The Un-United Kingdom, Part II

by Aube Rey Lescure

It’s a full-on custody battle: who gets to keep the oil? The Queen? The pound? The debt? The diplomats? The submarine-launched ballistic missiles?

Crafting a referendum is no small task; it is a game of nerves, timing and presentation. When a nation’s unity at stake, even the smallest detail on the ballot can have a non-negligible effect.  Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and UK Prime Minister David Cameron are, as of today, still engaged in psychological warfare about how to best manipulate the Scottish electorate in their respective favors.

First and foremost is the question of what exactly would appear on the ballot of a Scottish referendum for independence. Wording matters, and it can have an immense impact on the outcome of the vote. Salmond and Cameron bitterly disagree on the formulation of the referendum, and their preferences can, at first, seem counterintuitive: Salmond wants the Scots to be able to choose amongst the three options of staying with the UK, “devo max” and independence. Cameron wants “devo max” scratched off the ballot, leaving the Scots with only the black-and-white choice of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to independence.

What is “devo max”, and why on earth would Cameron be against it if it can split the Scottish vote on independence and maintain UK unity? Upon closer inspection, devo max—maximum devolution—could actually be a much better alternative to independence for the Scots. Maximum devolution is somewhat of a dream middle-ground between remaining with the UK and complete independence: the Scots would get all the benefits of independence while getting rid of its inconveniences. Alex Salmond’s utopian North Sea oil and taxation scheme? Scotland would get it with devo max. David Cameron’s argument that Scotland can benefit from the UK’s defense industry and its diplomatic influence? Scotland would retain these anyways with devo max. Maximum devolution is essentially independence minus having to worry about defense and foreign affairs. It’s easy to see why Westminster isn’t too enthralled by the idea—Scotland would be like an estranged wife living on her own but still freely feeding off the joint bank account.

There is also a subtler psychological dimension to Cameron’s urge for a yes-or-no vote.  With the option of “devo max” on the ballot, a lot of Scots might choose to settle for this attractive middle-ground. Alternatively, a lot of excited young nationalists and old kilt-wearing patriots and, for that matter, any other Scot, could well decide “the hell with it, I don’t get to create a new country everyday” and go along with independence simply for the historic gravity of it. It is the least likely that a majority of Scots, given three options, would choose to remain with the UK. To get rid of “devo max” and force the Scots into a “yes-no” dilemma is likely to swing the voters who find independence too radical and would have otherwise voted for “devo max” into voting “no.”

Cameron will have to prove a master strategist in order to manipulate the referendum in his interest. (Wikimedia Commons)

Cameron has, in the past week, also turned up the pressure on Salmond with respect to the timing of the referendum. Salmond had planned it for 2014, claiming that three years had to be allowed for the Scots to debate and settle all of the logistics of independence. Cameron is pushing for a much more imminent date—since 2012 seems improbable, he has his eyes set on 2013. This might also appear counterintuitive at first sight—why would Cameron want the Scots to potentially secede sooner rather than later? It is, again, a psychological tactic that aims to take advantage of the element of surprise. A certain portion of Scottish voters might currently have been caught off-guard by the referendum’s ascendance to international attention. They might still be insecure about how Scotland would fare once independent. However, give Salmond three more years to create an elaborate platform for how Scotland would operate once independent, and even the sturdiest unionists might be persuaded that independence is, after all, not that infeasible of a plan.

Next comes the problem of numbers: how many Scots does it take to validate the ‘yes’? This issue has, in fact, already been bitterly debated back in 1978, when the Scots held a referendum on devolution. At the time 52% of voters were in favor and 48% were against, but the overall voting turnout had only been 63.6%, meaning that only 32.9% of the overall population had effectively voted yes. Westminster had set a threshold of 40%, so the UK parliament did not recognize the referendum. In response to the popular outcry, it was argued that the 36.4% who did not vote had been warned that abstaining was the equivalent of voting “no.”  One thing UK unionists can take full advantage of, therefore, is the intricacy of numbers, preferably combined with efforts to force Salmond to hold the referendum as soon as possible. If Westminster sets the validation threshold to be 50%–or even 40%–and makes the Scots vote before Salmond finalizes a neat and beautiful master plan, then the SNP has a good chance of not seeing its numbers met. Nationalist exuberance may seem high right now due to an outspoken minority, but no one can be sure that the silent masses are ready to relinquish UK-related benefits. If, however, Westminster does not aptly manipulate the result threshold and referendum date, unionism in Scotland might diminish with each coming day.

Lastly, a pressing question lingers: can Scotland obtain its independence through a mere referendum? Isn’t it too easy? Just because Salmond and the SNP rode a wave of popularity into Holyrood, three hundred years of union will now come to an end?

It is true that a Scottish referendum by no means has any binding power on the English legislature. Westminster could have, upon first hearing about Salmond’s proposal, turned its head and sneered, declaring it a non-issue. Utter rigidity might have roused some growls but would have left the SNP with few more radical options to pursue. Instead, David Cameron shot himself in the foot by responding with concern and touring Scotland and holding rounds after rounds of negotiations. By making Westminster and 10 Downing St. so involved in the crafting of the referendum, Cameron essentially gives it a validity it could not have otherwise obtained. And yet, perhaps the move is wise—if Cameron succeeds in securing only the “yes-no” option, a referendum date of 2013 and a relatively high voting percentage threshold—he might see returns to his risk-taking and induce a referendum with a majority of “no”s. If that is the case, then we won’t hear about Scottish independence for a long, long time.

Aube Rey Lescure ’15 is in Davenport College.  She is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on E.U. affairs.  Contact her at