A common refrain of the Better Together campaign in the Scottish independence referendum is that it is unlike any other poll. If the nation’s choice at a General Election was in error, the government can be removed four or five years later. Not so with a referendum on independence. Once Scotland has voted to remove itself from the United Kingdom, the argument runs, it cannot then turn around and change its mind should this prove detrimental to Scotland’s interests.
The first period in relation to which there is “no going back” is between a Yes vote and independence taking effect. In the event of a Yes vote, there would be complex negotiations, both between the Scottish and UK governments and internationally, to facilitate independence. This would include the division of assets and liabilities, and the reworking of governmental institutions, to create the new state.
If the Scottish government, or indeed the Scottish people, disliked the terms of the settlement, perhaps having been denied a currency union, it is unlikely they would have an opportunity to call the whole thing off. There is a clear commitment on both sides that, in the event of a Yes vote, Scotland would become an independent state.
The new unionist package
The closeness of the opinion polls entering this final week has prompted political manoeuvrings to try to stem the tide for a Yes vote. The unionist parties have undertaken to produce a common and more substantial constitutional settlement, potentially even of a federal character, following a No vote.
Whether this approach has any impact on undecided or soft-Yes voters remains to be seen, but the difficulty with any promise is that it can be no more than political and, at this stage, indeterminate. If the Scots ignore these promises and vote Yes anyway, some have tentatively suggested that the unionists could push for a more thorough devolution package to be put before the Scottish people in a second referendum ahead of the proposed independence day on March 24 2016.
This is unlikely. It should be remembered that the next set of Holyrood elections are not scheduled until May 2016. The unionist parties would be trying to unravel the independence negotiations from the opposition benches in the Scottish Parliament. Several unionist politicians, including the current Secretary of State for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael, have even said they would agree to join “Team Scotland” in post-Yes negotiations.
The unionists were also insistent that a third option be kept away from the ballot paper on September 18. Given their emphasis on a “fair, legal and decisive” referendum, underpinned by the Edinburgh agreement, any attempt to put greater autonomy to the electorate after a Yes vote would be seen as reneging on that undertaking.
The view after March 2016
Another question is whether there could be any going back after independence. The track record for states seceding, following a free and fair referendum, is overwhelmingly against reunification further down the line. This has been the case even where independence has at least arguably been detrimental to the interests of the country in question.
Where retrospective reunification has happened, it has typically taken place by force or considerable electoral manipulation, the recent case of Crimea being a pertinent example. The reason for this is as much one of inertia as it is of principle. Integrating the institutions of separate sovereign states is a more delicate exercise than creating a new state, as the experience of multinational co-operation in bodies like the EU demonstrates.
Although Scotland presently has four unionist political parties with some level of national representation, it seems unlikely that they would campaign for reunification in the event of a Yes vote, whether in the 2016 Holyrood elections or in the future. There is no guarantee that these parties would continue to exist in their present form in a decade’s time.
The nationalist-unionist cleavage would no longer be the primary dividing line of Scottish politics in the way it has been thus far. There would inevitably be a degree of institutional decoupling of the Scottish unionist parties from their UK counterparts, both functionally and politically, and realignment within Scotland itself. The debate within these parties would surely turn to coping with the new political terrain, rather than exacerbating internal divisions by calling for a reversal of the constitutional arrangements.
Even if the unionist parties were to campaign for reunification in a future Scottish general election, there is no guarantee that their electoral success would lead to a restored union. The principle of self-determination cuts both ways. Just as it is right that Scotland alone should determine whether it should leave the UK, so too the unification of Scotland with the rest of the UK is a matter of separate consent for both of the sovereign states. This would surely entail referendums on both sides of the border.
Any union formed from such negotiations would be very different, both in form and substance, from the one we have just now. There would be questions about the role not just of Scotland, but the three other nations within that union and how they all relate to one another.
A second nationalist referendum?
The other issue that has often arisen during the referendum campaign is the question of further referendums following a No vote. This would be particularly pertinent in the event of a narrow vote against independence of the sort that now looks very possible. If such a No vote were not to be followed up with significant further powers for Holyrood, it is likely that the independence question would return within a decade.
It is worth remembering, however, that Holyrood’s power to hold the referendum is a temporary power, granted by the section 30 Order under the Edinburgh Agreement. Whether Westminster would be prepared to devolve that power in the future, and if so in what circumstances, is not altogether clear. Either way, what was once seen as a minority pursuit, unthinkable and unrealistic, is now something almost half of the Scottish electorate is prepared to vote for at the ballot box. If a significant proportion of Scots do vote No on the basis of promises of further powers, and those promises are broken, they are unlikely to be so forgiving the second time around.