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Expert Comment: Scottish Independence Referendum

BillJones_94_x_125 Wednesday 25 April 2012

Bill Jones, Adjunct Professor of Politics at Liverpool Hope University 

The initiative of David Cameron in suggesting his government might intervene to ensure clarity is achieved on the subject of an independence referendum, seems to me to be wholly political. Salmond, who won a huge majority in the 2011 elections for his SNP nationalist party, knows majority public opinion is currently against independence, but thinks it will swing that way by the second half of his four year parliamentary term. He hopes to hold it on the anniversary of the famous Scots victory over the English at Banockburn (24th June 1314). Is this a sensible political strategy? Well, opinion has swung markedly since 2007 from something like one quarter of Scots’ polled to a figure closer to 40%.

Salmond is one of the cleverest politicians in the United Kingdom, and, given his immense popularity, one cannot rule out the chance that he will succeed.  Indeed, one might interpret Cameron’s intervention as a sign that he is nervous, his stated aim not to preside over the break up of the Union is going to be frustrated. If the referendum is held earlier, according to the polls, it is more likely a negative judgement will be returned. Professor Robert Hazell, one of the leading experts on the constitution, says Cameron holds most of the legal cards. The Scotland Act of 2008, which established Holyrood, also makes clear that constitutional powers remain with London. The SNP cannot stage a binding referendum on independence without Westminster's imprimatur.

So Cameron has full legal authority to ‘stage manage’ a Scottish referendum, but where does the power advantage lie? My view is that it lies with Salmond and the SNP. Firstly, he has made clear from the start that he aims to pitch the poll in the second half of the parliament. Secondly, he may not be able to hold a ‘binding’ poll, but if he gets a majority for independence, using, crucially, his own wording, it will be very hard for London to deny its legitimacy. Speaking with the authority of ‘the Scottish nation’ Salmond would have an immensely compelling argument to knock down Cameron’s legal defences. Thirdly, by intervening, as he has, Cameron has both confessed his nervousness and given Salmond a potential stick with which to beat the Coalition government: that of resisting an attempt to ‘interfere’ in legitimately Scottish affairs. Cameron might win in court but lose in the ballot box. At the moment Salmond appear to hold all the key political cards.

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