A week from tomorrow, voters in Scotland will be voting in a historic referendum to decide if the country should become independent from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Earlier this week, the ‘Yes’ campaign took the lead in the polls for the first time in a year. Over fifty independence polls have been conducted this year, and the latest YouGov poll for the Sunday Times was the first to show a plurality of Scots supporting independence, with 47% Yes, 45% No and 6% undecided.
While this poll could well be an outlier, it follows a trend of a number of polls shifting towards Yes since the second debate between Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, representing the Yes campaign, and former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, chair of the Better Together campaign.
This has included two polls showing No with a 48-42 lead, and another with No on a 48-44 lead, as well as another poll that had No ahead by one point, but with 23% of voters undecided. Neither side has polled a majority since mid-August.
All of this suggests that the referendum is still up in the air, with enough undecided voters to swing the result either way. No is still the likely winner, and has been ahead most of the time, but recent trends indicate a shift of support towards Yes, which could see Yes win if the trend continues.
What makes this referendum particularly difficult to predict is the lack of precedents in Scotland. Pollsters normally rely on previous voting trends to weight their electorate, but there has never been a similar referendum in Scotland before.
In addition, the electorate is made up of a different composition to Westminster elections, with all British, Commonwealth and EU citizens resident in Scotland eligible to vote, including anyone over the age of 16. Turnout is expected to be extremely high. The Electoral Commission is predicting turnout about 80%, compared to 50% at the last Scottish parliamentary election.
Because of this volatility, we have no idea if the polling is skewed one way or the other, and don’t have any yardstick to judge what would be expected to happen over the course of the next week. Most history of referendums suggests that support for the status quo increases as you approach election day, but the history of Quebec independence referendums in the 1990s (probably the closest parallel) suggested that the independence campaign gained ground near the end. If the current polling is correct, a spike in support for Yes in the next week would be enough for victory.
The campaign has covered a broad variety of issues, but has focused on a few key points. Two debates have been held between Salmond, the leader of the SNP government in Scotland, and Darling, a Labour politician and former senior minister in the Blair and Brown governments who is leading the No campaign.
In particular, there has been a big argument around what currency would be used by an independent Scotland. The Yes campaign insists that they are entitled to use the pound, and feel confident about securing a currency union which would ensure that both the UK and Scotland would have control over the currency. While the No campaign (including the UK government) accept that Scotland is free to use any currency it wishes, they insist that in the case of independence, the control of the currency would remain solely in the hands of the UK.
During the independence campaign, all three of the main UK political parties (Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats) have proposed various plans to expand the powers of the Scottish Parliament in the event of a ‘no’ vote. Initially the SNP sought to include a third option on the ballot – “Devolution-Max”, which would give the Scottish Parliament powers over taxation and welfare. This was blocked by the UK government, but it seems clear now that more powers will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, even if the referendum fails.
This week, George Osborne suggested that plans for more powers to the Scottish Parliament in the case of a ‘no’ vote will be revealed before the referendum, with the support of the three UK major parties.
If the referendum passes, it will cause huge constitutional headaches for the UK. An election for the UK Parliament is due in May 2015. Negotiations for independence are expected to take two years, so Scotland will still be electing 59 MPs at an election in 2015, whilst being aware that those MPs will cease to sit in Parliament upon independence. This could cause particular problems if Labour wins a narrow majority, as Labour would have a majority in the Parliament as it exists, but would lose approximately 40 seats upon Scottish independence, which could result in the government falling and an early election being necessitated.
There have been regular claims that the removal of Scotland from UK elections would make it impossible for Labour to form government, but this simply isn’t true. In recent decades, there have been two slim Labour majority parliaments that would have been hung parliaments without Scottish MPs, and the current Parliament would have been majority Conservative without Scotland. But Labour won three terms from 1997 to 2010 with large enough majorities that they didn’t rely on Scottish seats, and it could happen again. It’s certainly true that in a close election Labour would be worse off without Scotland, but there’s no reason to think that Scottish independence will lead to permanent Tory government.
Either way, this referendum will have significant impacts on the United Kingdom’s constitution.
If Scotland votes for independence, there will be a complicated process of negotiation as Scotland is untangled from the nations it has been united with since 1707. While the current government plans to keep the monarchy in an independent Scotland (similar to the monarchy’s role in Australia, Canada and New Zealand), who knows if nascent republican tendencies will emerge as an independent Scotland
If Scotland votes ‘no’, we will still see a Scottish Parliament with additional powers devolved from Westminster. This will worsen the current contradiction where Scottish MPs at Westminster have the right to vote on issues which do not effect Scots (a similar contradiction exists to a lesser extent for MPs from Wales and Northern Ireland), as those powers devolved to Scotland remain held at Westminster for most of England.
Shortly after the creation of devolved assemblies for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London in 1999-2000, the Labour government attempted to create elected assemblies for the regions of England, beginning with North-East England in 2004. The plan was dropped after voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum to create a North-East England Assembly. The pressure for a federal United Kingdom, with powers devolved evenly across the union, will continue to grow.