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.


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