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A Scottish Neverendum

10 March 2014

A Scottish Neverendum?

The referendum on Scotland’s independence is only six months away, and suddenly the cautious sparring between the Conservative-led coalition government in London and First Minister Alex Salmond’s pro-independence government in Edinburgh has turned into open war. London won the first battles, and the “No” side will probably win the referendum in September – but it is going to be a long war.

The opening shot was fired by Chancellor George Osborne in London, who declared that an independent Scotland could not negotiate a currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom. With only one-tenth of Britain’s population, Scotland is just too small to demand an equal say in how the pound is run. Besides, why would London want to keep the responsibility for Scotland’s huge and rather dodgy banking sector?

Alex Salmond responded by threatening to repudiate Scotland’s share of the national debt if London wouldn’t agree to a currency union, but the conclusion was obvious. Scotland could go on using the British pound if it wanted (like Panama and East Timor use the US dollar), but it could have no formal link.

Next was the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, who warned that it would be “difficult, if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to join the European Union. Other EU members that don’t want their own autonomous regions to secede (he meant Spain) would almost certainly block Scotland’s membership in order not to create a precedent.

Independence was looking more complex and expensive by the minute – and then Standard Life spoke up. The Edinburgh-based company is the largest pension provider in the United Kingdom, managing around $400 billion in assets and employing 5,000 people in Scotland.

Ninety percent of Standard Life’s four million UK customers do not live in Scotland, however, and it warned that it might have to leave if the Scots voted for independence. A poll subsequently revealed that 36 percent of Scottish firms would consider leaving following a “yes” vote.

It was a cold shower for the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the number of people planning to vote “yes” in the referendum dropped to 32 percent, while the “noes” remained unchanged at 57 percent. Lots of Scots would like independence if it doesn’t cost them anything, but they don’t want it badly enough to risk any major changes. Unless something changes quite dramatically, the final vote will be 60-40 or more against independence.

So what are the Scottish Nationalists really hoping to achieve? Originally Salmond planned to build support for independence through a long period of successful government within the UK, but the SNP’s landslide victory in 2011, in the depths of the recession, stoked unrealistic hopes among his militants and forced his hand. Nevertheless, he probably knew he was going to lose this one.

That’s how it worked in Quebec in the 1980 referendum, which the separatists lost 60-40. The idea of leaving Canada and striking out on their own frightened the French-speaking majority in Quebec too much at the time. But it did put the question on the table, and it never really went away again.

Salmond will know the history of Quebec separatism well, for it is the best analogy to his own situation. He will be aware that the second referendum, in 1995, came within a hair’s breadth of succeeding. And he will have noticed that the separatist Parti Quebecois is still around, is likely to win the provincial election due on 7 April – and will almost certainly call a third referendum in the next few years.

It’s what English-speaking Quebecers call the “neverendum”, but it actually does end eventually. You only have to win the referendum once. After 34 years of this, the “Rest of Canada” really doesn’t care any more, so there will be no pleas to Quebec to stay this time, no special offers to sweeten the Confederation.

The “Rest of the United Kingdom” is already there: the English, in particular, seem distinctly unmoved by the prospect of Scottish independence. This may be because Scotland has much less of the UK’s population than Quebec has of Canada’s (one-tenth vs. one-fifth), and because Scotland is at the far end of Britain whereas Quebec is in the middle of Canada. So maybe it will only take two referendums in Scotland.

They should pray that this is so, because the four-decade, three-referendum scenario is pretty grim. In Quebec, it caused the most spectacular case of “planning blight” in recent history. The perpetual uncertainty about Quebec’s political and economic future drove the corporate headquarters out (they moved to Toronto), and the immigrants and the investment went elsewhere. The population numbers in Canada’s two biggest provinces tell the story.

In 1980, the year of the first referendum, there were 6.5 million people in Quebec and 8.5 million in Ontario, and the ratio had been steady for most of the century. There are now 8.2 million people in Quebec – and 13.4 million in Ontario. Montreal had always been Canada’s biggest city, but Toronto is now more than 50 percent bigger.

