In an open letter to the SNP leader, pollster Peter Kellner underlines the lack of Scottish support for independence
Salmond in 2009. Picture: Saül Gordillo (ACN)
Congratulations on your stunning victory. You fought under a proportional voting system that was designed to prevent a single party winning an absolute majority. Yet the SNP achieved precisely that. A place in Scottish history is surely secure. But will history remember a man who ended 300 years of union with England and re-established Scottish independence? Or as someone who saw that prize slip from his grasp?
Your biggest problem is the flipside of your triumph. You won because of you, personally. You engineered a presidential-style contest with Labour’s Iain Gray. But Gray was grey. He wilted while you flourished. YouGov polls found that you were favoured by more than two-to-one.
Yet the same polls showed that Labour would beat the SNP in a Westminster general election; that the SNP borrowed Labour voters for this particular election to Holyrood. Few of these Salmond-lovers want independence. They want you to run Scotland as they think you do it well. But it’s good policies on jobs, schools, transport, student fees and healthcare that they want—not border posts at Berwick.
Late in the campaign, YouGov found that 28 per cent of Scots would vote for independence in a referendum and 57 per cent against. A few days after your victory, a new poll showed a honeymoon bounce for the SNP. However, the pro and anti-independence figures had not changed.
Your difficult challenge, then, is to convert hundreds of thousands of Scots to the cause. The resounding “No” to AV illustrates Kellner’s law of referendums: “unless there is both a passion and a settled consensus for change, the status quo will prevail.” AV advocates failed either to set Britain alight or to create a consensus for a voting system that many in the “Yes” camp regarded as a staging post towards full PR.
Scotland’s 1997 devolution referendum was different. The preparations were intensive. You will remember it well: you were involved. Political parties, businesses, trade unions, churches and many civil society organisations planned it together. The Tories were the only significant opponents, and they held little sway. The referendum ratified a settled consensus.
To be sure of winning independence, you need to establish a similar consensus. This will be difficult. None of the other parties will be with you. You might get some bishops, business leaders and trade union officials on side, but not their institutions.
I make three predictions. First, if you hold a straight, independence-or-bust referendum, you will lose. The fear of being cast adrift will trump admiration for your personal leadership.
Second, you won’t hold such a binding, binary referendum. Instead you will demonstrate your guile and flexibility by finessing the issue. I expect you to hold a referendum with more than two options: the status quo, independence, and (if you’ll pardon the phrase) a “third way.” This would propose more powers for Holyrood over taxes and spending, but not a complete break with Westminster.
That is not all. The Constitution Unit has pointed out that a single Scottish referendum on its own can settle nothing. Parliament in London must pass legislation giving Edinburgh more power. All a first Scottish referendum can do is give you authority to open the negotiations.
Oddly this could be to your advantage. You could say: “fear not, this referendum will not lead to instant independence. All I am seeking at this point is the authority to talk to London. Surely you wouldn’t deny me that? You will have a second chance, when those talks have been concluded, to decide whether you like the deal or not.”
Here, then, is my third prediction. You will hold two referendums. By the end, Holyrood will have substantially more powers. You will profess yourself wholly satisfied with this outcome. But Scotland will still be part of the United Kingdom.