In the years that followed the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, some unionists insisted that the matter had been settled. Had the former first minister Alex Salmond not described that vote as a “once in a generation opportunity”? Yet rather than settling the Scottish Question, the referendum intensified it. The 55-45 result confirmed the realignment of the country’s politics along unionist and nationalist lines. The SNP won a landslide in the 2015 general election from which the once-hegemonic Scottish Labour Party has never recovered.
Nicola Sturgeon’s party has now won a fourth consecutive term in office at Holyrood – a feat that would have astonished the fathers of Scottish devolution. Though the SNP fell one seat short of the overall majority that it achieved in 2011, it has a comfortable advantage when combined with the pro-independence Scottish Greens (who won a record eight seats).
Does this amount to a mandate for the second referendum as Ms Sturgeon claims? The Westminster government insists not, noting that in the constituency section a majority of votes (52.4 per cent) were cast for unionist parties. But this is specious – in a parliamentary democracy it is seats, not total votes, that count. It is for this reason that the Conservatives were automatically entitled to legislate for an EU referendum, despite winning only 37 per cent of the UK vote in 2015.
Others suggest that we should hold the SNP to its word – a second vote should not be held until a generation, or 25 years, has passed. Yet this ignores not only the SNP’s renewed mandate but what Ms Sturgeon rightly describes as a “material change of circumstances”: Brexit.
When David Cameron campaigned against Scottish independence in 2014 it was with the assurance that he would keep the UK in the European Union. After Mr Cameron failed to deliver on this promise, and resigned as prime minister, the 62 per cent of Scottish voters who backed Remain can legitimately demand the right to revisit the question of independence.
We do not question that the SNP has won a democratic mandate for a second referendum, and Westminster faces a difficult choice. It may have the constitutional right to veto a referendum, but does it have the moral right to do so? A union based on consent will become one based on coercion if Scotland has no legal route to independence.
In her interview with our Scotland editor Chris Deerin in last week’s magazine, Ms Sturgeon expressed her hope that a referendum would be held by the end of 2023. By then, nine years will have passed since the first plebiscite. The Good Friday Agreement, for instance, stipulates at least seven years must pass before successive border polls in Northern Ireland.
Rather than seeking to deny Scotland the right to secede, unionists should instead concentrate attention on whether it would be in the best interests of the Scottish people to do so. They should pay the SNP the compliment of taking it seriously and demand a coherent prospectus for independence as a precondition of a new referendum.
What currency would an independent Scotland use? It could either retain the pound and leave the Bank of England in control, or it could embark on a painful and uncertain journey to a new currency, with pensions, mortgages and savings redenominated. Should Scotland seek to rejoin the EU, as Ms Sturgeon intends, it would face a hard border with the rest of the UK, with which it does three times as much trade as with the EU. How would the Scottish government seek to avoid or mitigate such barriers? What about the issue of freedom of movement into Scotland but not England?
Scotland’s budget deficit is estimated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies to be as high as 25 per cent. In a post-pandemic world of uncertain borrowing costs, how would the SNP pay for the social-democratic transformation it promises?
These questions and others demand unambiguous answers. Rather than seeking to thwart the Scottish government in the courts, Westminster should invite it to contest an open debate.
This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die