How Keir Starmer’s comments highlight a looming problem for the Union

On Scotland's right to another referendum, the Labour leader is not so different from his predecessor.

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In the event of an outright SNP victory in the Scottish parliamentary elections next year, Nicola Sturgeon and her party will have a mandate for a second independence referendum, Keir Starmer has told Sky's Beth Rigby

In a way, Starmer's statement is something that didn't need saying: the only route by which Labour could prevent a second independence referendum would be to win a majority, either in Holyrood, which would mean the request for a second independence vote would never be sent, or in Westminster, where he would have the freedom to deny that request. It is simply a fact that, in the eventuality that the SNP regains its majority, the party will have a mandate to seek a second independence referendum. 

Such a statement, made now, is designed not to answer an intellectual question but to ask a tactical one: does a unionist government in Westminster believe it can win another referendum, in these circumstances, with this Conservative government, against this SNP government? Do unionist campaigners think they are better served by having the fight now, or having it later?

This question is also moral: are you willing to ignore repeated elections in which the pro-independence party wins a majority of the seats it contests? Many people wrongly interpreted Jeremy Corbyn's squeamishness on that issue as a secret passion for Scottish independence, when the reality was that he simply found the prospect of ignoring the likely result of the 2021 Scottish election painful. And for all that this Labour leader is a departure from some aspects of the party’s recent past, he retains the same outlook on the Scottish question. So while Starmer may have described another Scottish independence as being “about the last thing that we need”, avoiding one by ignoring the result of next year's election is a price that he isn't willing to pay.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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