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Cameron's Referendum Quandary

Whatever Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron hopes to achieve over the next five years, his second term is going to be tormented by the threat of one referendum and the virtual certainty of another.

Following the Scottish National Party’s strong electoral showing its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has refused to rule out a second independence referendum if the government in London skimps on its proposed devolution package for Scotland. Devolution is British speak for autonomy.

At the same time, Cameron is locked in to the other referendum, in which the British will, before the end of 2017, choose whether they wish to remain in the European Union or to leave it. Since the election two weeks ago, some officials have been telling the media that the EU in-or-out vote could be held as early as 2016, but Cameron is also committed to trying to re-negotiate a new membership agreement with Brussels, and the British will then vote on the outcome.

The result, experts believe, will be a distracted government. When Scotland isn’t claiming Cameron’s attention, Brussels will be—to the detriment of the United Kingdom’s global commitments, and its importance as America’s most important European ally. A week after the elections, for example, the victorious prime minister’s first trip was not to Washington but to Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, for talks on devolution with Sturgeon.

He prefaced the visit by declaring, “There isn’t going to be another [Scottish] referendum.” That moment has come and gone, the prime minister went on. But Sturgeon wasn’t going to let him off the hook that easily. Her party wasn’t planning another referendum, she said, “but the reason I stop short of saying I absolutely guarantee it is the same reason that I don’t think David Cameron has any right to rule it out.”

To drive home the point, she added, “It cuts both ways: I can’t impose a referendum against the will of the Scottish people, but nor can Cameron rule out a referendum against the will of the people. It will be the people who decide.”

Throughout the referendum campaign in the summer of 2014, Alex Salmond, then the SNP leader, repeatedly assured the Scots that the vote was a one-time-only bid for independence. But since losing that bid, the Scottish party has gone from five members in the last British Parliament to 56 in the new one, and they can hardly be blamed for thinking that Scottish voters have given them some kind of new mandate.

Sturgeon feels that mandate is to push for more autonomy for Scotland that will give it independence in all but name. In a last-minute bipartisan effort in September to block independence, the UK government and opposition agreed on a package of devolution measures for the Scots, including some control over taxation. It was enough to persuade slightly more than half Scotland’s voters to say “no” with their ballots, but the Scots are now determined to drive a better deal than the one already on offer. For the moment, the SNP is requesting “as a matter of priority” that it be given new powers over employment policy, welfare, business taxes, and the minimum wage.

As for the EU referendum, Europe’s declared aim of “ever closer union” has many opponents in Britain, where it is seen as an ever greater threat to British sovereignty. So Cameron’s objective is to strengthen the UK’s exceptionalism and retain more independence.

For the moment the EU debate is over the wording of the referendum ballot. The approved question is currently: “Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?” But some argue that the issue requires action, not just thought, and want the question shortened to: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”

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