John Humphrys asks: who has the harder task of convincing the Scottish public on how to vote in 2014 on Scottish independence?

For a mighty political struggle, in which passions have run so high, the final deal was a surprisingly amicable affair. The strongly unionist British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the fiercely nationalist First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, were all smiles in Edinburgh when they signed an agreement paving the way for a referendum on Scottish independence in late 2014. Now the real battle over the substance starts in earnest.

Ever since Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party won its huge victory in the Scottish Parliamentary elections last year, a referendum on independence was only a matter of time. The United Kingdom’s coalition government in London said it wanted to assist the Scottish people if they wanted to hold a referendum but they weren’t going to do so on any terms. A whole range of obstacles, both constitutional and political, had to be cleared out of the way first.

  • Mr Salmond said his election victory gave him a mandate to hold a referendum but Mr Cameron said that only the UK Parliament had the legal right to call one.
  • Mr Salmond said he wanted three options to be available to Scottish voters: full independence, the status quo, or greater devolution of powers within the UK. Mr Cameron said he wanted only two options, excluding the last but suggesting that if the Scottish people threw out full-scale independence then there could be discussions about devolving more power after the vote.
  • Mr Salmond said he wanted the referendum in 2014. Mr Cameron wanted it a year earlier.
  • Mr Salmond wanted to open the franchise to sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. Mr Cameron did not.

In the end a compromise was agreed – though most observers thought there was a clear winner: Mr Cameron. He got his way on restricting the choice to the simple option of Scotland staying within the UK or going independent, while Mr Salmond got the later date and the wider franchise. After signing the agreement, the two leaders said they looked “forward to a referendum that is legal and fair producing a decisive and respected outcome”. Mr Salmond said Scotland now faced “the most important political decision in 300 years” of Scottish history, since the Act of Union made the two countries one state in 1707. Mr Cameron said: “I want to be the prime minister that keeps the United Kingdom together, but I believe in showing respect to people in Scotland”.

So as things stand it is Mr Salmond who would appear to have the harder task ahead. Polls show that his party remains the preferred party of government in Scotland, but support for outright independence remains well below the level needed to bring it about. Some are arguing that it is no coincidence that the SNP has started to talk of the virtues of ‘home rule’, the phrase that goes back to Gladstone, whose solution to the Irish problem in the nineteenth century was to grant the Irish people full autonomy over their government but within the United Kingdom.

Politically, Mr Salmond has been anxious to reassure his voters that they can have independence without losing those aspects of their membership of the United Kingdom they may most value. So he has been emphatic that the Queen would remain head of state of an independent Scotland and that cherished institutions like the NHS and the BBC would continue to function in the country.

Inevitably the campaign itself, once it gets going, will focus heavily on the economic pros and cons. It’s no coincidence that the Prime Minister, on his brief visit to Scotland on Monday, not only signed the agreement but also visited the Rosyth naval dockyard, symbolically emphasising the importance to the Scottish economy of UK defence procurement.

There will be arguments too over the impact of independence on government spending in Scotland. For decades Scotland has enjoyed the benefits of the ‘Barnett formula’, by which per capita public spending in Scotland is higher than the average elsewhere in the UK. Opponents of independence argue this would be in jeopardy if Scotland left the UK; Scottish nationalists argue it would be more than made up for by an independent Scotland keeping more of its North Sea Oil revenues.

One of the most politically thorny issues concerns the currency that an independent Scotland would use. Mr Salmond used to argue that the solution was for the new Scotland to adopt the euro. But the problems of the eurozone (and potentially the problems with the EU more generally – there is a disputed issue about whether an independent Scotland would have to apply afresh to join the EU) have caused him to change his mind and to advocate the continuing use of sterling, at least for the time being. But this has its own problems. Mr Salmond would want a Scottish voice on the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, but London might not grant this. Edinburgh might also have to agree to some sort of fiscal pact with London if it was to go on using the pound, but some in Scotland would argue that this would so dilute independence as to make it almost worthless.

But whilst Mr Cameron may take some comfort in the difficult questions Mr Salmond still has satisfactorily to answer if he is to win his referendum, the Prime Minister knows that he faces a formidable campaigner. The Scottish leader’s insistence on 2014 as the date for the referendum was no idle whim. Mr Salmond thinks the UK government will have become very unpopular in Scotland by then and, much more important, 2014 is the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn when the Scots led by Robert the Bruce routed the English under Edward II. The symbolism of that will be fully exploited.

The Prime Minister also knows that his own party remains almost out of the picture in Scotland. It’s significant that he did not hang around in Edinburgh on Monday: he knows that the anti-independence campaign will have to be run by his political opponents in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.

Inevitably most of the politics of the coming referendum campaign will be conducted in Scotland. But what about the rest of the United Kingdom? Although the British government has said the Scots can leave if they want to, do others in the UK agree? After all, the right of any part of a state to secede from it has has often been been a violently contentious issue. The United States fought a bitter civil war precisely on the question of whether the southern states could go it alone: thousands and thousands of lives were sacrificed to prevent them from doing so.

Things are rather more amicable than that in the United Kingdom, but there will still be consequences for the rest of the UK if Scotland does leave. The Welsh and Northern Irish may come to feel even more dominated by the English and in the case of Northern Ireland that may make unionists feel even more vulnerable to the possibility of finding themselves drifting into a united Ireland. And Scottish independence would change English politics, not least because it would deprive the Labour Party of the Scottish MPs upon whom it has depended in order to be able to form governments.  

Probably most people within the UK but outside Scotland have not yet turned their minds to these issues, regarding the issue of Scottish independence as a matter for the Scots alone. But now that a referendum is certain to happen, everyone else will have to start taking notice.

What’s your view?

  • Do you support the deal by which the Scots will have a referendum on independence in 2014?
  • Do you agree with the UK government that this should be a matter solely for the Scottish people or do you think others within the UK ought to have a say too?
  • If you yourself are a non-Scottish member of the UK, do you support Scottish independence (if the Scots want it) or not?
  • If you are a Scot, do you want your country to go independent or stay within the UK?
  • If you are undecided, what issues will most sway you?
  • Do you think the economic case for independence has been made?
  • And what do you think will be the outcome of the referendum?

Let us know your views.

Related Content