Salmond must know that this is where he is taking Scotland.  He presumably thinks it is worth it.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 6. (“Alex…link”; and “Independence… vote”)

Separatist Dreams

28 November 2012

Separatist Dreams

By Gwynne Dyer

In other parts of the world, separatist movements are usually violent (e.g. Kashmir, Sri Lanka, the various Kurdish revolts) and they sometimes succeed (South Sudan, Eritrea, East Timor). Whereas in the prosperous, democratic countries of the West, they are generally peaceful, frivolous, and unsuccessful.

A case in point is the various separatist movements in the European Union. Scotland will be holding a vote on independence from Britain in 2014, and both Catalonia and the Basque country in Spain have just elected nationalist governments that promise to hold referendums on independence. But it will probably never happen.

The Scots, the Catalans and the Basques tend to see themselves as victims, but nobody else does. They are self-governing in most matters except defence and foreign affairs, they have their own budgets, and they maintain separate education systems and cultural institutions.

The Scots get more money back from the central government in London than they pay in taxes, while Catalonia and the Basque country (Euskara, in the Basque language), claim that they contribute more to Madrid than they receive. But the sums are relatively modest, and in any case it is not necessary to break up the country in order to renegotiate fiscal imbalances.

What really drives the separatism is emotion, which is why popular support for it is so soft. Rectifying the historic defeat of (insert name of centuries-old lost battle here) by declaring independence in the here-and-now has great emotional appeal, but most people put their economic interests first. Nationalist leaders therefore always promise that independence will change nothing important on the economic front.

The way they do this in both Scotland and the separatist regions of Spain is by insisting that membership in the European Union would pass automatically to the successor state. The opponents of secession, however, argue that there’s nothing automatic about it.

The arguments are not just directed at the home audience. Last month, when Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, agreed the terms for the 2014 referendum with the British government, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo promptly declared that an independent Scotland would NOT automatically be an EU member, and that any one of the 27 EU member states (like Spain, for example) could veto it.

“In the hypothetical case of independence,” he said, “Scotland would have to join the queue (for EU membership) and ask to be admitted, needing the unanimous approval of all member states to obtain the status of a candidate country.” The European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, also said in September that an independent Scotland would be seen as a new state and would have to apply to join.

This was furiously disputed by Alex Salmond, who knew that his chances of winning the 2014 referendum were nil if the Scots believed that they were voting to leave the EU. For months he insisted that he had sought the opinion of his government’s law officers, who had confirmed that Scotland would inherit EU membership automatically, and would not even have to adopt the euro. Alas, he was lying.

Late last month, it became known that Salmond had not actually asked for the law officers’ opinion at all. Now he has been forced by public opinion to pop the question – and he may not like the answer.

An even bigger defeat for Salmond came in his negotiations with British prime minister David Cameron, where he had to agree that the referendum would ask a simple yes-or-no question: in or out? This goes against the instincts of all separatist leaders, who prefer a fuzzy, feel-good question that doesn’t mention the frightening word “independence” at all.

The most famous formulation of this question was in the 1995 Quebec referendum on secession from Canada: “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?” Not exactly clear, is it?

That referendum was very close, but in 2000 the Canadian federal government passed a law generally known as the “Clarity Act”. It said that negotiations between the federal government and any province on secession should only follow “a clear expression of the will of the population of a province that the province cease to be part of Canada.”

This requirement would not be met, it added, if the referendum question “merely focuses on a mandate to negotiate without soliciting a direct expression of the will of the population of that province on (independence),” or if the question “envisages other possibilities…, such as economic or political arrangements with Canada, that obscure a direct expression of the will of the population on (secession).”

This law drastically reduces the likelihood that the separatists could win any future referendum in Quebec, and it’s obviously what David Cameron had in mind in his negotiations with Salmond on the Scottish referendum. As for Catalonia and Euskara, the national parliament in Madrid must approve of any referendum on separation, and the current Spanish government has made it abundantly clear that it has no intention of doing that.

