Analysis: The Scottish independence referendum is one of the strangest polls ever

This referendum is one of the oddest of them all
This referendum is one of the oddest of them all

By Edward McMillan-Scott

Watching in Edinburgh the closing stages of the campaign for the referendum on Scottish independence it struck me as the strangest electoral process I have witnessed since Britain's In/Out of Europe poll in 1975. As the founder of the EU's £150 million Democracy & Human Rights programme, which finances all its election observation missions worldwide, I have seen polls in Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Palestine, Russia and many others.

A referendum is not strictly between parties, but between propositions. However in Scotland, the lines are blurred. Independence has been the SNP's raison d'etre, but its primary political enemy is Scottish Labour. For its part Labour, until shortly before the referendum, tried to carve a narrative distinct from the agreed 'Better Together' slogan, using for example 'united together'. When the 'No' campaign organised each of its supporting parties' street stalls in Edinburgh, Labour did not conform to the agreement.

Among the many Scots I spoke to, the Yes supporters were more emotional, and their disgust was focused on David Cameron as an arrogant Tory. There seemed to be a widespread recognition that the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement to the referendum with Alex Salmond was based on the assumption that Cameron assumed Scotland would vote 'No'.


While both Labour and Liberal Democrats supporters from other parts of the UK have been helping the 'No' campaign, non-voting Conservatives (apart from Cameron himself) have been invisible. Indeed, as EU observers have been noting, the more extreme eurosceptic Conservative noises off from Westminster have been anticipating – in the event of a 'Yes' win - the end of Cameron, a caretaker leader until the May 2015 general election and a Labour victory. This would avoid Cameron's promised 2017 EU referendum, which they fear he would win.

The lack of any fundamental examination by the London establishment of the implications of Scottish independence bears out the tactical assumption that it could not happen. Understandably, the SNP-led Edinburgh government not only published a fairly comprehensive White Paper, its hymn-sheet for the campaign, but also examined in some detail its future relationship with the EU. However, the assumption even that Scotland will keep its oil was challenged by Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem MP who represents Shetland: "It's Shetland's oil" said the Scottish secretary, whom I met in Edinburgh yesterday.

Brussels, too, seems not to have taken the possibility of independence very seriously. Occasional imprecise interventions by the outgoing president of the EU Commission, Jose-Manuel Barroso, or his NATO counterpart Anders Fogh Rasmussen, seemed designed to be unhelpful to the cause of clarity.

In Edinburgh yesterday, I witnessed a consequence of this in a discussion between a leading 'No' campaigner and a middle-aged Scot worried about his pension. "I've paid into my pension for 30 years: are you telling me that if we go independent I cannot rely on it, or if I retire to Spain, it will not be paid to me there?" Everything awaits the result, then we can sort it out together, he was told.

Across the UK people recognise that nothing will be the same again: that the campaign has triggered a renewed interest in constitutional change in other parts of the EU. Nick Clegg added to his remarks last week about greater devolution within England – even the Economist countenanced last week greater powers for coherent regions like Yorkshire.

Edward McMillan-Scott (centre) campaigns in Edinburgh for a No with LibDem MPs Mike Crockart (Edinburgh West, left) and Alistair Carmichael (Orkney & Shetland)

And even if Scotland narrowly votes No, if the general election leads to a referendum which ends our EU membership, will Scots – much more pro-EU than the English – not demand a new referendum on this fundamentally changed relationship?

The dissonant lament by David Bowie 'Where are we now?' must be coming to many minds as Scots cast their vote as well as his plea 'Scotland, stay with us' – read by Kate Moss – when he won this year's Brit award.

Across the UK – and the EU – the Scottish referendum comes on top of a general upheaval against the status quo. Whatever happens next will need to begin to rebuild trust in politicians generally.

Edward McMillan-Scott was MEP for Yorkshire & Humber 1984 – 2014 (Conservative, then LibDem since 2010) and European Parliament Vice-President for Democracy & Human Rights

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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