Why I will vote No in a referendum

Back in 2013, I wrote an article for the Scotsman newspaper outlining what issues were important to me in deciding what way to vote in the then upcoming Independence referendum.

In the end I decided to vote Yes, as at that time I believed the risks involved were worth taking. Nearly ten years on, the circumstances are now quite different and if, as proposed yesterday by Nicola Sturgeon, there is another referendum next year, I would now vote No.

It is very unlikely that the Supreme Court will confirm legality on the new proposals, as it is clear to even the SNP, that without the consent of Westminster the Scottish Parliament will not be able to hold a lawful referendum and as the SNP have already declared that they will then make the next Westminster election a single issue campaign on independence, there is time to consider what is the best way forward. We have seen before how splitting the vote on any single issue can let a party with a minority of the votes win first past the post elections on that issue.

Firstly, we need to understand why the SNP will never give up on their demands for a referendum on independence. It is similar to Liberals wanting a fair voting system and losing a referendum on it. A fair electoral system is at the heart of our beliefs, and regardless of how little support other parties, or the public give electoral reform, we will never give up our call for a system where those elected fairly represent the way people have voted. The SNP have a similar core belief, but they depend on the lack of a fair electoral system to deliver it for them.

There will also be support from those who oppose independence, for a referendum, as the best way to give the public their say and to deal with the question which has dominated Scottish politics for many years. It is a debate that will not go away by refusing to have it.

Since 2014 much has changed, not least the fact of Brexit.

Where the SNP are correct, is that throughout the debate last time, many, including the Liberal Democrats, argued strongly that the only way of guaranteeing that Scotland would remain in the EU was to vote No to independence. With Scotland voting to remain in the EU in 2016, by nearly two to one, this is one of their stronger arguments, however, I believe that the experience of breaking away from a country’s major trading partner shows exactly why Scotland leaving the UK, negotiating any deal, from a relatively weak position, and dealing with the resulting problems that would exist for many years to come, is now a bad idea.

Another change is the international situation, with the war in Ukraine, global security, food supplies worldwide and future energy supplies and resources.

With the new understanding of the risks posed by Russia and possibly others, the need to be part of something bigger, whether it is the Union, NATO or the EU, is something many are much more aware of, and proposing the opposite and risking the relative stability that exists at present, by breaking up the UK, is not an argument that is easy for the SNP to win.

The economic argument is something that needs to be dealt with more convincingly that last time. Even though I voted Yes in 2014, I did not buy into the SNP’s economic predictions, which were wildly optimistic, and stated this clearly, but those opposing independence argued strongly that all would be well if only the country rejected independence. As we all know, this was not to be the case, both economically and with the UK decision to leave the EU.

Issues such as the currency, pensions and much more were never effectively challenged or resolved. Back then, I felt that there were financial risks worth taking, today I do not. I also stated in 2013 that there were financial risks of remaining in the UK, such as being dragged out of the EU against the will of the people in Scotland, and although I was right, this idea was rubbished at the time by many.

The party will have to give much detailed thought as to how to respond to the issues following on from yesterday’s Referendum proposal. Such as, if the SNP make the next Westminster election effectively their referendum, as is their plan if the Supreme Court rejects their referendum proposal, should only one candidate stand in each constituency opposing them?

The SNP won almost every Westminster seat in Scotland in 2019, while the Lib-Dem, Labour, and Conservative votes at the 2019 combined were more than the SNP. Labour, with nearly 20% of the vote ended up with only 1 MP. The SNP now claim a “cast iron mandate” to hold a referendum, as along with the Greens they have a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament. I know many people who voted Green and every one of them did so because of concern for the environment, not one of them did so because of their position on Independence. The SNP have used our unfair electoral system to their benefit, and it is time to develop a strategy to deal with this.

And what better way to show the need for a fairer electoral system?

* John Barrett was a Liberal Democrat Member for 40 years and is a former, Edinburgh City Councillor and Member of Parliament for Edinburgh West.

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  • I agree that we need a fairer voting system for a great many reasons, not least because of the enhanced harm done by the amplification of single issue campaigns via FPTP.

    While it’s fair to say that the SNP always were going to keep on pushing for another referendum, regardless of how we voted, or what is going on in the world, I do wonder if their current sense of urgency and string of announcements of announcements is because they need to stop people from noticing that current polling suggests the Tories won’t be winning the next election. Or that the Labour party are getting closer (albeit too slow for my liking) to having a policy on fair voting systems.

    I disagree that No campaigners said everything would be fine if only we’d stay part of the UK. There was no doubt that things could be improved within the UK – it’s simply that we wouldn’t have to deal with the disastrous consequences of leaving an economic and political union of 300+ years, and a lot of us did question the viability of relying on the taxes from oil revenue to make up for the loss of the fiscal transfer.

