Why the Conservatives block a second Scottish referendum at their peril

Any sense that Scotland is being denied the right to self-determination by English Tories will alienate voters. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

As far as England’s Tories are concerned, there won’t be a second Scottish independence referendum. David Cameron – who, with the paperback edition of his memoir to flog, has temporarily abandoned his post-power reticence – said yesterday that Boris Johnson should simply refuse to allow one.

As a somewhat daredevil prime minister, Cameron licensed three referendums, only two of which ripped the country apart. He at least managed to win the Scottish one, if by a narrower margin than expected.

Cameron said that he had given Alex Salmond what he asked for: “a once in a generation, once in a lifetime referendum”. Now, he insisted, “it’s perfectly fair for the Westminster parliament, and parties within it, and Boris Johnson as Prime Minister to say that we had a referendum, we decided that, now let’s look at ways we can make this United Kingdom work better.”

Johnson agrees with this analysis, though he typically put it more blithely at the Commons liaison committee on Wednesday: “I don’t think a generation has elapsed since 2014 from my understanding of human biology.”

All the briefings that have emerged from London in recent months indicate that Johnson intends to play hardball with the SNP. Even if the Nats secure a majority in next May’s Holyrood election, on a manifesto pledge to hold a second independence referendum, the UK government will refuse to grant the Section 30 order that would enable such a vote. 

There are those on both sides of the border who think this is a legitimate and sustainable tactic. “I don’t think there will be a referendum,” one Scottish Labour grandee told me recently. “All Boris has to do is avoid or delay one until the next Westminster election in 2024. After that, the SNP could well be on the downward slope, and Labour on the up across the UK. Given everything else that’s going on, I think that’s achievable.”

Maybe so, but the grandee admitted that public opinion was the unknown factor. “If people take to the streets and there’s a general sense beyond the diehards that it’s some kind of democratic outrage, the line will be harder to hold.”

This is indeed the big “if”. Surveys of voting intentions since the turn of the year have consistently put SNP support in the early to mid-50s, more than 30 percentage points ahead of the second-placed Conservatives. It’s been estimated this would give them as many as 70 of Holyrood’s 129 seats, a record haul even without including the independence-supporting Greens.

The polls show support for independence is similarly in the early to mid-50s. If this figure continues to rise, perhaps to as high as 60 per cent, the shift of public opinion and the growing momentum behind a second vote will become much harder to resist. The “once in a generation” argument has anyway been weakened by Brexit, which some Remainer Scots believe has undermined the case for their 2014 No vote.

It is also possible – perhaps even likely – that intransigence by Westminster would lead to civil unrest. Even now it doesn’t take much for supporters of separation to take to the streets. Those new circumstances would give their protests a legitimate new grievance and a sharper edge. 

Any sense that Scotland is being denied the right to self-determination by English Conservatives – being held captive, as it will be argued – may also sit ill with more open-minded Scots. The British sense of fair play is just as strong north of the border, and it will be difficult to maintain the case that an electorally dominant SNP haven’t earned the right to a rerun.

A flat No from Johnson will also strengthen the hand of those in the SNP who wish to explore alternative routes to independence. Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly ruled out a Catalan-style unofficial referendum or reverting to her party’s old position that winning a straight majority of Scottish seats at Westminster would be taken as a mandate to open independence negotiations.

SNP MP Joanna Cherry, who is influential among Sturgeon-sceptics in the party, has been calling for a “Plan B” that might involve Holyrood holding an indicative public vote without Westminster permission. She has also suggested exploring alternatives to a referendum, such as another form of “democratic event”.

While winning a majority in next year’s election would heavily bolster Sturgeon’s authority, an ongoing war with Johnson over the legitimacy of a second referendum will encourage Cherry and her allies to pursue their Plan B.

There is danger, too, in the perception that the UK government will refuse to hold a vote mainly because it doesn’t think it could win. The pro-Union side has failed to develop fresh and compelling arguments since squeaking over the line in 2014 on the back of a campaign that was nicknamed “Project Fear”. Alarming threats about economic collapse and international isolation worked then, but similar claims proved unpersuasive in the 2016 Brexit referendum. The potency of those arguments is likely to be diminished, if still somewhat effective, if Scots are asked to vote again.

Meanwhile the act of Brexit, against Scottish wishes, has undoubtedly weakened the attachment some 2014 No voters feel to the UK. Scots have always had an easier psychological relationship with the EU and are more likely to think of themselves as Europeans. The UK they will be asked to endorse in a second referendum is a very different beast than it once was.

Further, Johnson and his government are unpopular in Scotland. Their handling of the Brexit negotiations and the Covid-19 crisis is regarded in a poor light, their personal and political motives suspect, and their plans for the future distrusted. In contrast, trust in Sturgeon is high, and has been fortified by her recent performance.

Amid all this, you can see why Boris might prefer to swerve the fight. The risk is that in doing so he only inflicts more damage on the Union. And I’m not sure I’d lay any bets on him succeeding either way.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

Free trial CSS