The latest opinion poll from Scotland shows support for independence down to a new low of 23 per cent. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s charismatic first minister, is very unlikely to achieve the Yes vote he seeks in next year’s referendum. Yet the history of votes on constitutional reform suggests that the very factors that make Mr Salmond’s referendum plan likely to fail make British prime minister David Cameron’s EU referendum plan more likely to succeed.
Australia voted in 1999 on a proposal to make the country a republic. The plan initially enjoyed majority support. For the role of Australian head of state to be a part-time occupation for an elderly lady 10,000 miles away with a demanding day job as Queen of England (and Scotland) is plainly absurd.
But the referendum produced a clear vote to retain the monarchy. The campaign forced advocates of change to spell out what change would mean in practice. The idea of replacing the glamour of royalty with the services of a superannuated Australian politician had little popular appeal. Other attempts to dethrone Her Majesty by popular vote – in tiny St Vincent and microscopic Tuvalu – led to a similar shift in opinion and the same outcome.
In 1972, the Parti Québécois took power during a period of growing tension between French-speaking Canada and the rest of the country. As in Scotland, the provincial government planned a referendum on secession. Initially it seemed that the separatists would win a comfortable majority. When, however, a vote on a split was finally held in 1980, the proposition was easily defeated.
Edward Heath’s Conservative government took Britain into Europe in 1973, dividing both governing and opposition parties. When Labour won the general election a year later, Harold Wilson attempted to settle the dispute in his own party by calling a referendum after a supposed renegotiation of the terms of British membership – precisely the mechanism that would be imitated nearly 50 years later by Mr Cameron.
The common market, as it was then called, was no more popular with voters then than now – perhaps less so, since opinion polls suggested then that most voters wanted Britain out. But when referendum day came a substantial majority voted to stay.
British voters would probably have rejected British entry into the common market if they had been asked. However, once Britain was in, the electorate rejected the proposal that Britain should come out. And so it is likely to be with Scotland’s relationship with the UK, even though the gap between accession and a popular vote is three centuries rather than three years.
Confronted with the specifics, rather than the principle, of constitutional change, many voters revert to the status quo. Peter Kellner, a pundit of pollsters, calls it“the fear factor”. In Scotland, the demand for independence has never matched the popularity of the SNP – even after that party’s comfortable election victory in 2011, polls suggested a referendum would be lost. But support is lower today. The Yes campaign has fumbled and blustered when asked to give an account of the monetary and trading arrangements within which an independent Scotland would operate. Perhaps inevitably: supporters of independence cannot describe these relationships in detail, since their outcome would depend on difficult and complex negotiations with the rest of the UK and with the EU, which could only begin after a Yes vote had been achieved.
Scotland’s separatists can cite one consoling example. A second referendum on Quebec’s secession in 1995 produced a swing in opinion towards Yes in the course of the campaign, and a united Canada survived by the slimmest of margins. The intervening years had brought some clarity to the issues in debate, and attempts to meet demands for greater autonomy within the established constitution had encountered difficulties. Perhaps the same might happen in Scotland – 20 years from now.
But if Mr Cameron’s European referendum goes ahead, he too will benefit from the fear factor. Britain in Europe, like Scotland in the UK, is a known quantity: the alternative is not. Always keep a hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse, wrote Hilaire Belloc. It is not a bad maxim: and an influential one when voters consider constitutional issues.