Where is our referendum on face-slapping?

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.


  1. Good post Duncan, a question well worth asking.

    I think a poll question of ‘Should we have a referendum on face slapping’ wouldn’t do so well as the question on independence though. Or gum chewing. Or PFI for that matter. I don’t think you’re giving people much credit to be honest in deciding they can’t think what a referendum would involve. Particularly as you say you’re in favour of fiscal autonomy which would, arguably, require a referendum before it could be brought in.

    Even then, for me the polls that say a majority want a referendum is not even the main reason for having one. The question of independence is the dominant issue in Scottish politics and will remain so until we decide either way what the country wants. And it’s not just the SNP that are pushing it, more often than not it’s other parties that bring it up as the main stick to beat the Nats over the head with.

    In many ways independence is like 1966. Scots complain that England talk about it all the time but it’s really the Scots that carp on about it. Do unionists moan about independence more than Nationalists champion it? I’m not so sure about the answer to that one.

    The unionist parties and media say the issue is a distraction but then spend swathes of parliamentary time and newspaper columns explaining why it’s a distraction and that we need to focus on other topics, seemingly unaware of the hypocrisy of their stance given there seems to be little forthcoming on other issues that they seem keen on persuading us are crucial.

    I’m not fussed about independence, I’m really not, still might vote yes but it doesn’t float my particular boat most days. However, if we’re going to properly advance the standard of debate it seems we really need to put the independence question to bed.

    If the SNP lose a proper referendum in 2010, they have already said it will put the question to bed “for a generation”. Isn’t that reason enough to get it out of the way and focus on other issues if, as is widely expected, it’s a ‘No’ result?

  2. Thanks for the comment Jeff. Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond.

    You’re right to say that a referendum on independence is more likely to find support among people than a referendum on gum wrappers. There are good reasons for that. Though my point was that if you ask people if they would like a plebiscite they will generally say yes — but that’s not the reason why we tend to hold referenda.

    Not sure what you’re getting at when you say I imply that people “can’t think what a referendum would involve”.

    I agree that there would have to be a referendum until there was fiscal autonomy. Once there was a clear momentum towards it and there was a majority of MSPs in favour of it (you could argue that these conditions have already been met), that would be the right time to hold the referendum.

    I suppose a multi-option referendum would therefore be a good option as it would at least kill two birds with one stone. Though the merits of a multi-option referendum are a separate issue for another time.

    I agree with you on the hypocrisy of the media and some of the parties for calling the issue a distraction, then banging on and on about it themselves. As I said in my article, I don’t think it’s a distraction at all, but is in fact fundamental.

    I don’t buy the “no other referendum for a generation”. That is a weak argument in my view. It is a very wooly promise which would be easy to break. What is a generation? For me, Alex Salmond is saying this not because the SNP don’t think we should be multiple referenda in quick succession, but because it is probable that the SNP will have a period out of government — possibly not the next term, but perhaps the one after it. By that time we’ll be ten or fifteen years down the line, which I suppose you could call a generation.

  3. Not sure what you’re getting at when you say I imply that people “can’t think what a referendum would involve”.

    What I’m getting at is the line that immediately precedes that one:

    “Though my point was that if you ask people if they would like a plebiscite they will generally say yes ”

    Why would people generally say yes? Maybe I’m reading you wrong but you seem to be implying that people just unthinkingly like to be asked questions, any questions, without really assessing the larger picture and the context of referendums.

    I think most people would say no to almost all referendums. It’s what we have MSPs and MPs for after all.

    For independence, I really do think there is a desire, from both sides of the political spectrum, to just get the question out of the way once and for all.

    Hence the reason for the high %ages wanting a referendum and hence the (partial) reason why the non-SNP parties are getting a kicking in the polls.

    I still don’t understand how you can say the issue is “fundamental” but don’t want a referendum to get it out the way?

    As for no referendum for another generation, that would be out of the SNP’s hands even if they do intend on breaking the promise.

    The largest party will probably never form a majority at Holyrood and even if the SNP did, that alone would be a mandate for another referendum regardless of what has gone before.

    Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems would quite rightly block a referendum for the next 30 years if we had a proper one next year.

  4. Jeff,

    I think you are reading my comments slightly differently to what I intended. It’s not that I think people like being asked any questions. It’s that I think people like to have the right to express an opinion through voting a referendum.

    I think a question like “Would you like there to be a referendum on X?” will always be biased towards the ‘yes’ answer simply because you are essentially asking them if they want the right to directly influence (however slightly) public policy. Those who do not even intend to vote in such a referendum are still likely not to say ‘no’ to there being a referendum because no-one’s forcing them to vote in one.

    My point is that many people of course like to have the right to have a vote on policies, but this mere fact is not enough to actually go ahead and hold one. We hold a referendum typically when there is a major constitutional change planned, but the government cannot credibly proceed with the plans without having the explicit nod of the population.

    If we were to decide to whole referenda purely on the basis of the fact that that people would like a referendum on that issue, it would not be too long before we started seeing plebiscites on foreign policy, taxes, then health policy… and then what else? Before you know it we would end up with a California-type situation.

    You say that most people would say no to almost all referenda, but I am not sure that is the case. Most people do not hold MPs and MSPs with so much regard, and so many people believe, from the comfort of their barstool, that they would do a better job.

    This is not at all to say that I do not think it is legitimate to hold a referendum on independence. But the mere fact that people would like a referendum is not a good enough reason.

    I think I have explained fairly clearly why I don’t think there should be a referendum on independence, despite the fact that the constitution is fundamental. That is the simple fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that there is enough appetite for independence, with the pro-independence view lacking a majority in the Scottish Parliament and opinion polls normally hovering around a quarter or, at its peak, a third in favour.

    I don’t share your view that another referendum would be blocked for another 30 years. Take the two votes on Scottish devolution. They were only separated by 20 years, but those 20 years were an age in political terms. A week is a long time in politics, and there are any number of reasons why an independence referendum may suddenly become desirable despite the “generation” promise.

    I don’t even think that a referendum should be blocked just because there has already been one on that issue within a generation. All there should be is clear momentum towards support for the issue in question. That is all I ask for, and I would be surprised if Alex Salmond doesn’t think the same which is why I am highly sceptical of the “generation” promise.

  5. Aha, you can right as many Warp record posts as you like Duncan, but I’m not going to forget about this thread!

    Now, where were we…

    Thanks for the clarification. I guess we just flat-out disagree on the attraction of referendums. I would think that “would you like a referendum on X” would be biased towards ‘No’ as most people would think that’s what politicians are for and/or aren’t that interested in the subject.

    But that’s ok, agreeing to disagree is a healthy conclusion.

    As is agreeing to disagree on giving the people what they want, even if it is through reading between the lines of a YouGov poll.

    But if The Scotsman is to be believed, the Lib Dems will be throwing their weight behind the referendum soon enough anyway.

    Funnily enough, I thought Sir Tom HUnter made some very persuasive points about why we don’t need a referendum now so my personal desire for a plebiscite is waning fast.

    Anyway, no need to reply if you don’t want to, mostly cos I’ve not said much but also given it’s almost been a generation since my last comment!


  6. Thanks for the response Jeff.

    You’re right that we just disagree about whether people like referendums in general which is fine as you say. I guess there’s no way of knowing which of us is right, and as usual the real answer is probably somewhere in between.

    I’m a bit busy over the next day or so, but soon I’ll be doing a post about votes at 16 which touches on the points you made on your blog a few days ago. 🙂