June 17, 2013 7:00 pm

Scotland and the ‘neverendum’ fear

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Scots can look forward to the same question again if Alex Salmond’s party wins re-election
Holyrood Palace©Alamy

Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh

Only 458 days until Scotland’s independence referendum on September 18 next year. If the result is, as expected, a No, will there be a second one in a few years?

The No camp leads by 63 per cent to 36 per cent, if you take an average of the past four polls and exclude the undecided. Voters in referendums often swing towards the status quo – for example, Australia’s 1999 vote on becoming a republic, or Britain’s 1975 vote to stay in the European Economic Community – so it is hard to see what may turn it round. But a closer result cannot be ruled out. Much would then depend on the next Scottish parliament election in 2016. If the referendum vote is narrow, and Alex Salmond’s Scottish National party wins re-election, a further referendum could ensue – the so-called “neverendum”.

I think a quick repeat is unlikely. Quebec had 15 years between its two referendums on secession from Canada, in 1980 and 1995: both results were a No, though the second was very close. But it is possible.

One might expect the SNP, which won a surprise majority in 2011, to lose popularity as governing parties do, especially if defeated in a referendum on its flagship policy, independence. But many voters seem content to back the SNP while rejecting independence: polls put it ahead of Labour for Holyrood and opposition parties remain weak.

Will business speak out? So far most of the Scottish business community has kept its head down – a legacy of previous decades, when big bosses got out of step with public opinion in their hostility to devolution, only to see it overwhelmingly backed at the 1997 referendum. In the 1979 referendum, captains of industry were vociferous on the No side. In 1997, Sir Bruce Pattullo, governor of Bank of Scotland, opposed tax-raising powers.

Banx illustration

This time, many companies that operate on both sides of the border, especially financial groups, are concerned about the cost and duplication of regulation that independence might bring. But most have so far let trade bodies such as the CBI and Scottish Financial Enterprise speak for them.

A rare exception is Rupert Soames, chief executive of Aggreko, the temporary power system provider. He recently faced off in a debate against Jim McColl, the pro-independence chairman of Clyde Blowers, the Glasgow-based heavy industry group.

“Creation of a new border and expensive new regulatory bodies would inevitably increase the cost and complexity of business with the rest of the UK,” Mr Soames said. Mr McColl said that in the absence of further significant devolution only independence would give Scotland the control of its economic policies it needed. Others, I suspect, will remain reticent.

. . .

Better off in euro?

Will Hutton, principal of Hertford College, Oxford university, says Britain would have been better off joining the euro 10 years ago. Endorsement in a referendum, he argues, would have depended on it being an obvious good deal, with the pound entering at a competitive rate and the euro’s structure, rules and governance reformed to accommodate British interests.

That, he suggests, would have avoided years of chronic sterling overvaluation, made more acute by the City of London sucking in capital from abroad to finance the credit and property booms. Inside the euro, at a competitive exchange rate – instead of imports surging and manufacturing shrinking – Britain’s exports would have soared and its traded goods sector would have expanded.

He writes: “Sure, there would have been problems. But Britain outside the euro in 2013, with endless spending cuts, the biggest fall in real wages for a century, 500,000 people relying on food banks, and a weak unbalanced economy, is hardly a land of milk and honey.”

Who could disagree?

. . .

On the waterfront

Remember dockers? London Gateway, Britain’s first new port in more than a quarter-century, will employ “technicians trained in the use of algorithms to determine the most efficient movement possible of containers to and from the ships”.

. . .

Blowing in

Singer Bob Dylan is to play three nights at Blackpool in November. As the broadcaster Stuart Maconie puts it: “Blood on the trams.”

brian.groom@ft.com

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