TOPIC GUIDE: STV/Debating Matters The Referendum Schools Debate: Referendum Question

"Should Scotland be an independent country?"

PUBLISHED: 17 Feb 2014

AUTHOR: Stephen Daisley

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In May 2011 the Scottish National Party (SNP) won a majority vote in the Scottish parliamentary elections [Ref: STV]. The vote gave First Minister Alex a mandate to hold a referendum on Scottish independence, a long-held manifesto pledge [Ref: SNP]. Three years earlier, the SNP had already formed a minority government in the Scottish Parliament as the then largest party, and Alex Salmond became the first nationalist politician to hold the post of First Minister [Ref: Guardian]. That same year also marked 300 years since the treaty of Union came into effect, merging the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England into Great Britain, later becoming the United Kingdom [Ref: Wikipedia]. These developments were the latest in the history of nationalism which, although there was opposition to the Treaty and some clamour for Home Rule in the 19th century, only-re-emerged as an organised political force in 1934 with the founding of the Scottish National Party. The party briefly secured its first Member of Parliament in 1945 but did not hold a seat again until Winnie Ewing’s historic victory in the 1967 Hamilton by-election, a political upset which gave Scottish nationalism its most prominent platform so far and prompted the Labour government of the day to establish a royal commission, the Kilbrandon Commission, to examine the case for constitutional change. The resulting report set the wheels in motion for the 1979 referendum on a devolved Scottish Assembly, a vote which returned a Yes result, but which did not meet the additional requirement that 40% of registered electors support the proposal. Scottish home rule receded temporarily from the political agenda during the ideological struggles of the 1980s, only to re-emerge in the 1990s with a second Referendum and the establishment of a Scottish Parliament by the then Labour Government.

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Democratic deficit and devolution
The Scottish Parliament, which reconvened on May 12th 1999 after almost three centuries, was hailed as a victory for Home Rule by supporters. In fact it was a solution to a political problem, the apparent ‘democratic deficit’ which, during the 1980s and 1990s, saw Conservative governments elected at Westminster despite Scots voting overwhelmingly for Labour.  Margaret Thatcher won three consecutive elections while presiding over the electoral decline of her party in Scotland. Her programme of government, a set of market-oriented policies dubbed ‘Thatcherism’ which upturned the post-war social democratic consensus, proved largely unpopular north of the Border. Labour won the 1997 general election, pledging to hold a referendum on a devolved Scottish Parliament [Ref: Labour], and the plebiscite later that year saw Scots cast a ‘Yes-Yes’ vote; Yes to a devolved legislature and Yes to it having tax-varying powers. The first elections to the new body were held on May 6th 1999 and saw the formation of a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, with Donald Dewar as the inaugural First Minister. Although the senior Labour politician George Robertson had famously proclaimed that “devolution will kill nationalism stone dead” [Ref: Guardian], Dewar took a more flexible view: “[T]he debate should not stop when the doors of the Scottish Parliament open. What we have done in Scotland may be a catalyst for further change” [Ref: Holyrood].

On 15 October 2013, David Cameron and Alex Salmond signed the Edinburgh Agreement, transferring the power to hold a referendum from the UK Government to its Scottish counterpart [Ref: UK Government]. The First Minister announced the referendum date of 18 September 2014 earlier this year [Ref:  BBC News]. While negotiations over the terms of the referendum were in Progress, Reform Scotland, a public policy institute or ‘think tank”, argued that voters should be allowed to choose between the status quo, full independence and a third option, popularly known as Devo Max, that would see the Scottish Parliament “become accountable for ‘raising the majority of its revenue” while the UK Government would provide “equalisation support” from UK-wide revenue [Ref: Devo Plus]. However, the Scottish Government, following consultation with the Electoral Commission, resolved that voters should simply be asked: “Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes/No” [Ref: STV]. For the first time in the UK, 16- and 17-year-olds would also be allowed to vote [Ref: Scottish Government]. Two campaigns emerged to argue for each side of the referendum debate. On 25 May 2012, Alex Salmond launched Yes Scotland, a cross-party campaign for a Yes vote in 2014 [Ref: STV]. The group would be headed by former television executive Blair Jenkins [Ref: BBC News]. It is seeking to secure one million signatures for its declaration [Ref: BBC News], the opening line of which summed up the rationale for independence: “It is fundamentally better for all of us if decisions about Scotland’s future are taken by the people who care most about Scotland - that is by the people of Scotland” [Ref: Yes Scotland]. The launch of Yes Scotland was followed one month later by the unveiling of the campaign for a No vote, Better Together [Ref: STV]. In a speech on 25 June, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, chair of the new organisation, maintained that the Union offered “the best of both worlds: a strong Scottish Parliament and a key role in a strong and secure United Kingdom” [Ref: Better Together]. Like Yes Scotland, Better Together has also brought together a range of parties and civil society actors to make its case to the voters, and both campaigns have since rolled out sectional sub-groups such as Yes LGBT [Ref: Yes LGBT] and LGBT Together [Ref: LGBT Together].

