Q&A: Scottish independence referendum

By Andrew Black
Political reporter, BBC Scotland


Next autumn, the people of Scotland will vote on whether the nation should become an independent country.

The deal to hold the referendum has been done and the date has been set - now it's up to the campaigners to put their case.

When is the referendum happening?

After much teasing - Scottish First Minister and Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond named the day as Thursday, 18 September, 2014.

Why this date? Practical matters like October holidays, the UK party conference season and Scotland's famed wintry weather were all potential obstacles.

Incidentally, 2014 also happens to be the year two prestigious sporting events - the Ryder Cup golf tournament and the Commonwealth Games - are being held in Scotland.

And for the more romantically-minded, next year is also the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, which saw the English army defeated by the forces of King of Scots Robert the Bruce, during the wars of independence.

Who gets to vote?

Essentially, everyone over the age of 16 who lives in Scotland.

The voter "franchise", as it's known, is largely the same as for a Scottish Parliament and council elections, with the addition of lowering the voting age from 18.

That means the 800,000 Scots who live in other parts of the UK don't get a vote, while the 400,000 people from elsewhere in Britain who live in Scotland do.

All the main players on both sides of the debate agree this is the fairest way to do things.

Eligibility to take part in the referendum also includes members of the armed services serving overseas who are registered to vote in Scotland.

What will be on the ballot paper?

Voters will be asked the yes/no question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

The Scottish government's original version of the question, "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?", was dropped after the Electoral Commission raised concerns it could lead people into voting "yes".

Past incarnations of the referendum question have proved far more wordy.

The SNP previously said people could be asked to vote "Yes I agree" or "No I disagree" to the statement: "The Scottish Parliament should negotiate a new settlement with the British government, based on the proposals set out in the white paper, so that Scotland becomes a sovereign and independent state."

Who is in charge of the referendum?

MSPs have approved the terms of the vote in the SNP government's Scottish Independence Referendum Bill.

This followed the signing of what became known as the Edinburgh Agreement, by Mr Salmond and UK Prime Minister David Cameron - a measure to ensure the referendum could be "made in Scotland" and held on a fully legal basis.

There is no turnout requirement for this referendum - that means a "Yes" vote of "50% plus one" would be enough to gain independence.

The Scottish government says the bill will make sure that:

  • The referendum itself is preceded by a 16-week formal campaign period, during which limits will apply to the amount of money registered campaigners can spend, to ensure a level playing field for both sides of the debate.
  • The vote is overseen by the independent Electoral Commission watchdog, which is responsible for regulating campaign rules and informing the public about the referendum.
  • The ballot is conducted under the direction of a "chief counting officer", who will be responsible for appointing local counting officers.

The UK government agreed to give temporary powers to the Scottish Parliament to hold a legal referendum, under Section 30 of the 1998 Scotland Act - the piece of legislation which set up the Scottish Parliament.

This is because constitutional matters are reserved to Westminster.

The Edinburgh Agreement also commits both governments to working together constructively in the best interests of the people of Scotland, whatever the outcome of the referendum - possibly easier said than done.

The SNP's parliamentary majority at Holyrood will ensure the bill is passed.

Who will be campaigning?

Yes Scotland is the official campaign for independence, while Better Together is the group arguing to keep the Union.

Various political parties have given their support to the two campaigns, depending on their constitutional persuasion, although they are also running their own campaigns, as are the Scottish and UK governments.

The Scottish Greens also back independence, as does independent MSP Margo MacDonald, while Labour, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are opposed.

It's likely that other campaign groups will spring up as the campaign goes on.

How far back does Scotland's modern independence movement go?

The campaign for Scottish home rule began in earnest almost as soon as the unification with England took place, in 1707.

At the time, the view was that Scotland was desperate for cash, but opponents of the move were outraged by claims that the Scots who put their names to the Act of Union were bribed.

The episode moved Scotland's Bard, Robert Burns, to write: "We are bought and sold for English gold. Such a parcel of rogues in a nation."

Fast forward many years to 1934, and the establishment of the Scottish National Party, created through the amalgamation of the Scottish Party and the National Party of Scotland.

After decades of ups and downs, the nationalists won their first election in 2007, forming a minority government, before becoming the first party to win an overall majority at Holyrood in the 2011 poll - securing a mandate for an independence referendum.

Has devolution helped the independence campaign?

The creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 presented a significant opportunity for the SNP, which at the time had a handful of MPs who were struggling to make the case for independence at Westminster.

The prime minister who delivered devolution, Tony Blair, was aware of the potential opportunity a Scottish Parliament could give the SNP.

So, the Scottish Parliament's part first-past-the-post, part PR voting system was intended to prevent any one party (ie the SNP) gaining an overall majority.

This was the case initially - up to the 2011 election there had been two terms of a Labour/Lib Dem coalition and one of an SNP minority government.

The 2011 result blew out of the water the claim once made by Labour veteran Lord Robertson that devolution would "kill nationalism stone dead".

Could the situation now be more akin to comments by another Labour stalwart, Tam Dalyell, who described devolution as "a motorway to independence with no U-turns and no exits?"

Does Scotland want independence?

Hard to say with any great certainty at the moment.

There is no shortage of polling data on the issue of independence, putting support at various levels.

Polling expert John Curtice says the British Social Attitudes survey is the only exercise of its kind which has asked the same question about constitutional preferences going back to the foundation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

He says support for independence has tended to oscillate between about a quarter and a third, with an instalment of the survey published in January, suggesting the figure was at its lowest level since the creation of the Holyrood parliament in 1999.

A total of 23% of the 1,229 people questioned between July and November last year said they favoured the proposition that, "Scotland should become independent, separate from the rest of the UK".

In response, the SNP say the period of time in which the field work was carried out has been overtaken by events.

Prof Curtice, co-author of the survey, also warns: "In truth, there isn't any clear evidence that either one side or the other, over the whole period of devolution, has made significant progress either in reducing support for independence or succeeding in increasing it."

Another factor is the number of people who vote SNP, but are not necessarily convinced that independence is the way to go.

Prof Curtice adds: "The SNP undoubtedly has succeeded in providing Scotland with what people regard as effective government - but there isn't any clear evidence of any long-term increase in support for independence since 2007."

In the Scottish Parliament elections of 1999 and 2003, Labour's plan to essentially scare people out of support for independence worked.

Now it seems the public are much less afraid, and, whether or not it's the case that majority support for independence exists, seem much more willing to put it to the test in a referendum.

There are many other factors which could affect support for independence - the state of the economy for one thing, and of course every politician's worst nightmare - unforeseen events, or "unknown unknowns", as former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld once put it.

The SNP has an overall majority in Scotland - why does it not simply declare independence?

The SNP has always taken the view that, on an issue of such significance, it would first need the backing of the Scottish people in a referendum.

It also needs this mandate to negotiate an independence settlement with the UK government.

What happens in the event of a 'Yes' Vote?

Alex Salmond wants to declare "Independence Day" in March 2016, with the first elections to an independent parliament in May.

Before that happens though, a constitutional settlement would need to be agreed with the UK government, involving weighty issues which may take a long time to resolve.

Defence is one - especially since the SNP want rid of Britain's nuclear weapons, based at the Faslane naval base on the Clyde. (Although Scottish Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recently said Trident would remain temporarily at Faslane while an independent Scotland's Naval HQ was being established there.)

On the financial front, agreement in areas like Scotland's share of the national debt and its continued use of the pound - at least initially - would also be needed.

Even after independence is achieved there are other hurdles to clear - European Union and Nato membership to name but two.

What happens if there is a 'No' Vote? Would there be another referendum?

Alex Salmond has described the independence referendum as a once-in-a-generation event.

All the parties - unionist and pro-independence - are keen to avoid the situation which has unfolded in the Canadian province of Quebec, where debate over multiple independence referendums over the years has been dubbed the "neverendum".

A "No" result in the referendum could spell the end for the SNP as a mainstream political force.

It's also likely that focus would shift back to the debate over more powers for Holyrood - with full fiscal autonomy, as opposed to relying on the Treasury block grant, possibly becoming a more serious option.

The opposition parties are already working on offers along those lines, ahead of the referendum.

The Liberal Democrats are furthest down the road here with their dream of Scottish home rule and significant new financial and other powers devolved from Westminster.

A commission set up by Scottish Labour has suggested there is a "strong case" for Holyrood gaining full income tax powers.

The Conservatives - which previously opposed devolution itself - have had the most significant shift in thinking.

Their leader Ruth Davidson - who once said she wished to draw "a line in the sand" over new powers for Holyrood - has now supported increased financial responsibility for the Edinburgh parliament.