Speculation on the prospects for a referendum in the next parliament

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by Kevin Williamson

After the dust has settled on the Holyrood elections the prospects for a referendum on Scottish Independence will become a lot clearer.  Our elusive referendum is still the Rubicon that needs to be crossed before statehood can become a reality.  But will it happen during the next Parliament?

Let’s be clear about one thing.  The election of a Labour-led administration on 5th May would pole-axe any thoughts of a referendum and would be a disaster for Scotland. It would mean the one ace up our sleeve, the one thing capable of putting the frighteners on the London government’s plans to wreck our public services, ignore the democratic deficit, and steal our oil revenues (currently around £13.4bn per annum), would be removed from the political agenda for the next five years.  Namely, the spectre of Independence.

A Labour-led administration at Holyrood would accommodate themselves to power, as they always do, and dance to whatever tune London plays.

They would keep their heads down until the English cavalry come riding over the horizon to their supposed rescue.  Scotland, meanwhile, would be left virtually defenceless.  It’s an auld song and one that jaups in luggies. We heard a similar stuck record for eighteen painful years between 1979 and 1997.

After 5th May a Labour-led administration – minority, coalition or otherwise – is one of a number of possibilities.  Another is a Waiting For Godot scenario; a repetition of the last four years where a minority SNP administration retains power but can’t muster the votes to pass a straightforward Yes-or-No Referendum Bill.

On the surface this seems likes going back to square one.  Much hoo-ha, some sharp exchanges in the debating chamber, but the Referendum Bill is abandoned, again, and a minority SNP administration blames the Unionists, again, for blocking it.

However, this isn’t 2007 and unlike Beckett’s celebrated play Scottish politics doesn’t operate in a self-contained vacuum.   There are other factors coming into play which could affect the passage of such a Bill.

The wild card in British politics are the Lib Dems.  They hold the key to what happens next at Westminster.  They’re the weakest link in the UK coalition’s tenuous grip on power.  Events in Scotland could yet spring a nasty surprise on Cameron, Clegg and the London chattering classes.

Wick is about as far from London as you can get in mainland Britain.  It’s unlikely that Messrs Cameron and Osbourne paid much attention, if any, to the election of an SNP councillor in the far north of Scotland.  More fool them. The Lib Dems were cuffed with a 17.8% swing from them to the SNP.

I lived in Caithness for the first eighteen years of my life, worked at Dounreay for over a year, have family and friends there, and I think I understand the Caithness people a lot better than our aristocratic friends in London.  If Caithness is turning against the Lib Dems, in what has been a traditional stronghold for them, then they are in deep trouble.

The Holyrood elections could be a watershed moment in British politics.  Both coalition partners in London could get decimated.  The Lib Dems in particular face a wave of popular revulsion for propping up the minority Cameron regime and could be on the receiving end of the sort of electoral pummelling traditionally reserved in Scotland for the Tories. If panic sets in at LibDem HQ, the reverberations of this could be felt far to the south of the Berwick-Carlisle fault line.

Recent opinion polls suggest that both the Scottish Greens and the SNP are poised to benefit from the anticipated collapse in support for the Lib Dems.  In itself this would, of course, be a welcome development.

But there could be another dimension to this.  The remaining rump of Scottish Lib Dems – if reduced to as few as six or seven MSPs, as predicted in some polls – would find themselves going through a period of serious soul-searching, and looking for ways to differentiate themselves in Scotland from the damage caused by Clegg’s pact with the devil.  Already one senior Lib Dem, John Farquhar Munro, has endorsed Alex Salmond for First Minister over Iain Gray.  For someone to publicly endorse the leader of an opponent’s party is rare in the run-up to any election!

Could this suggest that Lib Dem votes on a referendum may not be as rigidly set as they were in the last Scottish Parliament? And could even be up for negotiation?  After all, to move from an anti-referendum position to a pro-democracy stance is a much shorter step to make than a leap over to pro-Independence.  Ask George Galloway. And if we’ve learned anything from the last twelve months it’s that the Lib Dems don’t adhere to fixed political principles.  Deals can be done.

The election of 65+ MSPs who would support a Referendum Bill is the electoral holy grail for most Independistas as its a necessary step to prepare the ground for self-government.  A recent YouGov poll (published on 31st March) predicted 48 SNP and 6 Greens MSPs.  Add Margo MacDonald into the mix and this translates to 55 Independence-minded or referendum-minded MSPs in the next Parliament.

It would need a further ten-seat swing to guarantee a Referendum Bill’s passage through Parliament. Such a big swing does not seem the most likely scenario at this stage.  Yet only a month ago the re-election of a minority SNP government seemed beyond the bounds of what was possible.

This election still has another three full weeks to run and as the 5th May draws ever closer, and as the inadequacies of Iain Gray in particular are put in the spotlight, a further swing towards the SNP cannot be ruled out.  The momentum seems to be with Alex Salmond and the SNP and sometimes momentum can take on a life of its own.

The SNP were dealt a pair of aces when Cameron and Clegg took over at Number Ten.  Before that it looked like they were struggling, unsure of their footing and the grounds they were going to fight this election on.  Now the anti-London factor is working for them.

There are so many Undecideds, and so little life in the Labour campaign, that we shouldn’t rule out an emphatic SNP victory.  Or even, dare I say it, an SNP/Greens/Margo majority.  Of course this is crazy talk. But it WILL happen one day and political volatility is the new reality of the current situation. When it does happen it could come like a bolt out of the blue.

Before the white van is sent round to Chez Williamson a note of caution should be inserted at this point.  Despite making big progress since the 2008 global banking crisis the SNP are by no means home and dry for a second term.  Unlike their Tory and Lib Dem friends the Labour vote is still holding up.  William Hill and Ladbrokes, who have more to lose than Gallup or YouGov, don’t often get it wrong.  At the start of this week Labour were 4/7 on and the SNP, although their odds have shortened over the last few weeks, are still 7/4 outsiders to form the next Scottish government.

Regardless of who forms the next administration it’s a reasonable bet that the total number of SNP, Greens, Indies plus Lib Dems will near or pass the all-important 65+ mark.  This could be important in the months and years ahead if support for Independence swells.

With the Lib Dems reduced to a small demoralised band of MSPs, desperate to save their Scottish party from further annihilation, then what emerges after 5th May could be interesting.  The UK backdrop will be significantly different this time around which is a factor that has been largely ignored in the mainstream media. As the Barnett Formula is adjusted against Scotland’s interests, and further damaging cuts are imposed on our essential public services, tangible anger will be in the air over the next few years, both inside and outside Holyrood.

Who would bet against support for Independence taking a big surge forward in those circumstances?

To summarise: the prospects for the incoming Scottish administration, irrespective of who runs it, do not look good.  Unpopular cuts in spending will be imposed on them by London.  Calman Lite will only exacerbate this.  Winning this election could well be a poisoned chalice for either the SNP or Labour.  But conversely the same bleak background may help the chances of an Independence Referendum Bill being passed at Holyrood.

After that its anyone’s guess.  Every dirty trick in the book might be unleashed to annul the referendum on a technicality, dilute its scope, or undermine its objectives.  But once the genie is out of the bottle who knows.  These are difficult but unpredictable times.  Nothing is impossible.

Kevin Williamson is Co-Editor of Bella Caledonia and Secretary of the Scottish Independence Convention

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