  • Brad Barrows 29th Jun '22 - 4:40pm

    John, the Mandate argument for a referendum is the fact that the SNP and the Greens both made support for an independence referendum a clear manifesto commitment and the 2021 election resulted in both the SNP and the Greens increasing their number of MSPs so that, together, a clear majority were elected on manifestos supporting a referendum. That is called democracy. It did not rely on an unfair voting system as half of voters voted for pro-independence parties in the most proportional party of the voting system.

    I suspect many who voted against Brexit will consider voting Yes this time as a way of regaining Scotland’s place in the EU, or at least of regaining a place within the Single Market. In those circumstances, Scotland’s trade deal with the rest of the UK will be the deal then in force between the rest of the UK and the EU, so Scotland will not get a bad trade deal.

    Finally, since a consultative referendum does not change the UK constitution, it is difficult to argue that a consultative referendum is outwith Scotland’s powers. That said, I don’t believe that the UK Supreme Court would be willing to allow a referendum not supported by the UK government irrespective of the law on the matter.

  • Russell Simpson 29th Jun '22 - 4:51pm

    Don’t forget that the Scottish electoral system is not proportional. Greens/SNP did not get 50% of votes. In 2011 SNP got 55% of seats from 45% of votes

  • George Thomas 29th Jun '22 - 8:48pm

    I guess the question I would ask LD’s is can the politics of Westminster ever get bad enough that, if you could, you would vote to become independent of it?

    This article suggests, quite rightly, that changing relationship with closest union is never easy and that big questions haven’t been answered, but it does seem to hang an awful lot on Westminster changing dramatically through voting reform.

    I wonder how many voters in any of the recent by-elections have quoted attacks on devolution and breaking down of relationship between different nations within the UK as reasons to vote against Tory? I imagine recent defeats for Boris’ party will give many hope that things can change and will change in Westminster but isn’t that more to do with party-gate, high taxes and NIMBY going against HS2 (no longer being linked to Scotland)?

    Sadly, I think this will become a referendum of which path will make Scotland worse off rather than better and many arguments from remain side will be about how Scotland wouldn’t be able to manage to go alone, but until everyone agree Scotland could go alone and debate becomes about which would make better off then possible independence isn’t going to go away fully.

  • Jane Ann Liston 29th Jun '22 - 11:18pm

    John, I think you are quite right.

  • @brad barrows

    “That said, I don’t believe that the UK Supreme Court would be willing to allow a referendum not supported by the UK government irrespective of the law on the matter.”

    Are you saying that the UK Supreme Court is a political agency of the British state rather than a law Court?

  • David Garlick 30th Jun '22 - 12:19pm

    This is intereting as the outcome of a split with England and Wales would be in the detail.
    You only have to look at thchaos of the border between N.I. and th UK to beging to imaagine how that might translate into the Scotlang Englang border. You only have to look at the promises of the great new and bright future for the UK after Brexit and the failed reality ti imagine how Scotland might struggle after a split. I don’t know how much the Scottish economy relies on trade with the UK but any disruption to that must be a concern for them.

  • John Barrett 30th Jun '22 - 1:52pm

    @David Garlick. Approximately 60% of Scottish exports go to the rest of the UK, which is roughly three times the value of Scottish exports to the EU.

  • Brad Barrows 30th Jun '22 - 5:56pm

    @ John Barrett
    Yes 60% of Scottish exports go to England under the current arrangement of Scotland in the UK but not in the EU. Most Irish exports used to be with the UK but today Ireland exports more to Germany than it does to the UK. So the interesting question would be the effect on total Scottish exports if it left the smaller but closer UK single market to be a member of the much larger but less close EU single market.

    I think if you look at some of the judgements that have been returned by the UK Supreme Court and the House of Lords before that on political controversial issues, I think you may have less than 100% confidence that political considerations are not part of the deliberations.

  • Mandate

    The Scottish parties which support a referendum gained seats at the 2021 Scottish General Election and the UK parties which oppose it lost seats. There is now a bigger majority in the Scottish Parliament in favour of Scotland’s right to choose than before.

    The suggestion that voters vote for parties other than for what the parties stand for is interesting. Some do: polling suggests around a third of Scottish Labour voters support a referendum and independence. But to go the next step to suggest that this invalidates an election mandate is the argument of the desperate.

    And in 2019 the Lib Dems stood on a UK GE platform of reversing Brexit without a further referendum if the Lib Dems won the election on the FPTP system.


