Hindsight is a wonderful thing, if at times a depressing one. It enables me to see now that one man has been responsible for the dire state that Scotland is in. His name is David Cameron. As British Prime Minister, he played a strong hand as if he were on the defensive, and has consigned us to Neverendumland. He did much the same over Brexit, but that’s another story.
Cameron took the SNP’s electoral win in 2011 at face value and did not consider its detail and ramifications. Indeed, the SNP won a majority of seats, a result which the – now widely disparaged – D’Hondt system had lumbered us with. But this ‘landslide victory’, as Alex Salmond the showman characterised it, was less than it seemed. It amounted to a win of 45 per cent of the votes on a turnout of 50 per cent. That is, 22.5 per cent of those entitled to vote supported the SNP. Further, only a mere half of eligible Scottish voters could be bothered to turn out to vote in an election for their own parliament, about whose creation there had been so much song and dance in the 1990s. The other half demonstrated their lack of interest with their feet.
Cameron failed to see the position this left Salmond in. There was no overwhelming popular mandate for a referendum and therefore, no need to hold one. Referendums were still something of a novelty in UK politics, and Cameron could have refused point blank to sanction one and simply congratulated Mr Salmond on a victory that gave him a majority in the Scottish parliament, whose remit is devolved matters. The Constitution is not a devolved matter but a reserved one.
But, for whatever reason, Cameron surrendered, almost casually, to Salmond’s bluster. No doubt he thought that any referendum would return a massive result in favour of the UK and that that would put an end to the matter.
Before Cameron ever entered any discussions with Salmond, he should have already had his agenda established, but there seems to have been none. If he had had any sense, he would have cast about for precedents to gauge the range of possibilities. He would have found that EU countries do not allow their regions to choose to secede.
A particularly telling example is Spain, where the new Constitution of 1977 specifically prohibits secession. He might have considered the most recent precedent in a democratic country, the case of Quebec in Canada, where two referendums were held, in 1980 and 1995. In the separatist referendum in Quebec in 1980, 59.56 per cent of the population voted to remain in Canada against 40.44 per cent who voted for secession. Fifteen years later, another referendum kept Quebec in Canada by the narrowest of margins: 50.58 per cent to 49.42 per cent. It was after that that the Canadian federal government began to take the issue seriously.
After much cogitation and discussion, the Canadian government in 2000 passed a Clarity Act, to set down in clear terms the conditions for a referendum and its outcome. The result essentially means that a democratic vote in itself would have no legal effect, since the secession of a Canadian province would only be constitutionally valid after a negotiation between the federal government and the provincial government whose people would have unambiguously expressed, by a clear majority, that it no longer wished to be part of Canada. Only then could a province leave confederation. The federal government gave no undertaking that it would recognise a vote for secession, and there was disquiet on the federal side that such a momentous decision could be taken on the basis of 50 per cent plus 1 vote – as has also applied in the UK – and that the 1995 vote had been won only so very narrowly.
The Clarity Act of 29 June 2000 gave the Canadian House of Commons the right to decide, before a vote could be held, whether a referendum question was sufficiently unambiguous. It also ruled out any proviso about pre-referendum negotiations between the governments of Quebec and Canada: any future referendum had to be about secession, and secession alone. That much was clear: there was to be no fudging of the issue with mitigating promises of ‘association’ with Canada after secession to attract ‘soft yes’ voters. Further, the Clarity Act gave the House of Commons the authority to decide, after the vote, whether a clear majority had expressed a view in favour of secession, implying that some kind of supermajority might be required. The House of Commons was also assigned authority to decide whether a referendum had violated any of the terms of the Clarity Act.
But Cameron didn’t study precedent. He negligently allowed Salmond to choose the terms of the referendum. Salmond allowed 16-year olds (whom he believed were more likely to be pro-separatist) the vote for the first time. He also chose the question, although the Electoral Commission struck down his original version: ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’ because it was asking a leading question. No self-respecting examiner asks for a reply that suggests that there is something wrong with you if you do not agree with the proposition. The resulting question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’, still gave Salmond a massive advantage. It is estimated that a ‘yes’ answer gives an advantage of up to 7 per cent, because many people prefer to give a positive answer rather than a negative answer.
The most damaging advantage that Cameron allowed Salmond was over the choice of the date of the referendum. As part of the Edinburgh Agreement, he should have insisted ‘that this vote be held within a year of the Edinburgh Agreement’, that is, in 2013. That would have been perfectly reasonable. But Salmond wanted the most favourable of conditions for his own side. The year 2014 was totemic for him. Not only was it the seven hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, but Glasgow had been chosen to host the Commonwealth Games in 2014, thus showcasing Scotland to the world. This huge blunder by Cameron allowed the SNP two years in which they could drip, drip, drip their poisonous lies and anti-English hatred into Scottish communities, through their vast network of activists.
It may seem harsh to blame Cameron for the untidy and unpleasant mess that we are now in. But he held all the cards and negligently gave them all away to an adversary who had thought long and hard about how to achieve Scottish secession. Perhaps one should convict Cameron merely of being naïve: he was behaving as a decent man would, but not as the kind of skilled negotiator a Prime Minister should be. Allowing Salmond any latitude for chicanery was a fatal misjudgement.
The Canadian Clarity Act was, and remains, an excellent precedent, one that the UK should have adopted and still can. Only one political party has worked that out and incorporated the adoption of a Clarity Act into its manifesto. That party is All4Unity, the party led by Jamie Blackett and founded by George Galloway, which is contesting list seats only. I leave voters to draw their own conclusion.
Jill Stephenson is former professor of modern German history at the University of Edinburgh. Follow her on Twitter @2351onthelist