What’s at stake?
Thus far in the referendum debate, policy issues have dominated in much the same way as a general election, with politicians on both sides claiming their preferred constitutional arrangements would make the country more prosperous, more secure, and more socially just [Ref: Scottish Government and Scotsman]. Practical considerations have also played a central role. These include, but are not limited to: the currency of an independent Scotland; membership of NATO; nuclear weapons and power; membership of the EU; the position of Queen Elizabeth II; border controls between the Scotland and the rest of the UK and between Scotland and the EU and the rest of the world; and pension provision. There has also been widespread speculation on both sides about the future of an independent Scottish economy, the extent of oil reserves in the North Sea and continental shelf, inward investment and host of other factors. However persuasive these visions may be, they remain, as with all predictions about the future, speculation rather than fact.

The White Paper
The Scottish Government has published a White Paper, Scotland’s Future, outlining its vision for an independent Scotland [Ref: Scottish Government]. The blueprint sets out post-independence policies on key areas such as education, health, defence, foreign affairs and currency. Headline proposals include free-at-the-point-of-use childcare for under-fours, an inflation-linked minimum wage, and a triple lock on the state pension, meaning it would rise by inflation, earnings or 2.5%. An independent Scotland, the document argues, would remove the Trident nuclear defence system from its shores, seek membership of the European Union and Nato, and set up a Scottish defence force of 15,000 regular and 5000 reserve personnel. There would be corporation tax cuts, help for businesses and the abolition of air passenger duty. In the foreword to the White Paper, First Minister Alex Salmond writes: “Scots have been at the forefront of the great moral, political and economic debates of our times as humanity has searched for progress in the modern age. It is in that spirit of progress that you will be asked on 18 September 2014.” However, the pro-Union campaign dismissed the White Paper as a “work of fiction” and “a wish-list of promises without any answers”. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling said: “It is a fantasy to say we can leave the UK but still keep all the benefits of UK membership.” He urged Scots to vote No, saying: “We can have the best of both worlds – a strong Scottish Parliament with the strength and opportunity of being part of a bigger United Kingdom”. It should be remembered that the White Paper represents the position of the Scottish Government, which is run by the SNP. Other figures and organisations within the broader Yes campaign have their own views on currency, Nato membership and tax cuts. The next section considers the different ideological strands within the pro-independence and pro-Union movements.

Different visions
Neither side of the debate can be easily categorised into a collective set of viewpoints. The Yes campaign, although commonly associated with the SNP, also includes the Scottish Greens, the Scottish Socialist Party and other civil society groups. Although Yes Scotland does not advocate post-independence policy prescriptions, the wider Yes movement continues to debate what kind of country Scotland should be in the event of a Yes vote. Better Together is a cross-party group and contains a wide range of voices, from the federalist Liberal Democrats [Ref: Liberal Democrats] to Labour [Ref: STV] and the Conservatives [Ref: STV], who have floated the possibility of further devolution within the existing constitutional framework.  The No campaign has, however, rejected the involvement of UKIP, which argues that the independence of the UK from the European Union is the chief political priority [Ref: Daily Record].  It too has no post referendum policy options, preferring to promote the virtues of the status quo. However other groups have taken the opportunity to float alternative visions of the future. The Common Weal project, an initiative of the left-wing Jimmy Reid Foundation, argues that independence presents an opportunity for “the economic and social transformation of Scotland” through wealth redistribution, social inclusion and democratic decision-making “[Ref: Common Weal Project]. On the other end of the Yes spectrum is Business for Scotland, which envisages an independent Scotland as one in which “business and economic policies will be tailored to improving productivity and growth, within the distinct Scottish business and economic landscape” [Ref: Business for Scotland]. Commentators have challenged the assumption that Scotland’s ideological character is fundamentally different to that of England [Ref: Spectator], while academics have asserted that “the differences are modest at best” and that both countries have “become less – not more – social democratic since the start of devolution” [Ref: Nuffield Foundation].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Why Scotland should embrace independence

Pat Kane Channel 4 News 17 September 2013

Building a Better Nation

Nicola Sturgeon Scottish Government 3 December 2012

Voting yes will create a new Scotland

Alex Salmond Guardian 16 October 2012

Independence is having no one else to blame

Fintan O’Toole The Times 5 June 2012


Scotland’s Future: Your guide to an independent Scotland

Scottish Government 26 November 2013

The devolution journey

Henry McLeish Holyrood 18 June 2013


Scottish Government


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.

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