Disaster averted?

J. Alan Smith reflects on the outcome of the recent referendum on Scottish independence

The title of this article, ‘Disaster averted?’, refers to the fact that the Scottish rejection of independence by ten percentage points has saved the UK from the tremendous problems that would have resulted from a decision to break away; the question mark recognizes the view that, in making a last-minute decision to devolve unspecified powers to the Scottish Parliament, the leaders of the parties behind the Better Together campaign may have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. This decision was undoubtedly prompted by the closeness of the opinion polls leading up to the referendum.

Possible explanations

What caused the discrepancy between the opinion polls and the actual result? Possible answers include: a last-minute swing to the ‘No’ vote; a fault in the methodology used by the pollsters; and a significant number of Scottish voters, intending to vote ‘No’, telling the pollsters that they would vote ‘Yes’. Feedback from canvassers for the Better Together campaign suggests that the last explanation is the most likely; some electors seemed reluctant to expression their opposition to independence until they accepted that the canvasser was a sympathizer.

Future decisions

I should like to suggest two basic principles for the conduct of future decisions on the possible secession of Scotland or any other part of the UK: it could, for example, be Cornwall or a unified Lancashire and Yorkshire. First, the decision to allow part of the UK to secede should be taken by Parliament and not solely by the inhabitants of that part of the UK under discussion. Secondly, secession should not be forced on a part of the UK against the wishes of its inhabitants: secession should be accepted in a referendum in the part concerned, requiring more than a simple majority.

Improving the process

Demand for secession of part of the UK would then proceed as follows. The process should start with a resolution by one or more elected bodies such as the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh or Northern Ireland Assemblies or one or more county councils that there should be a referendum to consider in principle a possible secession. The referendum, if passed by an appropriate majority by the inhabitants of the part of the UK concerned, would lead to an investigation into the practical details of the secession.

The resulting report would include detailed proposals on the constitution, finance, defence, and other major policy areas of a sovereign state; in many areas there would be options from which decisions would be required. The report would then be put to Parliament to pass an Act authorizing the secession if it so wished, making choices where necessary from among the options specified. Implementation of the Act would be dependent on the result of a second referendum among the inhabitants of the part of the UK concerned to agree to the secession in the light of the details disclosed by the investigation as accepted by Parliament.

Devolution of powers

Meanwhile we await with interest and a degree of trepidation the proposals for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. At the time of going to press, little is known of the details but, whatever extra powers are suggested for devolution to the Scottish Parliament, one thing is certain: the Scottish National Party will not consider them sufficient.

At the same time, the West Lothian Question has been revived with greater urgency. Basically this asks whether it is fair that, in areas of policy such as health that have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, whereas English MPs have no say in what happens in Scotland, Scottish MPs take part in deciding what happens in England. This is one of those problems that arise when solutions are devised to solve an immediate crisis without looking at the wider consequences.

Perhaps we should look again at the devolution of powers throughout the UK as a whole and consider the possible problems such as different rates of income tax and VAT on the two sides of the River Tweed. This may take time but we should remember the Carpenter’s Rule: ‘Measure twice and cut once.’


There was one particularly interesting factor about the recent Scottish Referendum. Just as the term ‘asymmetric war’ is used to describe conflicts such as those that occur from time to time between Hamas and Israel, the Scottish Referendum was asymmetric in nature. Whereas the ‘Yes’ campaign painted a glorious picture of an independent Scotland, the ‘No’ campaign concentrated on mundane questions such as the economy and the currency. It struck me that the ‘Yes’ campaign corresponded to Kipling’s ‘Gods of the Market Place’ whereas the ‘No’ campaign corresponded to his ‘Gods of the Copybook Headings’:

‘Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew,
‘And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
‘That All is not Gold that Glitters and Two and Two make Four —
‘And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.’

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