What Salmond will do next

Prospect Magazine

What Salmond will do next


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)

Dear Alex,

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.

Yours, Peter

  1. May 26, 2011

    Edward Harkins

    “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.”

    Peter I suggest that, with respect, that observation underestimates the slowly increasing, but fundamental, pull towards something like ‘full sovereignty but not full independence’. I also suggest that most of your observation could also have been made about the ‘devolution cause’ just prior to 1997.

    You also say, “Political parties, businesses, trade unions, churches and many civil society organisations planned it [1997] together”.

    But many of those same institutions had been Unionist zealots before they came around to devolution. The primary driver for change was economic, and perhaps a dollop of cultural aspiration. The various institutions concluded that the old Union no longer worked for Scotland (and incidentally, those institutions did not ‘plan’ the implementation of devolution. That was down to a blend of: disinterest on the part of Tony Blair; George Robertson’s infamously wrong notion that it would “kill nationalism stone dead”; and the change ethos of the New Labour ‘Project’)

    The dawning reality among most of the same pro-devolution institutions is that whilst Devolution Mk1 has worked to a degree for Scotland, it is increasingly seen to be falling short.

    Significantly, one Scottish institution not to perceive all of this is the Scottish Labour Party. It has suffered greatly as a result (there is another third partner in the Scottish Labour and Scotland marriage – Westminster Labour – but that’s for another debate).

    At the time of the first SNP Scottish General Election victory, I warned my friends (still friends) in the Scottish Labour domain that the critical factor was the fissure in the tribal Scottish Labour vote. From that day on, every other day that went by without the sky falling in on Scotland, despite tribal members not voting Labour, was another day of growing, possibly mortal, danger for Scottish Labour.

    I have to say that my friends literally laughed that off with, “we’ve been here before with the Nats”, and that they would see them off again once Scottish Labour ‘retrieved’ its traditional vote. Scottish Labour learned little then.

    I fear it has again learned nothing from another, greater, general election defeat – as instanced with the likes of Westminster MP Tom Harris averring that the ‘solution’ is a closer engagement between Scottish Labour MPs and their Hollyrood MSP counterparts (i.e. reinstate Westminster dominance of the Scottish Party). We also had the return roll-out of Jim Murphy as some sort of suggested Raj of Scotland. Have any of these players any awareness of how badly that kind of Westminster Party shenanigans is going down in Scotland?

    If Scottish Labour – and its Westminster Labour Big Brother – do not fundamentally reposition and re-align themselves with the Scottish interest, all of the other major institutions in Scotland will experience an increasing pull towards something between ‘full sovereignty but not full independence’, and Devolution Mk2.

    Indeed, it seems that some institutions are being pushed in that direction – going by the rough treatment meted out a few months ago by Labour MPs on the Westminster Scottish Select Committee to delegates from the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations (the delegates’ organisation had dared to suggest that the Calman process had not been especially inclusive and was dominated by politicians)

    Meantime, if the pro-further change consensus emerges, it may well be Alex Salmond who has to beware falling out of touch with the electoral and cultural dynamics. Another dose of ‘pretendy parliament’ will not suffice next time around.

    The joker in the pack is whether Scottish Labour does the necessary realignment and repositioning; because Scotland needs a progressive, inclusive and urbanist social democratic party. In my judgement, Scotland’s electorate yearns for a Party with that legitimacy – one that Scottish Labour seems to have somehow neglected and malnourished. If Scottish Labour could come up to the reformist mark, the whole electorate landscape would again be entirely overturned and new possibilities opened up.

  2. May 27, 2011

    Rachel MacNeill

    ‘Few of these Salmond -lovers want independence’ Is this writer insane? Of course I do.
    Does anyone think it is right for Germany to run France? They are both in the European union. It is the same for Scotland and England. We are not a region, WE ARE A COUNTRY. When ever is it morally right for one country to run another?
    Politics are ALWAYS personal – as we feel inside so we think outside politically – I always, always, always find that people who can’t stand on their on two feet are scared of Scottish Independence. Any independent minded human will find it INCONCEIVABLE to have one country ruling another.
    And so WE WILL HAVE AN INDEPENDENT SCOTLAND, there is huge support for this. If you are SCOTTISH you are SCOTTISH, is this SO frightening for the others?

  3. May 27, 2011


    hmmm, I don’t recall kellner predicting an SNP majority.

  4. May 28, 2011

    Alex Buchan

    Bishops? The established church in Scotland dispensed with them 400 years ago. Kellner is not the all knowing expert on Scotland he thinks he is.

  5. May 30, 2011

    Doug Gay

    There are some RC and Scottish Episcopal bishops around, but to mention them in this way, without remembering the Kirk is presbyterian betrays a lack of knowledge of Scottish society which doesn’t inspire confidence in the article as a whole.

  6. June 3, 2011


    It’s a bit of a cheek to send Salmond a letter like this barely a few weeks after his party won a resounding victory at the polls. It’s only a week since he announced the key cabinet posts for God’s sake.

    The SNP were told long ago that Scotland would never have home rule – now it has. They were told they could not ruel as a minority government – they did. They were told that they could not win a majority in an election based upon the existing PR system – they have. Now they “cannot win a referendum on independence” and need the guidance of Mr Kellner on what to do next.

    Forgive me if I think Alex Salmnond knows a quite well how to campaign for the result he wants without any input from Mr Kellner.

  7. June 9, 2011

    George Bunbury

    Michael Moore’s intervention seems to have removed any prospect of their being two referendums. If Salmond won an independence referendum held by Holyrodd (and it is a HUGE if) then regardless of what the constitution unit says that would be all the mandate he needed. Can anyone really envisge a situation where a Scottish plebescite is ignored/overlooked by Westminster?

    I suspect Salmond will settle in this parliament for increased fiscal powers. He knows better than anyone not to host a referendum he would lose (no matter what Racheal MacNeill wishes!). The polls are clear on this. He is politically boxed in about this just now but I expect he will untangle himself as there is not a politician on the opposition (or home benches) who can lay a glove on him.

    One last thing – Alan Trench writes very well on all this stuff – google his blog – it makes excellent reading.

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  1. t w o p l u s t w o e q u a l s f i v e . . . –01-26-13


Peter Kellner

Peter Kellner
Peter Kellner is president of YouGov and author of “Democracy: 1,000 years in pursuit of British Liberty” (Mainstream) 

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