Who owns the Scottish independence referendum?

Only one party has a mandate to hold a vote, and it's not the Conservatives.

According to recent reports, David Cameron is again exploring the possibility of staging a pre-emptive, Westminster-led referendum on Scotland's secession from the United Kingdom. At the same time, one of the country's leading authorities on the British constitution, Professor Adam Tomkins of Glasgow University, has claimed that the Scottish Parliament does not have the "legal competence" to hold a vote of its own, and that the UK government should call one "as expeditiously as possible".

The developments will be welcomed by the most zealous opponents of independence. Hardened Unionists like Lord George Foulkes and Tom Harris MP, currently a candidate in the race to be the next leader of the Scottish Labour Party, have been arguing since May that London should assume control of the referendum process in order to prevent the nationalists from "rigging" it in their favour.

Events over the last couple of weeks may have encouraged other, more moderate Unionists to move toward this position, too. Alex Salmond's assertion that any kind of majority for full Scottish sovereignty would be binding - even if in a two or three option ballot it is delivered alongside a larger majority for, say, full fiscal autonomy - has re-enforced the No camp's suspicion that the SNP cannot be trusted to play fair when it comes to Scotland's constitutional future.

But can anyone? The Unionist parties accuse the Scottish government of being incapable of running an impartial ballot because it has an interest in the outcome. Yet there is no reason to believe the UK government - which, of course, also has an interest in the outcome - would be any more objective in determining the timing of the vote or the wording of the question. London's track record on the management of Scottish elections provides little reassurance. In 1979, Jim Callaghan's Labour administration manipulated the first devolution referendum by packing it with legislative provisions - like the infamous 40 per cent rule - designed to secure its preferred result.

Another, equally limp, Unionist complaint is that the SNP won't let the Electoral Commission (EC) oversee the voting procedure. Well, why should it? The last time the EC directly ran a Scottish election - in 2007 - it caused an unholy mess, with as many as 140,000 votes eventually discarded. At any rate, the question of impartiality has already been addressed by the Scottish Government. In its Draft Referendum Consultation Paper published last year, it pledged to establish a Scottish Referendum Commission to regulate both the campaign and the ballot. This Commission would, "with limited exceptions, be completely independent of the Scottish Parliament and Government in the conduct of its affairs".

Then there's the endlessly discussed matter of "mandates" - who has one and who doesn't? Tom Harris insists that the SNP, having campaigned on a platform to break-up Britain and not to turn it into a federation, has no mandate for a referendum on anything other than straight-forward independence. Perhaps he has a point. But then the rule works both ways. Neither Labour, the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats campaigned for an independence referendum in 2010 or in 2011 (or ever), so by Harris's logic none has any democratic right to hold one.

The UK parties also need to consider the likely political consequence of hijacking Scotland's referendum. Does Scottish Labour, which is in the process of trying to develop a more distinct Scottish identity, really want to be seen to be colluding with a hugely unpopular Conservative-led government to undermine the clear choice of the Scottish people? Do the Liberal Democrats - already a federalist party - want to risk full oblivion for the sake of a crumbling Union?

The personal credibility of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Scotland are at stake, too. Both David Cameron ("The SNP has won the right to hold an independence referendum") and Michael Moore ("I firmly believe the Scottish Parliament, if it so decides, can proceed with a referendum") have stated at different times over the course of the last seven months that Holyrood is in the driving seat on this issue. This weekend, George Osborne also appeared to agree that the "ball is in [Salmond's] court". A sudden, coordinated u-turn would look like - and in fact be - an act of breathtaking cynicism.

In the coming months, the Scottish government is going to bring forward a motion at Holyrood which invites MSPs from across the chamber to affirm the "democratic authority" of the Scottish people. This 'Claim of Right' - first agreed on a cross-party basis in 1988 - will assert unambiguously that ordinary Scots should determine "the form of government best suited to their needs". Legally, of course, the motion will be worthless: Edinburgh doesn't have the power the challenge Westminster's sovereignty. But it is a typically astute piece of political manoeuvring from the First Minister. When it comes to a referendum on Scottish self-government, it seems, the people have the SNP's backing and the SNP can say with some confidence that it has the people's.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.