The Scottish route to independence is more complicated than the SNP would have you believeby Robert Hazell / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
Alex Salmond’s plan is to hold a referendum on Scottish independence soon after 2010, when the Conservatives have won the general election but with (probably) only five seats in Scotland. The Scottish backlash could propel the vote to independence. The media assume that if the Scots were to vote yes, Scotland would automatically become independent. But this would be only the beginning of the process. There are five stepping stones on the road to independence, any of which could become a roadblock. Salmond needs to negotiate each one successfully before Scotland can go it alone.
The first is that a referendum cannot be held without the approval of the Scottish parliament. At present there are 50 members of the parliament in favour of independence (47 SNP, plus two Scottish Greens, plus the independent Margo Macdonald). Against, there are 79 members of the three unionist parties: Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats. If these parties vote against a bill, no referendum can be held. But following Wendy Alexander’s call in May to “bring it on,” it will be more difficult for Labour to oppose the referendum bill. Her outburst suggests that Labour is now willing to knock open the first gate for the SNP.
The second hurdle is the referendum itself. Opinion polls over the last ten years have consistently shown Scottish support for independence remaining at around 25 to 30 per cent. Even if those figures improve with a Tory government in London, what people say in polls and what they do when faced with a ballot paper are two different things. The 2004 referendum on regional government in northeast England provided dramatic evidence of this.
Third, the referendum proposed by the SNP would simply authorise the Scottish government to start negotiations with the British government about the terms of independence. Some of these may be deeply unwelcome. The Scots would no longer receive transfers from the British taxpayer, which currently enable them to enjoy levels of per capita public expenditure some 20 per cent higher than in England. And then there is the EU. Although the position is not certain under international and EU law, the better view is that in the event of Scottish independence, the rest of Britain would be deemed the successor state which would remain in membership, and Scotland would have to reapply.
The SNP disputes this. Its white paper “Choosing Scotland’s Future” maintains that…