A Case Against The Second Question

I’m English. I thought I was European until I spent a few years at an International College in Spain where I had classmates from all over Europe and where I learnt a lot about cultural differences. I thought I was British for a while but then I moved to Scotland and found that the histories and cultures of England and Scotland were so different that I had to conclude that I am, in fact, English.

Although I see myself as an English person, I think of Scotland as my home. I’ve lived here for about 3 years (longer than I’ve spent in England since I was 11 years old) and I spend Scottish banknotes, study at Scottish institutions and live with a Scottish man (he says ‘the noo’, and everything). Along with the many other English people in Scotland and Scottish people in England, I love the freedom that the Union brings and when it comes to the question of independence, I can go through the pros and cons, the economics, the logistics and the legalities all day long but in the end, for me, it boils down to this: I’m not ready to be an expat in the country that I see as home.

Following the launch of the Yes to Independence and the Better Together campaigns, there’s a lot of talk about the independence debate and about the vote itself; ‘should 16-18 year olds be allowed to vote?’, ‘Should Westminster allow a referendum at all?’ and, most interestingly to me, ‘should there be a second question?’

I hadn’t given an awful lot of thought to the issue of the The Second Question until I went to a fringe at the Scottish Liberal Democrat Spring Conference this year in Inverness. The discussion was about the alternatives to independence and I got very interested in the comparisons between The Scotland Act, Devo+ and independence, amongst others. I won’t go into these different options now but I found myself completely convinced that there must be a 3rd option in the referendum. I was determined that the Liberal Democrats must jump at this opportunity to campaign hard for a second question and not to let this chance for home rule fly by after so many years of fighting for it. As Nicola Prigg said when addressing the conference floor; with a two question ballot, “a vote against independence is a vote for the status quo” and, again, I was excited to join the campaign against a Yes/No ballot.

I completely changed my mind later that weekend and after reading Graeme Cowies’s criticism of Willie Rennie’s stance against The Second Question today, I thought I had better explain why.

Graeme’s post on The Libertine is an excellent argument against the status quo and is well worth a read for anybody who hasn’t yet understood the reasoning behind the appetite for change but it hasn’t convinced me that independence is the answer or, indeed, that having a second question is something we should support.

Firstly, those of us that are interested in politics are likely to have strong opinions on Home Rule, Federalism, Unionism and Devolution but the general public are significantly less interested, on the whole. I don’t know many people outside of the ‘activism bubble’ who understand or care about the difference between Devo+ and DevoMax, for example, and therefore there would need to be a consensus on what the 3rd option would be, a scenario that I don’t believe is very likely. If it was decided that several alternatives should be offered, where would we draw the line? There are far too many and trying to explain them all would detract attention from the overall debate.

A popular argument against a second question is the 51% / 98% scenario in which 51% of the electorate vote for independence and 98% of the electorate indicate a preference for one of the alternatives. In this scenario it would be up to Holyrood to decide which would ‘win’ and, unfortunately, our SNP-majority government is likely to be slightly bias towards independence in that instance. It would be very bad for a new nation to start off with that level of confusion over the legitimacy of the referendum result.

Finally, the SNP love the argument we’re having about introducing a second question; they would love us to split the No vote and they’ve already made attempts to confuse the debate by focusing on other issues (including votes for 16 and 17 year olds). This debate needs to be completely focused on whether or not independence from the UK is the best option for Scotland. We need to challenge the SNP to be completely open with their definition of independence and everything that it would entail. The No campaign needs to unite against the Nationalists in the fight for the Union and, when the referendum is won in our favour, it will then be time to continue the pursuit for further powers to Scotland.

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7 thoughts on “A Case Against The Second Question

  1. I’m puzzled by why you think pushing for 16-17 yr olds is the SNP making “attempts to confuse the debate.” Has it not been a Lib Dem policy for some time now.

    I am troubled by the kneejerk reaction we can often have to oppose anything proposed by the SNP. We should be looking at the merits of proposals, and ignoring who has made them. Our elected representatives should be voting on that basis too, and not on party lines. Politics needs to grow up and start serving the people, not the political parties.

    • The timing and manner in which they attempted to debate the 16 & 17 year olds question is a good example of the SNP’s attempts to shift focus. I’m really, really glad they did that because I am strongly in favour of votes from 16 years old. The reason I mention this, though, is because it’s a good indication of how the debate is likely to unfold and introducing anything else that can shift focus will be a bad idea. Ideally, I’d like to focus solely on the issues but we can’t ignore the fact that the Yes side of the argument is largely run by the SNP and they are the party in power at Holyrood so they will be dominating the debate and I think it’s important to factor that into any decisions about how the No side campaign.

  2. I am in favour of independence as are many of my Labour and Tory voting friends – who can tell with LibDem chameleons? I also favour a one question referendum but I am puzzled that anyone gets all confused about how a second question could possibly work – of course it could. You weren’t here for the devolution vote but anyone who was will remember it well – it was (gasp) a two question referendum.. First we were asked if we were for or against devolution , and if we were for it we were then asked if we supported a devolved Scottish parliament having tax raising powers . It’s not hard to have two questions on an independence referendum – a straight yes or no and if you vote no you get to vote again on the second option. Simple innit?

    • Thanks for your comment. The Lib Dem’s official stance is anti-independence but not all members feel that way which means there’s a lot of debate (always fun!) The actual ballot paper doesn’t need to be complicated at all, it would be (like you say) just like the 1997 referendum, but it’s not the voting that I’m concerned about – it’s the campaign! If separate ‘no’ campaigns run with a focus on their own preference then the finances, resources, manpower and ideas of all the different campaigns will be diluted. Much better to bring them together with one strong message and one strong campaign against independence.

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