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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

If the secession question is clear, Scots will say No Add to ...

Next Monday, people with names such as Simpson can indulge, if they wish, in the rituals of Scottishness, be it a few drams of Scotch whisky, the kilt, the bagpipes or, stomach willing, the haggis. It will be, of course, Robbie Burns Day.

In Scotland itself, it will also be referendum day. No, it won't be a day for voting on whether Scotland should secede from the United Kingdom, but rather the occasion for the Scottish National Party to reveal the question on independence it proposes to put in a subsequent referendum.

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The SNP, like the Parti Québécois, doesn't miss a trick in playing the nationalist card. It unveiled its 157-page manifesto about the glories of independence on St. Andrew's Day, and now it's set to disclose its referendum question on Robbie Burns Day. Haul out the tartans. Watch Braveheart. Relive the Highland Clearances. Damn the Acts of Union of 1707. Scotland will be "free."

Except that, unfortunately for the SNP and its silver-tongued leader, Alex Salmond, the vast majority of Scots don't want independence. Mr. Salmond has been trying to lure them in that direction, without any success, for the very good reason that most Scots, like most Quebeckers, can't figure out why they should break up a successful country, Britain, for the uncertain delights of being in a much smaller, weaker country.

Polls in the past three months have shown support for independence at 20 per cent to 29 per cent (Scottish Daily Mail, 20 per cent; Ipsos MORI, 20 per cent; Angus Reid, 25 per cent; YouGov/Daily Telegraph, 29 per cent). Such low support means Mr. Salmond and his cohorts can't possibly win a referendum on a clear question - Do you want an independent Scotland? He faces the PQ's same dilemma: Ask a clear question and lose.

If clarity will bring defeat, what to do? Mr. Salmond can hardly duck his own challenge. After all, he's been promoting independence for years. It's the reason his party exists. For 18 months, his government has been conducting a "national conversation" with the population - ostensibly to discuss options, in reality to promote independence. (Again, exactly the tactics used by PQ governments.)

The precise wording of the referendum question remains a secret, but if the Quebec example is any guide - and the SNP has carefully cultivated links with the PQ - it will not be clear. Indeed, there is every likelihood there will be more than one question.

Why's that? Well, the SNP runs the government but does so with a minority of the seats in the Scottish Parliament. When the British government created the regional parliament, it introduced proportional representation as the method of voting. The Brits did so for a variety of reasons, but the underlying one was to prevent the nationalists from getting a parliamentary majority.

The SNP, therefore, needs two Green pro-independence members plus 16 others to vote to hold a referendum. That's not going to happen, because the Labour, Liberal Democratic and Conservative parties all oppose Scottish independence and the holding of a referendum on the subject.

So Mr. Salmond might try to lure them into the referendum by holding one on four questions: status quo, independence, more devolution of power to Scotland from Westminster, and a lot more devolution of power. A Westminster commission recommended a modest devolution, and Labour and Liberal Democrats might buy into that option. For the SNP, devolution would fall far short of independence, but it might give the Scots the appetite for demanding more and more until, maybe some day, they might go the distance. (Sound familiar in Canada?)

The independence dream is predicated on the usual national affirmation of difference and historical revisionism, combined with predictions of greater prosperity built on membership in the European Union and all that North Sea oil. Alas, the oil is running out and the EU already has 27 members, within which little counties have almost no clout. In addition, Scotland, like Quebec, gets big transfers of money from the rest of the country.

Scotland has been an integral part of Britain for three centuries. The ties of kith and kin are immense, and the economies are integrated. Not even the most convinced Scottish secessionist can plausibly claim that basic human rights or cultural attributes are oppressed.

If opponents in the Scottish Parliament were smart, they would let Mr. Salmond hold his referendum but insist on a clear question. Independence would lose resoundingly.

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