What Wales Should Do When Scotland Votes No

Part I – Why Scotland Will (probably) Vote No (if it votes at all)

If you speak to people in the Welsh independence movement, you quickly come across a widely-held assumption that independence for Wales will follow naturally from Scottish independence. Probe further, and you find the same people take the imminence of Scottish independence for granted: the country is dominated by the SNP at every level, the SNP want a referendum and expect to win it… what could be more natural?

I don’t buy this, for all sorts of reasons which I’ll set out here. But it’s important that we talk about this, because if (as I think is going to happen), Scotland votes “No” to independence for the second time in ten years, then Scottish independence will be off the agenda for at least a generation. In Wales we need to be prepared for this, and ensure that the Welsh independence campaign keeps focused and presses on.

I’m not a betting man, but for years I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen that Wales will be independent before Scotland. I still think that’s true.

The background

As my colleague Sian Caiach has written elsewhere, the assumption that Scotland is much further along than Wales in its quest towards independence really isn’t accurate. It is true that Scotland, having existed as an independent State prior to the Act of Union in 1707, already had more of its own institutions in place prior to Devolution; and this may explain why the earlier Devolution proposals of 1979 had much wider support in Scotland than in Wales. Yet we forget that throughout the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, Plaid Cymru consistently won higher levels of support in Wales than the SNP did in Scotland.

The two countries’ trajectories only really diverged in 2007, a time when Labour’s support was waning following ten years of rule in Westminster and they failed to win majorities in either the Scottish or Welsh parliaments. The SNP – led by Alex Salmond at the time – pulled off a stroke of strategic genius by accepting the support of the Conservatives to form a minority government, bringing Labour’s monopoly on power to an abrupt end. Plaid Cymru could have done the same thing in Wales, but shunned the opportunity and chose instead to prop up a minority Labour government.

Support for Scottish independence, 1999-2016. Source BBC

At the time, polling data indicated that support for Scottish independence was around 24%. Even so, it had been in the SNP’s 2007 manifesto that they wanted to hold an independence referendum in 2010. When the time came, they were unable to gain enough support from other parties in the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a referendum, so the idea was put on hold.

Nevertheless the SNP-led administration proved popular, constrained as it was by the need to form cross-party agreement to most of its decisions, and in the next election in 2011 the SNP surprised everyone by winning an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament with its total share of the vote rocketing from 31% in 2007 to 44% in 2011 – gaining voters in large numbers from every one of the other parties.

[In Wales at the same time, Plaid Cymru were rewarded for their support of Labour by a precipitous decline in their vote share, dropping below 20% and being leapfrogged by the Conservatives.]

Once again the SNP’s manifesto had included a commitment to hold an independence referendum, and this time no-one in Scotland could stop them from doing so. Likewise the Westminster government of David Cameron found themselves unable to refuse permission, such had been the magnitude of the SNP’s electoral triumph, and the vote went ahead on 18th September 2014.

The numbers

Interestingly, at the time of the 2011 election, polling support for Scottish independence hadn’t shifted much from 2007 – it still only stood at around 28% – and hadn’t shifted significantly above that level even by the beginning of 2014. Nevertheless it rose steeply during the campaign, and the final result of 44.7% in favour closely reflected the share of the vote that the SNP had won in the previous election.

While no doubt an achievement, that first referendum still failed on its own terms and Alex Salmond responded to this by resigning his post as SNP Leader and First Minister, handing over to his deputy Nicola Sturgeon. In the subsequent two Scottish Parliament elections (2016 and 2021), SNP support has remained at this level, with comfortably above 45% of the Constituency vote and 40% of the List vote each time.

Now the key point is this: in a multi-party system where a significant number of parliamentary seats are elected via the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system, 45% of the vote is enough to ensure total dominance – even Labour’s crushing landslide in the 1997 Westminster election was achieved with just 43%.

But it is still not enough to win a referendum.

The SNP’s progress in Westminster elections at the time was every bit as impressive.

The Sturgeon era

At this point your author is somewhat in awe of Alex Salmond. If his intent all along had been to take a small party that had been on the sidelines of Scottish politics for decades, and to turn it into a totally dominant force which was in a position to shape Scotland in its own image – and then to pass that party in rude health to his chosen successor – then he really couldn’t have done it better.

But two things have happened since he passed on the reins, which in my view have put the SNP firmly on the wrong track.