So it’s mostly just hot air and hurt feelings, really.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“The Scots get…imbalances”; and “In the hypothetical…join”)

 

Scotland: Begging the Question

27 January 2012

Scotland: Begging the Question

By Gwynne Dyer

The answer to a question often depends on how you ask it, and Alex Salmond is doing all he can to get a “yes”. Scotland’s separatist First Minister wants independence for his country, which has been part of the United Kingdom for the past 300 years, and he has just revealed the question he wants to ask in the referendum he has promised: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”

It seems to be a simple question, but it’s psychologically loaded. A more neutral question would offer the Scottish voters two choices: “Scotland should become independent” or “Scotland should remain in the United Kingdom.” Tick one box. But if he did that, most of the voters would surely vote for the status quo.

People don’t usually choose to leap into the unknown unless they are brimming with self-confidence or living in intolerable misery. Neither applies to the Scots, so Salmond twists the question a bit: “Do you agree (with all the rest of us, implicitly, or at least with all sensible people) that Scotland should be an independent country?” People also don’t like to contradict the (implicit) majority, so putting it that way might win a few thousand extra “yes” votes.

In his heart, Salmond would probably prefer a more inflammatory question like “Do you want to seize Scotland’s independence back from the Sassenach (Saxon, i.e English) oppressors, or would you rather live as slaves?” That would delight the tartan super-patriots who are his core constituency, but it would alienate the moderate middle whose support he must gain to win the vote.

A more promising tack would be the one that the Quebec separatists in Canada took in their 1995 referendum: “Do you agree to the independence of Scotland if we promise that it won’t hurt a bit: the English will still be our friends, we’ll be richer than we are now, and we can even go on using the pound. In fact, you’ll hardly notice the difference, except that you’ll feel much better about yourself.” (I’m paraphrasing a bit here.)

The question in Quebec’s 1995 referendum was actually: “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?”

“Do you agree?” again: everybody knows that trick. “Sovereign”, a positive, vague word, not “independent”, an explicit word meaning irreversible change. (Salmond has missed a trick there.) And “the agreement signed on June 12, 1995”, which the average ill-informed voter would assume is some reassuring deal with the federal government, when actually it was just a joint statement by Quebec political parties.

The 1995 referendum in Quebec came close to yielding a majority for “yes”. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien responded by passing a “Clarity Act,” which stated that the question in any future referendum on secession must be accepted as clear by the federal House of Commons; that any question not referring solely to secession would be considered unclear; and that a simple majority of 50 percent of the votes plus one would not be enough to mandate such a large and irreversible change.

The Canadian “Clarity Act” has subsequently become the international standard for secession referendums. It is regularly cited in Spain, for example, as the standard that a Basque or Catalan referendum on independence would have to meet, and in Belgium with regard to Flemish or Walloon secession. It has similarly limited Alex Salmond’s freedom to shape the Scottish referendum question, which is why it is relatively clear.

Salmond still has two cards up his sleeve. One is a proposal to let 16- and 17-year-olds vote in the referendum, on the calculation that the younger they are, the likelier they will be to support radical change. (The normal voting age in the UK is 18.)

He is also still talking about adding a further option in the referendum for “maximum devolution” of power to the Scottish government, a halfway house that would leave the United Kingdom government responsible for little except defence and foreign affairs. But he will probably end up trading that for an agreement with London to postpone the referendum until late in 2014.

He needs to postpone it because Scottish independence would lose by a majority of almost two-to-one if the referendum were held today. But if Salmond has more than two years to pick quarrels with London that will incense Scottish nationalists, he might be able to change that.

Just two months before the independence referendum in Quebec, only one-third of Quebecers planned to vote “yes”. On the day, almost half did (49.5 percent). Even more than in normal politics, questions of national independence tend to be decided on emotional grounds – and once the question is on the table, it is there forever.

Quebec has held two referendums on independence, in 1980 and 1995. The voters rejected it both times, but the separatists are still waiting for a third opportunity. (English-speakers in Quebec call it the “neverendum”.) Must get a winner one day.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The question…parties”)

 

 

Scottish “Neverendum”?

13 May 2011

Scottish “Neverendum”?

