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There will be a second Scottish independence referendum- here’s how the union can triumph

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Scots will have to face going through a second independence referendum and the sooner this is accepted the better. The vast majority of those who voted No in 2014 naively believed that the 2014 referendum would be a genuine once-in-a-generation event that would conclusively settle the constitutional question for a good 30 years at least.

Unionists need to rid themselves of this misgiven mind-set. The SNP never had any intention of respecting the clear and decisive result of their independence referendum and instead have every desire of making Scots answer the exact same question again and again until they receive the right response.

There is no scenario under which Scottish nationalists would not desire the breakup of the United Kingdom. This is the political reality and there is no point complaining about it. Devolution has made it possible that Scotland will always have to contend with the prospect of a Nationalist majority government seeking to hold an independence referendum.

And at some point the Nationalists may even win. However there are a few things that can be done surrounding the holding of a second referendum that can tip the odds in favour of the United Kingdom once again triumphing over separatism.

David Cameron acquiesced to nearly every one of Alex Salmond’s demands regarding the question, the electoral franchise and the timing of the 2014 Scottish referendum. Give the Nats everything they want then defeat them fair and square so they have no platform to claim a grievance and build a justification for a further independence campaign, so the Prime Minister thought. As is now clear the SNP and the rest of the Yes movement never had any interest in respecting the 2014 result. For them the 2014 poll was a mere momentary delay towards Scotland’s national destiny.

Whilst it would be highly gratifying for Theresa May to simply tell Nicola Sturgeon she cannot have a second referendum because the question has already been answered decisively and unambiguously if there is clear public support for Scottish independence (currently there is not) as well as a clear electoral mandate for a new referendum (also, currently there is not as the SNP have no parliamentary majority), it could prove politically difficult to stop one taking place.

Therefore, it is only prudent to be prepared for fighting a further Scottish referendum. After all, Scottish nationalists think about little else. The following are 3 ways in which the Unionist side can increase their odds of prevailing in any second referendum before the campaigning has even begun:

  1. The electoral franchise

There is a very good reason Alex Salmond was loath to adopt the general election franchise for the 2014 Scottish referendum. From parliament’s “Electoral franchise: who can vote?” publication regarding eligible voters in a general election:

British nationals living overseas are entitled to vote for up to 15 years after moving abroad. An overseas voter should register in the constituency covering the address for where they were last registered within the UK.”

Using the general election franchise would have resulted in voting rights being offered to the 290,000 Scots living overseas and opened the door to the possibility of 750,000 Scots living south of the border also being allowed to have their say. Scots living in England and Wales in particular would be expected to overwhelmingly support Scotland remaining in the UK.

Alex Salmond proposed the council election franchise for 2014 referendum, which is based on residency at time of polling and excludes any possibility of expat Scots voting but also enfranchises EU citizens whom post-Brexit are more likely to support Scottish independence.

Simply stated, Theresa May should refuse to allow a 2nd referendum to go ahead unless the general election franchise is used and all expat Scots across the world and in the UK are allowed to vote.

  1.  The question

Alex Salmond originally wanted 3 questions on the 2014 referendum ballot paper with an extra devo-max option. David Cameron refused to budge on the single Yes/No question because he believed he would easily win and then be able to bury the issue for a generation.

The EU referendum was originally intended to be a Yes/No plebiscite but was amended to a Remain/Leave choice after the Electoral Commission expressed concerns that a Yes option for the status quo offered a positive bias to the government’s choice. In a second Scottish referendum the Yes option may not represent the status quo but it is the Scottish government’s clearly desired choice.

The Electoral Commission also stated in their published findings on the EU referendum question:

3.20        …Parliament should consider very carefully whether it wishes to retain the approach of a referendum question which uses ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ as response options, taking into account the risk of a perception of bias which might be associated with the question wording.

The precedent has therefore been established that the Yes option can offer a positive bias and we can expect this to be considered by the Electoral Commission when advising on the next Scottish referendum question.

There is a further reason for not having a Yes/No question in that asking the exact same question after it was clearly rejected only a few years previously is the very definition of disrespecting the 2014 referendum result, which all sides are legally obligated to do. This would also factor into the Electoral Commission’s judgement on the referendum question and for this reason I suspect they would see it fair in allowing the UK govt priority in selecting the question of the next referendum.

The Electoral Commission has a preference for simple and unambiguous questions and therefore I would recommend the following:

Should Scotland remain within the United Kingdom?

  • Remain
  • Leave

However, because the entire rationale for the next Scottish referendum is so Scotland can remain part of the European Union there is a case for the question being of the following format:

Should Scotland…

  • Remain within the United Kingdom
  • Leave the United Kingdom to join the European Union

Having the Yes option on the ballot offers a clear positive psychological bias to whoever holds it so stopping the separatists from having it should be a priority in negotiations.

Also, the more the referendum is framed as a choice of Scotland in the UK vs Scotland in the EU rather than Scottish Independence: Yes/No the more the odds are tilted in the UK’s favour. After all, keeping Scotland in the EU is the entire purpose for the second referendum so this is not an unreasonable suggestion.

Finally, it certainly won’t help the separatists to be the Vote Leave side.

  1.  Timing

The SNP timed the 2014 referendum perfectly. If they won then Scotland became independent but if they lost, they could capitalize on the momentum generated by the referendum to consolidate the pro-independence support behind them in Westminster elections in 2015 and then into Scottish elections in 2016. Thereby ensuring they retain power and keeping the separatist cause very much on the political agenda. David Cameron had the option of forcing them to hold the referendum earlier in 2012 or 2013 but simply rolled and gave Salmond the date he wanted.

There should be absolutely no question of holding a second Scottish referendum until the UK has completely left the European Union. Winning an independence referendum from outside the EU becomes much more difficult for the Nationalists as it forces the Scottish electorate to consider far greater extents of change, rupture and economic costs, with establishing and funding a new untested currency followed by a commitment to joining the Euro plus far greater cuts to health, education and welfare spending than anything the Tories have dreamed of being a few of the more grievous downsides for voters to consider.

Outside the EU, nationalists cannot present a vote for independence as representing continuity with the European Union and the vote would now be for fully separating from the UK currency union, banking union and single market and applying for membership of the EU as a new member state.

EU citizens, a majority of whom will now support independence because it means staying in the EU, will now have no legal right to vote in any referendum after the UK leaves the European Union.

Theresa May witnessed every mistake made by David Cameron in dealing with the SNP up close. Coming in good faith and acceding to every Scottish nationalist demand gets you precisely nowhere.

The SNP will never deviate from their faith in the promised land of independence and as long as they remain the dominant political force in Scotland and a second independence referendum remains a possibility then Unionists need to be ready and prepared to defeat them all over again.

About Joe Ray

Profile photo of Joe Ray
Joe Ray lives in Edinburgh and works in the social investment sector. He writes about Scottish and British politics and in particular how Brexit has changed the dynamic of the Scottish constitutional debate.

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