Last week the SNP set out its legislative plan. The headline grabber was the long-promised independence referendum bill. Today I saw Caron’s post asking, “why bother with a referendum?” She has a good point. It is widely recognised that the result of any referendum would almost certainly reject the SNP’s favoured proposals.
“Ah, but!”, say proponents of a referendum. Opinion polls consistently suggest that around three quarters of people would like there to be a referendum on independence. This is supposedly a good enough reason to actually hold a referendum.
It strikes me as a bit daft though. Imagine the scene. You’re sitting on a park bench eating your lunch. A chap with a clipboard approaches you. He’s from a polling organisation. “The Monster Raving Loony Party,” he begins, “plans on giving everyone a slap on the face.” Your eyebrows raise. The prospect of the Monster Raving Loony Party being in a position to give everyone a slap in the face feels a bit distant. But the pollster continues: “Would you like a referendum on face-slapping to be held before this policy is pursued?” Yes, of course, you reply.
Of course people say they’d like there to be a referendum. If you asked people if they wanted a referendum on legislation about chewing gum wrappers, they would most likely say yes. In fact, I wonder what is going through the minds of the quarter of people who say they would not like a referendum. They probably can’t be bothered with the campaigning. Perhaps they dread the prospect of politicians hogging the box, or maybe they think their vote isn’t worth anything.
Nevertheless, in general, ask people if they would like a right, they will take it with both hands. The right to vote on Scotland’s constitutional future is appealing. But it is just one appealing thing out of an infinite number of appealing things that may be offered by a government. We have unlimited wants, but the government has limited means.
That is the essence of the argument put forward by those who would rather there wasn’t a referendum on independence. Opponents such as Alistair Darling say there are more important issues facing the voters, not least the economy. It would be wise to tackle them first before concerning ourselves with “distractions” like the independence debate.
I don’t quite agree with that perspective either. It is perfectly valid (though, in my view, incorrect) to say that economic and other woes may be fixed by Scotland becoming independent. In fact, I think it is quite dangerous to dismiss any analysis of the constitutional position as a “distraction”.
I am in favour of constitutional reform. I do not agree with the sort of extreme reforms that the SNP would like to make. But certainly I would favour some degree of fiscal autonomy. I would like the UK to adopt a federal structure. And I think there is a pressing need for reform of the voting system.
I do not support such reforms because I think it would be a bit of distracting fun. There is nothing particularly satisfying to me about the calculations the single transferable vote system would entail (though it might be another matter for some political geeks). No, the real reason I favour constitutional reform is because I believe it will fundamentally improve the governance of the country. To dismiss constitutional debates as “distracting” is a bit of an insult. The constitutional structure is fundamental.
The reason to oppose a referendum on independence is not because people don’t want a referendum. And it is certainly not because it is a distraction. The reason is simply that there is no appetite for independence.
Some people have a peculiar obsession with referenda. But it’s worth remembering that they are actually quite a recent addition to British democracy, and have only been used a handful of times. The UK’s first referendum was held in 1973. Since then, a further eight have been held. Only one of them was held across the UK. Only another two have been Scotland-wide.
The idea behind holding a referendum is to make bloody well sure that the major constitutional change which is proposed is actually favoured by the people of the country. So rather than having a mere parliamentary majority, you make sure there is a majority favour among the people too. If you like, a referendum seeks a second mandate to go ahead with the change.
You see where I’m going with this? There hasn’t even been a first mandate yet. Although the SNP forms the Scottish Government, it is a minority administration. A majority of MSPs oppose independence.
You cannot even convincingly argue that the 2007 election result demonstrated momentum towards MSPs that favour independence. Although the SNP made large gains, this was mostly at the expense of other parties that favour independence. The Greens had their representation cut by two thirds. The SSP were totally wiped off the map. These two parties saw their share of the vote cut more than any other parties. Meanwhile, the three main opposition parties saw stagnant levels of support — they dropped, but not by that much.
That is why I oppose the idea of holding a referendum on independence. There simply isn’t anything going for it. There is no groundswell of support for independence among the voters. And there certainly isn’t enough appetite for it within the Scottish Parliament.
Those in favour of a referendum cling on to the fact that most people would like there to be a referendum. But that in itself is pretty meaningless because, as I have said, people will always prefer to have a referendum on anything, even if it’s on getting a slap on the face.