractive. In other words, the incentive for those opposed to independence would be to do what they could to ensure that the second referendum failed even if the first was successful. A ‘yes’ vote in a first referendum and a ‘no’ vote in a second referendum would resolve nothing.”
Interestingly, the UK Government’s approach here stands in contrast to other countries like Spain and Canada, McEwen adds, which have been much more “interventionist” in dealing with nationalist movements within their states. Indeed in 2005 a plan passed by the Basque Parliament for ‘co-existence’ with Spain was rejected by the Spanish Parliament as unconstitutional.
The road to the referendum will surely be a long and winding one and at this stage, there are far too many variables to be able to predict the outcome. For, as this election has shown, nothing in Scottish politics is inevitable.