The first has been to fall foul of Robert Conquest’s “Second Law of Politics”, which states “Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing”. Through most of their history the SNP steered a fairly centrist path on economic and social issues, to the point where the Labour Party in Scotland liked to mock them as the “Tartan Tories”. Under Sturgeon’s leadership, however, the party seems to have taken a definite turn to the left. As soon as the Scottish Parliament gained the right to do so in 2017, income tax rates in Scotland were set higher than in the rest of the UK, and economic growth in Scotland lags behind that in the rest of the UK (though nowhere nearly as badly as is the case in Wales). Scottish school performance has fallen sharply according to the international PISA rankings (though once again, not as steeply as in Wales), and drug abuse has ballooned to the point where the country has the highest rate of drug-related deaths in Europe.

In part this shift may be due to a large number of former Labour Party members joining the SNP, recognising that it is now the dominant force in Scotland and that Labour are unlikely to recover. It would not be surprising if this were to lead to the SNP governing more along the lines that Labour might have done, with the inevitable negative consequences of that. But it may also be a function of Sturgeon’s own political instincts. In any case, it seems clear that many of the opportunities offered by Devolution to build up Scotland’s economy and social fabric are not being taken, and in some visible areas Scotland is falling behind the rest of the UK.

Though to give credit where it’s due, the performance of Scotland’s NHS seems to have kept pace with the rest of the UK, in contrast to Wales where, again, it has declined sharply.

The second factor is (almost inevitably) Brexit. While in the 2016 referendum both Wales and England voted decisively in favour of Brexit, in Scotland the picture was very different: 62% of voters voted to remain in the EU. Immediately the narrative developed that, on account of its being within the UK, Scotland was being forced to leave the EU against its will – and the obvious solution to this was for Scotland to become independent of the UK so that it could immediately rejoin the EU. The SNP, and Nicola Sturgeon in particular, have been quick to seize on this argument, but there are some major problems with it:

  • A lot of Scottish independence supporters also support Brexit. In fact, one survey showed that people who voted SNP in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election were more likely to be Brexit supporters than opponents of it; a desire for independence being the common theme. If Scottish independence were tied too closely to rejoining the EU, there is no guarantee that these voters would still support it.
  • Scotland trades vastly more with the rest of the UK than it does with the EU. It’s hard to make an economic argument to leave a customs union which takes 60% of your exports, just so that you can join one which takes less than 20%.
  • If Scotland joined the EU then the Scottish border would become the EU frontier, with customs controls over which Scotland would have no say. While the Scottish border is less frequently crossed and has much less population in its vicinity than the Welsh border, this could still cause major economic and social disruption.
  • Scotland could find joining the EU very difficult, in practice, in any case; other EU countries, in particular Spain, may be motivated to veto Scotland’s accession to the EU as an independent country lest it embolden independence movements within their own borders (such as, in Spain’s case, the Basque country and Catalonia).1

Taking these considerations together, it is far from being a foregone conclusion that a Scottish independence referendum can be won anytime soon. Polling figures seem to bear this out, with no significant shift in support for independence over the period since 2014 despite all that’s happened since then. Even so, the SNP have painted themselves into a corner, to the point where they are so committed to holding a second referendum that they can scarcely back down now.

Will the UK government save the day?

In view of the risks involved in having a referendum, the SNP may very well be secretly hoping that Westminster steps in and prevents one from going ahead. This would be a win-win from the SNP’s point of view: they’d be saved from the risk of calling a referendum and losing it, while simultaneously being able to play on the intransigence of Westminster as a further argument for independence in the medium term.

Westminster is also in the position of taking a high-stakes gamble: if they allow a referendum and lose it, then Scotland is gone; while if they disallow a referendum it will give the independence campaign a further boost.

Even so, with the noises that are being made at the time of writing by the contenders for the Conservative leadership, particularly Liz Truss, it may very well be that this is how things turn out.

But for now let’s suppose that one of these two things happens:

  • Westminster calls the SNP’s bluff, allows a referendum, and Scotland votes ‘no’ to independence for a second time in ten years. This would kill the Scottish independence movement for a generation, perhaps longer.
  • Westminster disallows a referendum, and Scotland is locked into the UK for the foreseeable future.

What then? For Scotland, and in particular Wales?

[See Part II]


1. There is also the question of whether Scotland could meet the economic criteria. This is subtle. There are claims made in various places that Scotland would need to cut its fiscal deficit from the current ~9% of GDP to below 3% before it could join. That’s not quite true. 3% is the threshold for joining the Euro currency area, and while all new entrants are required to sign up to joining the Euro currency area in principle unless they negotiate a specific exemption (like Denmark has for example), they are allowed a transition period of unspecified length. Hence it seems that all Scotland would really need to do would be to make a fairly vague commitment to getting its deficit down below 3% at some unspecified future time. It seems that there is no definite criterion for fiscal deficit on entering the EU, though Scotland’s current deficit would put it among the fiscally weakest countries in the EU, worse than Greece, Italy or Spain.