By Gwynne Dyer

“I’d grown up with the assumption that Scotland was a poor, wee, deprived place that had never had a fair kick of the ball and could certainly never stand on its own two feet,” said Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), whose goal is an independent Scotland. He certainly doesn’t believe that now – and the SNP finally won a majority in the Scottish Parliament in the election on 5 May.

Salmond first formed a government four years ago, but that was a weak coalition in which the SNP had to bargain and compromise with the other parties. This time, with 69 out of 129 seats, Salmond doesn’t have to haggle. He can carry out his election promises, which include a referendum on Scottish independence.

If the voters said yes, that would be the end of the United Kingdom, the 300-year-old union of Scotland and England. Other things being equal, a majority of Scots might well vote for independence, but other things never are equal.

In the real world, many Scots are afraid that their small country, with only one-tenth of England’s population, would be too vulnerable to the financial and strategic storms that shake the world. Opinion polls consistently show that no more than a quarter to a third of Scottish voters would vote yes in an independence referendum. Yet they voted the SNP into power. Why?

The main reason is that the Liberal Democratic vote collapsed in Scotland in this election. Quite a lot of those Scottish Lib Dems gave their votes to the SNP instead, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they support independence.

Since Salmond has been canny enough to promise a referendum, they knew that they could vote yes to an SNP government, and then say no to independence. He delivered sound government in difficult circumstances over the past four years; why not give him another go?

The reality is that Salmond is unlikely to persuade the Scots to vote yes in his promised referendum, even if he postpones it until near the end of his term in the hope that he can cajole or manipulate more of them into backing independence. (The smart money is betting on 2015.) So there shouldn’t be any big changes in Scotland as a result of this election – and yet it may hurt the country a lot, in the end.

Scottish separatists hate the analogy with Ireland, which they once held up as an example of how a small European country with few natural resources and a big but undercapitalised banking sector could do very well in the world. Now they just try to change the subject when Ireland comes up, but that’s not the worst thing that could happen to Scotland.

The real danger is what would happen to Scotland if the separatists lose the forthcoming referendum but keep on trying. That’s what happened in Quebec, where the separatists first came to the fore politically in the 1960s. They held and lost two referendums, in 1980 and 1995, but for half a century the prospect that there would eventually be a referendum (or yet another referendum) on separation from Canada was there every year.

“Planning blight” is what happens when the word gets out that they may be running a freeway through the neighbourhood, and property values and new investment collapse. Quebec had it on a province-wide scale for half a century. It’s impossible to calculate the financial cost directly, but the population numbers are a good indication of what happened.

For the first half of the 20th century, Quebec and Ontario, the two biggest Canadian provinces, had about the same population and grew at about the same rate. In 1960, Quebec was only slightly smaller than Ontario, with 5.2 million people compared to Ontario’s 6.2 million people. By 2010, Quebec had only grown to 7.8 million, while Ontario had 13 million people.

The contrast is equally dramatic for the big cities. Montreal, the metropolis of Quebec, had always been Canada’s biggest city. In 1960, Montreal had 2.2 million people, and Toronto, the capital of Ontario, had only 1.7 million. Now Toronto has 6 million people, while Montreal has only 3.8 million.

It’s as if Chicago had started growing fast in the 1960s, and was now half again as big as New York City. It was the planning blight of the ever-looming next referendum on independence – the “neverendum”, as English-speaking Quebecers sometimes call it – that did this to Quebec. The same thing could happen to Scotland.

Independence for Scotland would not necessarily be a financial and demographic disaster, but the permanent expectation of another independence referendum certainly would be.

The Scots are unlikely ever to vote yes for independence, because the world has become a much harsher place economically for small Western countries with declining traditional industries and big debts. (An independent Scotland would presumably inherit about at tenth of Britain’s national debt.)

Yet Salmond has now put an independence referendum firmly on the Scottish political agenda, and it is unlikely to go away again in the foreseeable future even if he loses this one. Neverendum.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 15. (“The main…independence”; “Scottish…Scotland”; and “The Scots…debt”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.