A Scottish referendum is unwarranted | Joseph Prebble

Not three quarters of a year have passed since last year’s politically shattering referendum on the European Union and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is demanding a second referendum in four years on Scottish membership of the United Kingdom. Now Sturgeon is the leader of the Scottish National Party, so this announcement should be treated like news of the Pope demanding respect for the Catholic faith, or a settlement of bears demanding a wooded area in which to defecate. Nonetheless this perennial crusader is set to push legislation through Holyrood, with a formal request made to Downing Street afterwards. The former step should pass with support of the Greens, a party generally behind independence, though a Scotland Office statement has poured cold water on the latter possibility. Nevertheless the battle fought and won by Unionists three autumns ago is in very real danger of being reset within the next couple of years.
Sturgeon claims that a referendum would offer a choice between ‘a hard Brexit’ or ‘an independent country able to secure… our own relationship with Europe’. Just what form such a relationship take, however? The assumption, as a a pro-EU leader of a party that voted against the triggering of Article 50 in the Commons, governing a country that voted substantially to remain the the European Union, would be EU membership. Though it is not generally useful to revisit the arguments for or against EU membership, which were settled by the EU referendum, the issues dredged up last spring must again be considered by Scotland if it finds itself deliberating on rejoining.
Should it choose to do so, it will forfeit sovereignty over its Parliament, its currency, its borders, its fisheries, and a host of other competences. There are good arguments to do this, and they may choose to see advantages to pooling sovereignty, but Scotland will have to consider whether this contradicts the idea of an independent country, or what the definition of independence entails. Should they choose to do so, they deserve the good wishes of the rest of the UK, but wistful rhetoric must face the reality of any less than wistful political decisions made. Rejoining would not be an overnight process; indeed, Spanish foreign minister Alfonso Dastis has warned that to leave the UK and bid to rejoin the EU would be ’to join the back of the queue’. Meanwhile, a decision to do otherwise – in other words, to be part of neither Union – is a deeply unlikely prospect that would defy comfortable majorities in both referenda since 2014.
Already some UK citizens outside of Scotland are warming to the idea. One category of independence sympathisers is those alienated by the Brexit process and in admiration of a country leaving the UK for a future inside the EU. The vision of an independent Scotland embracing its European identity is a romantic one. In fact, Yes voters were likelier to back leaving the EU (40%) than No voters (36%). Meanwhile, data released by the Scottish Social Attitudes survey sees 42% of Scots wanting to diminish the EU’s powers, with a further 25% wanting out of the EU entirely. Other Brits, often irritated by calls for independence from persistent Scottish separatists, would rather rid the UK Treasury of the funding liabilities caused by the imbalanced Barnett formula. Respected peer Lord Ashcroft suggested on Twitter on Monday that independence may pass if the entire UK were able to vote. It is a sad comment on the mood of the Union that UK relations should have degenerated to this sorry state.
Indeed, Sturgeon is now making an openly partisan case against the union. In her speech, Sturgeon bemoaned that ‘we face a prolonged period of uninterrupted and unchecked Conservative government at Westminster’. And? The rest of the UK choosing, if it did so, to elect a Conservative government would be democratically legitimate. Scotland has a fair – in fact slightly disproportionately high – number of MPs sitting in the Commons, each directly elected and with solid Parliamentary powers. Disliking the presumed will of the rest of the country is no reason to leave, especially when the Conservatives are now the elected main opposition in Scotland. She further complained that ‘some predict that the Tories could be in power now at Westminster until 2030 or beyond’. Hence the indefinite future of Scotland is being at least partially based upon third party political speculation, in any case a hopeless task of guesswork with the worlds of social attitudes, economics, culture, foreign affairs, and their sway on politics as unpredictable and complex as they are.

Ms Sturgeon is keen on ’trust[ing] the people to make that choice’. Older folks with good memories may recall a similar referendum in 2014. The choice of the people was decisively called for a Scotland within the UK, by a margin of over 10%. This occurred at a time when Eurosceptic sentiment was substantial across the country and the Tories had pledged an EU referendum. The possibility of Brexit was very real, and it was on these terms that Scotland voted to stay in the UK. Refreshing the result is not democratic. In fact it is the opposite of democratic. Democracy does not strengthen as elections or referenda become more frequent. Otherwise the Scots might as well hold one on an annual basis. Heck, why not every six months? Or, indeed, why not hold a general election so regularly? The whole point of a vote is that it gives a strong, reasonably long-term mandate. To make a referendum periodic would be to cripple this importance and undermine the integrity of the referendum.

In fact referenda are constitutionally ugly. It is with good reason that the pragmatic Germans ban them outright. A referendum abhors the Parliamentary process on which our democratic system is based. Opening a question to a nationwide vote does away with the safeguards that such a system provides. It is a very powerful action and should only be taken in exceptional circumstances and with certainty from Parliament itself. The question of self-governance and the means by which legislators and governments are elected is one such circumstance. Hence a referendum on the European Union was the only suitable way to satisfy the decades-long itch in British politics, and indeed Parliament voted to hold one in a 6-to-1 majority. The issue of how a country is governed, and by whom, is necessarily a popular issue. It is also why the issue of how Parliament is elected was rightly decided in a 2011 referendum. It is for these reasons why it was right to demand the question of Scottish independence be settled in a referendum by the people of Scotland.
Settled it was and settled it is. If the integrity of a referendum is to respected, it must not be abused by rehashing it whenever a political event is not to the First Minister’s taste. It is true that she wants a successful post-Brexit UK, and stated that she ‘want[s] the UK to get a good deal from the EU negotiations’. This is all very gracious, but how constructive would a Scottish referendum and the prospect of a Scottish departure from the UK be to the Prime Minister’s position as she midwifes the highly difficult and valuable departure from the European Union and any accompanying agreements? At such a time it is more critical than ever to maintain as stable a domestic arrangement as possible. If there was ever an appropriate time for a referendum, this is not it. Support for independence remains a minority view; indeed, Sturgeon yesterday enthusiastically retweeted a poll showing a six-point lead for remaining in the UK. If the importance of democratic votes and the security of the UK, including Scotland, are to be upheld, it is imperative to affirm the continuity of one of the world’s most successful and mutually prosperous unions.

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