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Scottish independence: the referendum explained

Scotland has always been a distinct nation but since the Act of Union in 1707, it has been a nation within a larger political entity: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The election…

First Minister Alex Salmond could be the man who regained Scotland’s independence. AAP

Scotland has always been a distinct nation but since the Act of Union in 1707, it has been a nation within a larger political entity: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The election of a minority Scottish National Party (SNP) government led by Alex Salmond in 2007 brought about the first indications that situation could change. When the SNP won a convincing majority enabling it to rule in its own right last year, the possibility that Scotland could again become a sovereign nation became a distinct possibility.

Now the Westminster coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is striking back. Prime Minister David Cameron seeks to define a referendum on independence on London’s terms while Salmond says he has a mandate to run a referendum from Scotland.

The Conversation spoke with Glasgow University expert Professor Murray Pittock to find out exactly what the state of play is between two close neighbours with a long and storied history.

Can you explain what the situation is at both Westminster and in the Scottish Government as regards a referendum on Scottish independence?

The Westminster government have looked to seize the initiative over the Scottish referendum by saying that they will use their powers to either amend the current Scotland bill going through the Lords or more likely the 1998 Scotland Act to enable a binding referendum on the future of Scotland to be held.

Other referenda would simply be consultative. There was an indication at the weekend that they would wish this referendum to be held within 18 months, to wrongfoot the Scottish National Party government in Holyrood who have said all along, publicly, that they would hold it at some point in 2014.

There has been some sign of a retreat from that position by the UK government - particularly by the Liberal Democrat members of the Coalition - where the Scottish Secretary Michael Moore is looking to resolve the issue with the Scottish Government.

Earlier this week First Minister Alex Salmond made very clear that the mandate the Scottish Government had was to hold a referendum in 2014 and that is when he would intend to hold a referendum.

There are a number of bones of contention. One of these is whether there should be a third question about repatriating maximum powers short of foreign affairs, the so-called “devo max” question.

Another is whether the UK Electoral Commission or a Scottish Referendum Commission should run the referendum.

The third is whether 16 or 17 year olds should be entitled to vote rather than over-18s. The First Minister has indicated that 16 and 17 year olds would vote if the Scottish Government organised the referendum.

Can you explain the “devo max” option in some more detail?

There is some variety as to the powers that are suggested under devo max but the fundamental issue is that devo max represents what tends to be the polling evidence in Scotland, which is that there is a majority in favour of repatriating all powers to Scotland - including taxation and macro-economic policy to a significant degree - but excluding defence and foreign policy.

Although it must be said that the Scottish administrations since 1999 and particularly since 2007 have operated a nascent foreign policy.

In terms of the question of a mandate, the Tories only have one Westminster seat in Scotland and the Lib Dems have 12 where the SNP won a very considerable victory in the Scottish Parliament elections. Who will be able to claim better that they have the mandate to decide what referendum should be held and when?

Lib Dem Nick Clegg and Tory Prime Minister David Cameron can work together in government, but can they defend the Union together? AAP/Stefan Wermuth

The question of mandate has two aspects: a constitutional aspect and a political aspect. From a constitutional point of view the UK government has a case. From a political point of view, its case is very weak because clearly the Scottish Government was elected to govern Scotland and to conduct a referendum on independence and it has won an overall majority under a proportional system which is very difficult to do.

The Scottish Government clearly does have a political mandate and most of the counter-arguments have been constitutional and legal arguments. The question is how far those will give way to the politics. The early response in Scotland, not from politicians, from the public – judging by radio phone-ins and the like – is very hostile to the idea of Tory interference in Scotland, even from people who do not support the SNP.

I think if this was a Labour London government, it would be easier for them to put Alex Salmond in a corner. I think that the risk here is that in pandering to the anti-Scottish or anti-Salmond views of some of his backbench MPs and thinking he doesn’t have very much to lose in Scotland because he only has one seat, David Cameron has re-animated Scottish views that the Conservative party is a toxic brand and (also re-animated) antipathy to it and all that its stands for.

Which is perhaps predictable but is not going to make his task in gaining ascendancy over the Scottish Government any easier.

Is there a situation where a divided Unionist camp advantages the Scottish Nationalists?

I think that is a significant advantage. The other thing is the 2014 date. People have said it is chosen because of the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, or it has been chosen because of the Commonwealth Games but one reason it has been chosen is, I suspect, because the next UK general election is in 2015 and holding it within six to nine months of that General Election, especially in the autumn when the campaigning season has started after the party conferences, will make it very difficult for the Labour party and the Conservatives to appear on the same platform.

The indications are that they won’t be able to do that.

Would the SNP, even though they will campaign for independence, be happy with devo max?

I think the best guess there is that the Cabinet and the parliamentary party in Holyrood have got a variety of views on this and some of them will be keen to have devo max and some of them would be uncertain about having a third question. I think that circle may be squared by having a consultation process on the form a referendum should take with the electorate in Scotland.

My suspicion is the First Minister probably is interested in a third question and we will see whether people feed back to say they would like one.