Denying a referendum will change the Union

Despite assertions that the UK is a voluntary partnership, No 10 refuses to let the people decide again on independence

Ciaran Martin, The Times – Tuesday April 13 2021


In the middle of the noisiest election since the establishment of the Scottish parliament, there is one crucial, overlooked fact.

The position of the United Kingdom government is that there is no lawful, democratic path to achieving Scottish independence for an unspecified number of decades.

That’s regardless of how Scotland votes next month or beyond. Various ministers have speculated about the length of “quarantine” that must elapse from 2014 before Scotland is allowed to choose its future again.

For the Scotland secretary, it’s not until at least 2039, a quarter of a century from 2014. For the prime minister, it should be the same gap as between the two votes on Europe, taking us to 2055.

This marks an extraordinary change in our understanding of the Anglo-Scottish union. It was forged in pre-democratic times. But since at least the departure of most of Ireland a century ago, there’s been an implicit, and more recently explicit, understanding that any part of the British union could leave if it wants.

In 2011 David Cameron’s coalition was faced with a pro-referendum majority in the Scottish parliament, even though the issue did not feature much in the election campaign. Cameron wrote in his memoirs that a “referendum was unavoidable: people had voted for it; we would deliver it”. Thus came an agreement between London and Edinburgh. The key measure — a Section 30 order — is now treated as some sort of constitutional tablet of stone.

In fact, it was a hastily improvised arrangement to avoid Westminster imposing the rules of a referendum, or, worse, the whole thing ending up in court. What the deal reflected was a profound understanding that the historic Union was an equal partnership based on consent.

Tragically, Westminster lost interest in the Union the moment Scotland narrowly consented to remain in the UK. It might have been expected that London would pursue some agreed — or even imposed — rules about what staying in the Union meant, as Canada did after its own near-death experience with Quebec in 1995. But attention turned instead to England’s disquiets: first, on the day of the referendum result, with the announcement of English votes for English laws and then, fatefully, to Brexit.

Britain’s delicate constitutional balance has subsequently shattered. After 2014 it was briefly fashionable to describe the UK as”‘quasi-federal”. This nonsense was exploded by the Brexit vote which showed that a large majority of Scots could and would be overruled and ignored on a critically important issue.

The UK’s negotiating mandate was not a UK-wide one; it was what Downing Street could get past its English backbench MPs. The restraint with which England has historically treated its dominant position within the Union was abandoned.

The post-Brexit constitutional settlement is thus a “Greater England” one. It has demonstrated the impossibility of true federalism in the UK at a time when the core political arrangements that have sustained the Union over the centuries are collapsing. Just 20 years ago, the Blair cabinet contained a record number of Scottish MPs. Now, because of the SNP’s dominance, neither major UK party has a leading figure sitting for a Scottish constituency.

There’s no rulebook for what happens now. To resist a referendum, UK ministers are relying on the Yes campaign’s “once in a generation” soundbite from 2014. But that was just a slogan, with about as much constitutional standing as the £350 million for the NHS on the Brexit bus. It doesn’t bind today’s voters.

The best measure we have of Scotland’s consent for the Union remains its parliamentary elections. If there is a pro-referendum majority (and this is absolutely not the same thing as an SNP majority), there is no good reason to resist one. Nor is there any reason to alter a set of rules that commanded the confidence of both sides in 2014. Fear of a different result isn’t a reason to ignore Scotland’s election result.

What should be different is any referendum campaign. If nationalists again try to assert that independence means little change, voters should show their derision. Independence inevitably means some form of border with England, a different currency, a wait to join the EU, a huge fiscal challenge, and significant administrative disruption. The challenge for nationalists is to convince sceptics that joining the ranks of small, successful northern European states will be worth it. But voters should be equally dismissive of any repeat of Unionist assertions that an independent Scotland would be perpetually broke or alone.

Much would depend on choices made by Scottish voters and a sovereign Scottish government after independence. Demands that voters must know “exactly” what independence will mean are designed to be impossible to meet. Any major constitutional change involves risk, opportunity, certainty and unknowables, as this government knows better than most. Scottish voters will know enough to make an informed decision.

The more pressing question is whether Scotland is allowed to make this choice at all. If you support independence, you have always known that there is a path to it if you convince enough people to vote for it. That is what the UK government proposes to change. London can block a referendum even if Scotland votes for one.

But that changes the Union we know, based on consent, to one that survives only through force of law. Some democracies, such as Spain, do not allow votes on break-up. Spain does not claim to be a voluntary partnership of willing nations. Britain does. But is it?