Saturday, 13 September 2014

Scotland Referendum: Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Is this really happening?

The political establishment is horrified Scotland might actually say "Yes". I'm not horrified - I'm on the fence, and it's not my vote anyway - but I am baffled and surprised.

There's one reason we're here at this point. It's a bad reason too, whatever the outcome:

Simple majority. 51%.

That's all the Yes vote needs for the UK to start making Scotland an independent country.

Believe me, I'm on the fence - not totally neutral but I definitely see both sides.
  • There's no imminent need for Scotland to become independent. No-one's dying because Scotland's in the UK. Scots are proud of their country and their differences, but the "need" for independence has been driven by a vocal minority.
  • On the other hand, I sympathise with most independence movements across the world. These are regions campaigning and often fighting for recognition of their own identity and control of their own affairs. Why shouldn't Scotland have a vote on independence? And if the Scots want it, why shouldn't they get it?
My only problem is the simple majority: 51%. This isn't very high, and certainly isn't high enough on huge issues like independence.

I try and see all views and I don't want to be called a patronising colonialist, but I will put it out there that my view is this: 51% is not high enough.

Let's talk a realistic scenario:
  • Popular issue = high turnout = maybe 75% turnout
  • Divisive issue, no clear winners = maybe 52% Yes vote
  • YES win - Independent Scotland
  • 75% of 52% = 39% of eligible voters
52% would be considered a decisive victory by the YES campaign, and it certainly shouldn't be underestimated how far they've come in the last 18 months.

But just like all elected UK governments, it would have been voted for by a minority - not a majority.

A standard threshold for important matters around the world is a 2/3 majority. The USA for example requires a 2/3 majority in both houses of Congress (and presidential support) to change the US constitution. This is partly why it's had so few changes in 200+ years.

YES campaigners however would indeed call me a patronising colonialist for saying the bar isn't high enough. They would point back to the 1979 Devolution Referendum, where a requirement for 40% of total eligible voters was added. The "yes" votes won, but only with 32% of all possible voters - therefore Scotland did not get its own parliament.

It had to wait another 20 years - 18yrs of 4 Tory governments, including all 12yrs of Thatcher - before it did.

So you can appreciate Scottish nationalists are glad that this time, there is no stupid requirement. Scotland would never have a chance of independence because it would be so intensely difficult to hit 40% of all voters and/or 67% of the votes cast.

And I do feel I understand it. Take for instance the British monarchy.

I'm no fan of the monarchy, and I think former British colonies like Canada and Australia have even less reason to keep the British monarch as head of state.

But the closest Australia has ever come was the "republic" referendum in 1999, where "yes" lost with 45.13%. To get 67% would have been impossible, and would be impossible today - and would probably stay impossible long after the British monarchy has declined into (further) irrelevance.

Maybe big changes conducted by referendum simply require a lower threshold - if they are ever going to happen - than big changes decided in parliaments, because politicians are employed to vote and normal people aren't.

But there's a huge difference between a big change decided by a 51% majority, and keeping the status quo with 51% majority.

The monarchy are not eating babies (last I heard anyway). Obviously I think Australia should ditch the monarchy and elect an Australian as its own head of state - but it would not be right to make that change on a tiny majority.

Similarly, the English are not eating Scottish babies. It's not the 1700s any more. Even if Scotland becoming independent from the UK was the "right" decision - and that's not clear politically, socially or economically - it's not right for it to happen on a 51% majority.

It's also plain bizarre that the UK government ever allowed it to go ahead like this.

Maybe the Conservatives were arrogant enough to think it would never happen. They've certainly showed themselves arrogant in every other way since 2010.

And to be fair, the Better Together campaign has been the most rubbish political train crash you could imagine. The Better Together campaign has, weirdly enough, probably convinced more Scots to vote yes than the actual YES campaign. While Eddie Izzard calmly made a friendly, human case for the UK staying united, #PatronisingBTLady was telling people "It's too early to be discussing politics, eat your cereal".

ANYWAY. It doesn't matter what I think.

What is likely? What's going to go down?

Here's my loose prediction, for what it's worth...
  • YES campaign gathering momentum, NO campaign flailing without clues or answers
  • YES wins by slim majority, 51-55%
  • Turnout high but not decisive, 75-85%
  • Independence is GO - but negotiations are key and devil is in the detail
  • Slim victory means a partial, weak, and slow independence process
  • Bitter Tory government does everything possible to slow down and corrupt the process (because they know they will get hammered at the general election)
  • Most overarching things will be kept - monarchy 30+ years, British pound 10+ years, military/foreign policy 5+ years, etc.
  • YES vote means Conservatives get pounded in May 2015 general election (all UK, not just Scotland)
  • Incoming Labour government commits to process (maybe LibLab?), but...
  • Always potential for process to be aborted, challenged or dropped. Events, dear boy, events!


  1. I see your point... but... surely those that choose not to vote are choosing to remove themselves from the decision making process. Therefore, why should their lack of voting have any outcome on the result?

    Those that want independence vote 'yes', those that don't vote 'no' - if anybody is not fussed enough either way to vote, why should that have any bearing on the outcome? In effect it could make a lack of vote become a No vote.

  2. Re: turnout, I think the problem is that there is a huge variety of reasons people choose not to vote, and that people don't vote because they're not able. We can't assume to know what each non-vote means in either situation and we certainly shouldn't try and act or talk on behalf of them.

    The point about turnout is that anything but a high turnout invalidates the decision that is supposed to be made. A turnout of 50% could not be taken seriously whether a Yes or No result.

    That said, turnout is not the only factor and it looks like Scotland is heading for 80% turnout which would be high enough for a result to be credible. But if it's a 51/49 result, I don't think the way to take that seriously is to allow independence.