15 thoughts on “What Wales Should Do When Scotland Votes No

  1. Interesting article Stephen. Over recent years the SNP has shifted “leftwards” in a superficial way. What alarms me most is their drift into “ishoo” politics, the adherence to an extremist orthodoxy regarding Transgenderism, or more pertinently men dressing as women but doing little or nothing about their physical sexual characteristics. That’s a real drag ! In a similar vein the SNP has also embraced uncritically some of the elements of the green gospels without much regard for science and their flawed attachment to a version of net zero which requires a blast of pollution every so often to attain what amounts to a temporary net zero outcome. It is arguable that the canny Scots voters have concluded that putting the stroppy SNP into the driving seat at Holyrood and dominating Scottish representation at Westminster is a good way of maxing out on Wetsminster budgets. That does not in any way translate into a vote of confidence in the SNP leading Scotland into independence. I suspect the opposite will prevail until Scotland’s wealth base and political ideology is in safer hands.

    1. This won’t surprise you much, but you’re successfully anticipating some of the contents of tomorrow’s Part II!

      1. I’m not as thick as some would have you believe ! However I admire your capacity for well reasoned succinct analysis and presentation, something painfully absent in much of politics here in Wales and the wider U.K

  2. I like to think our recent email correspondences may have lent a little inspiration to this entry? 😉

    Westminster must be materially frightened of losing a referendum because common sense dictates if they really thought they’d have a crack at winning, they’d call it and throw everything at it to kill the issue stone dead for a lifetime.

    1. This Westminster regime doesn’t think like that. In order to appear “strong”, “united” etc etc it denounces any kind of opposition and just dismisses it with an array of insults and derogatory comments. Now a more cunning operator would just cut loose with a barrage of criticisms especially aimed at the plain daft attachment of SNP to the more extreme gender and climate/environment ideologies. This is what sits uncomfortably with the man and woman out in the country, essentially socially conservative just wanting to better themselves. The dependency would then come in behind that barrage to close the deal. Sadly the situation in Wales is not too different. We are probably ahead of Scotland in adopting some wet pseudo socialist policies and are following along willingly into the gender minefield. The bullshit about being a caring nation of sanctuary kind of sums up the posing virtue signaling that our politicians thrive on. Some of this nonsense seems to be thriving in London among Tories as well as Labour. They all seem to be drawn to any old nonsense that enables them to divert away from dealing with harsh realities.

      1. Since immigration is reserved to Westminster it’s a bit silly to try to be a nation of sanctuary isn’t it?

        1. Bit late responding on this matter but you are broadly correct. However the drips in the Bay bubble, and there are several buckets full, extend the caring, sanctuary hypocrisy in a direction which often damages our own communities which are already struggling. Fetching in dysfunctional units, families or individuals, from the large metropolitan authorities in England makes no sense whatsoever when those people are an almost instant drain on our underperforming, poorly funded education, social services and health systems.

          1. Don’t disregard the venal, grasping, self-serving instinct here. Am I right in the notion that palms are greased in these sordid little exchanges?

  3. Dear all, I happen to agree with yourselves, and glad that you’re not worried about calling – out the ‘3 g’s’:
    Green / Gender / Garbage that clogs up the serious political issues somewhat!
    I am pinning my hopes on Alex Salmond’s Alba Party to ‘save’ the Independence ‘deal’, much likened to Gwlad’s future role in Cymru’s push for the ‘Big I’ !

  4. I’m curious, why was Gwlad “Appalled” at AUOB having one of the Shinners speaking at their rally in Wrexham?

    1. In the still-not-all-that-distant past, they were the political wing of the IRA, openly supporting acts of terrorism; more recently, they’ve become a hard-left ‘progressive’ party of the sort that Plaid Cymru seems to want to emulate, but that moderate voters find repellent.

      Our concern is that associating the independence movement with this sort of thing may well energise part of the existing ‘base’, but will not widen its appeal; and widening the appeal is what these events are supposed to be about.

      1. Makes sense. Along the lines of what I assumed, at least the IRA connection bit anyway.

      2. 2 things – your timer on the comments suggests that responded to you before your comment was published. Spooky !

        As for Sinn Fein I have no axe to grind with them although their direction of travel suggests that the wokish trend is more successful at subverting SF than Brit intelligence ever was. However much of the “affection” that flows from some Plaid members and other Welsh “revolutionaries” is based on a romantic idealised view of their campaigns which is about as far removed from reality as anyone could ever wish for. If these people were called upon to engage in a campaign of violence here and now, they would disperse without trace back into the peacenik protest movement from which they came.

        1. There is I’m certain a bug in the comment timestamp code, I’ve spotted it and brought it up before.

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