    It is clear that Scotland as part of the UK has been seriously underperforming comparable European economies when all major economic and fiscal powers are reserved to Westminster. It is clear this will only worsen as a result of Brexit.

    There seems to be no unionist response to that other than that Scotland is too small etc to prosper unlike many other comparable european economies with added threats as regards trade.

    Reformed UK

    At the moment, the Tory Party is on the road to an increasingly right wing authoritarian centralising state.

    The reform of the UK is not going to happen and UK politics will be dominated by pandering to a small number of marginal English constituencies.

  • George Thomas 30th Jun '22 - 7:15pm

    “I wonder how many voters in any of the recent by-elections have quoted attacks on devolution and breaking down of relationship between different nations within the UK as reasons to vote against Tory?”

    May I ask a part b? Why was the threat of Alec Salmond such an effective attack add against Ed Milliband’s but this Tory government is not only doing the same thing but doing it more successfully (pushing for actions which radically change the union as we all know it) but it doesn’t appear to be a topic of conversation in England?

  • John Roffey 1st Jul '22 - 8:19am

    When discussing this topic here in the past, my main concern had been that had Scotland been a separate country and an ally of Germany – Britain would almost certainly have been conquered by the Nazis – since their weaponry was technically significantly advanced of the UK. It was the difficulty of landing their war machine on to the island of Britain that prevented them from overrunning the country as they had those on the European mainland. The argument against this concern was that the days of actual conflict in Europe had long past! This of course has proven to be a misguided belief with the invasion of Ukraine by Putin.

    I watched Question Tine from Scotland last night and was surprised that this issue was not raised since the defence of the realm is of fundamental importance to any government. I am not suggesting that an independent Scotland would become an ally of Russia – however the issue of the defence of Britain is once again relevant. This seems particularly true when the underlying reasons the SNP want independence should be capable of resolution through negotiation [if only after Johnson has gone].

  • John Barrett 1st Jul '22 - 10:47am

    One problem that arises after any referendum, is that those who are happy with the result want that to be the end of it, while those on the losing side often want another referendum to reverse the result.

    The Liberal Democrats did not want another Scottish Referendum, after the result in 2014 went their way, while after the EU referendum, where it did not go the way the party wanted, and this resulted in a demand for another vote. The SNP are in the same position. They will continue to demand another vote until it goes their way, then they will refuse to have any more votes on the issue. No wonder much of the public has lost faith in the political system.

    Back when I was an MP, when some people thought a referendum on the reintroduction of the death penalty might be popular with the electorate. I remember someone saying that people should only be able to vote in referendums if they have read in detail the possible consequences of the vote and fully understand all the implications of what is proposed. Not an easy task on any important issue.

    Those proposing another referendum on independence might think it will solve the problem, while I fear that, like the Brexit vote, it will actually cause more problems than it solves.

  • Peter Martin 1st Jul '22 - 1:09pm

    Northern Ireland is less straightforward, but Scotland and Wales are countries according to the normal definition of the term. They were still countries before they had their own government. Having their own football and rugby teams should be a sufficient qualification!

    It’s really down to the inhabitants of each to decide the extent of their own autonomy. The full independence option has to available. If they want to leave the UK to be able to rejoin the EU that has to be their choice too.

    This will probably be a more difficult option politically. The SNP won’t be able to promise to continue to use the pound and neither should it want to. Scotland will have to have its own currency. It will have to show over a period of years that it ticks all EU requirements as it aligns to the euro for eventual inclusion into the eurozone.

  • @ John Roffey “When discussing this topic here in the past, my main concern had been that had Scotland been a separate country and an ally of Germany – Britain would almost certainly have been conquered by the Nazis”.

    Well it wasn’t, was it ?

  • Brad Barrows 2nd Jul '22 - 6:18pm

    @John Roffey
    And to extend your thinking, if Scotland had been a separate country and the rest of the UK has been an ally of Germany, maybe Scotland would have been invaded by the rest of the UK…but maybe the USA would have anticipated the danger and sent forces to Scotland to prevent that happening…historical ‘what ifs’ can lead to so many possibilities that didn’t actually happen.

  • John Barrett 3rd Jul '22 - 10:39pm

    Thanks for all the comments.

    It looks like, from a poll in today’s paper, that Scottish voters are very evenly split, both on the issue of whether or not a referendum is a good idea, 44% oppose and 43% in favour, and if there is one, whether or not they would support independence, 48% support independence and 47% were opposed to it.

    If either side wants to convince supporters from the other side to change their minds, they will have to start working hard to produce convincing arguments soon. Which is exactly what I was encouraging all political parties to do in that article back in 2013. Starting from such an evenly balanced position, there is everything to play for and the future of a country at stake.

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