The Neverendum Story: Scotland could vote in another referendum soon

QvortrupThis is a guest post from Dr. Matt Qvortrup, author of Referendums and Ethnic Conflict, in response to yesterday's historic independence vote in Scotland. The Scots chose to stay a part of the United Kingdom for now, but, as Qvortrup points out, maybe not for long.

“I’ll be back”, said Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the Terminator movie. Unless there is meaningful change and a substantial new deal for Scotland, a sequel of the first referendum will be coming to a polling station near you. Why is that?

Well, first of all, a little bit about the Scottish referendum. The No-side won. Though not by much. 55 percent is not a landslide. After all, Better Together (those opposing independence) had a 22 percent lead when the campaign started. They very nearly squandered it.

And this is why another referendum may be necessary. For the narrow margin is a wake-up call to the chattering classes at Westminster. If Messrs. David Cameron (the Prime Minister) and opposition leader Ed Miliband don’t make good on their promises, we’ll get another referendum. And next time the result could be Yes.

The history of the last 100 years of independence referendums in democratic countries shows that a second referendum often takes place if the unionist politicians don’t deliver.

Here are a couple of examples, from my book Referendums and Ethnic Conflict. In 1956, the voters of Malta were promised that they would get the same standard of living if they stayed a part of Britain. Eight years later, nothing had happened. They grew tired of waiting. They held another referendum and became an independent country. 

The same thing nearly happened in Canada in 1980 and again in 1995. Back then, the citizens in the French-speaking province of Quebec were first promised a new deal if they voted No to independence. 60 percent did. Fifteen years later, they too grew tired of waiting. They held a second referendum. This was lost by the narrowest of margins. 49.9 percent voted for independence.

What will happen if we get a second referendum in Scotland in ten years time? The opinion polls suggest that the Yes-voters are male, young, and working class. The No-voters by contrast are middle-aged, middle-class, and tend to be female.

In ten years' time, many of the older folks will no longer be here. Time is on the side of those who favour independence. Next time, the younger voters will be in a majority. Younger citizens will in all likelihood secure a Yes-vote if there is a second referendum.

And, many people may have grown cynical and will be disappointed. To avoid this outcome—to avoid another referendum—Cameron must offer substantial change. He must give significant tax-raising powers to Scotland and allow Scotland to abolish the bedroom tax.

But this will be very difficult for the PM to deliver. Conservative politicians like Boris Johnson (the Mayor of London) have made it clear that they will not give more powers to Scotland. The Prime Minister will find it very hard to overcome opposition within his own party. Statesmanship is needed. But neither Miliband, nor Cameron, and still less Nick Clegg are strong leaders. It is questionable if they have the qualities needed to deliver the change they promised in the last week of campaigning.

In that case, we might be doing this all again, and soon.

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Called "a world authority on referendums" by the Financial Times, Matt Qvortrup is Senior Lecturer of Comparative Politics at the Center for International Security and Resilience at Cranfield University and Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Contemporary British History at King's College London. Referendums and Ethnic Conflict is available now.

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