With the referendum on Scottish independence less than a month away, the debate on the future of Scotland – the subject of yesterday’s ESRC sponsored Chalk + Talk by Professor Charlie Jeffery here at the SMF – goes into a particularly crucial phase.
Opinion polls on whether Scotland should be an independent country still show a lead for the ‘No’ vote, but one that has narrowed over the last year. Polls following the first televised debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling similarly showed a lead for the Better Together campaign.
These polls, however, mask greater complexities in Scottish public opinion, argued Professor Jeffery: the Yes or No vote is in fact a binary choice superimposed on a three-way split in opinion. The vast majority of Scottish opinion is split between two extremes – the current UK arrangement being at one end, and independence being at the other – and a position sitting in between, essentially implying more devolution, but with Scotland remaining part of the UK. This latter view is the position of the ‘median voter’ in Scotland, but is not an option explicitly available in the referendum. Both the Yes and No camps campaign to appeal to this median voter: the Yes camp emphasises continued partnership between Scotland and the UK in the event of independence; whilst the No camp talks of the extra powers coming Scotland’s way.
There are many uncertainties surrounding what would happen in the event of a Yes vote. The UK and Scotland would have to negotiate some crucial issues, including debt, currency, Trident, and support, or not, for Scotland’s future participation in NATO and the EU. Many issues could affect these negotiations, including market instabilities, and attitudes of political leaders internationally. Leaders of both Scotland and the UK would be under intense pressure to act in a considered, reasonable and responsible manner, for fear of upsetting markets or international partners.
However what would follow a No vote is also uncertain. A No vote should not be interpreted as an expression of Scottish satisfaction with the UK, argued Professor Jeffery, but would be accompanied by an expectation of further devolution. Disillusionment with such a settlement, or even delays in implementation, would play into the hands of the SNP.
With so much riding on the outcomes of either an expanded devolution settlement or on the negotiations over a newly independent Scotland, the opinions of voters elsewhere in the UK also matter. Here, neither the ‘Yes’ nor the ‘Better Together’ campaigns seem to have policies that are particularly in line with the opinions of English voters, according to new poll data from the University of Edinburgh.
If Scotland votes Yes, the Scottish Government wants it to use the pound, join the EU, and have a continued partnership with the rest of the UK. Many English voters disagree: they oppose Scotland using the pound, oppose supporting Scotland in its EU application, and think that relations between England and Scotland will get worse. If Scotland votes No, English voters may not like many of the proposals for further devolution: they want spending to be reduced to the same level as for the rest of the UK, and Scottish MPs to be prevented from voting on laws that apply only to England.
Professor Jeffery predicts the outcome of the referendum will be close. Whatever happens, a lot will hinge on the negotiations that follow it, and the complex ways in which this will correspond to, or contradict, public opinion in both Scotland and the rest of the UK. In the event of a No vote, the promise of further devolution will need to be fulfilled. If the vote is Yes, leaders will be under pressure to act in a considered and responsible way to ensure the process of independence is as smooth as possible.