BY EFFIE DEANS
Sturgeon plans to hold an independence referendum next October, but she hasn’t published a bill. Yet somehow this unpublished bill is going to the Supreme Court to determine if it is legal or not. If it is legal, we will have an unofficial non-binding referendum with the same question as in 2014. If it is not legal, she plans to turn the General Election (most likely taking place in 2024) into a de facto referendum on independence.
But why does the SNP think it has the right to rerun the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” It is obviously biased not merely because it gives the SNP the advantage of campaigning for Yes. More importantly the vast majority of Scots think that Scotland already is a country. It’s like asking people in Yorkshire if “Yorkshire ought to be an independent county?” Well of course we should be independent, we’re big Tykes now we don’t need anything from those Lancastrians.
Independence is a positive characteristic. We become independent when we grow up, become adults and leave home. So, the question in 2014 was really asking proud Scots is Scotland a country that does not depend on someone else. It’s a miracle there were any No voters at all.
A fair question would involve making it clear that Scotland would be leaving the UK and that the UK would cease to exist after Scottish secession. This is why I always write about the former UK rather the rest of the UK. There would be no UK at all, just as there was no Yugoslavia once its constituent parts left.
A fair question might be “Should Scotland leave the UK or remain in the UK?”. Sturgeon won’t use this question because she knows she would lose. But this makes her pretendyref illegitimate from the start.
If an unofficial pretendyref2 either doesn’t happen or is boycotted by Pro UK people then the next General Election will be pretendyref3. But what would constitute winning?
In a General Election we each vote in constituencies. But even winning all of the seats in Scotland does not give you a majority. There is nowhere for these Scottish MPs to sit other than Westminster. All of the Scottish MPs together cannot form a majority there. For Scottish independence to take place legally there needs to be a British Government and a majority of Westminster MPs to pass a bill to repeal the Act of Union.
Sturgeon might think that winning a majority of seats in Scotland gets her independence, but it doesn’t unless Westminster votes for Scottish independence. The Yorkshire National Party can win all of the Yorkshire seats at a General Election, but it doesn’t make Yorkshire independent unless Westminster agrees.
It isn’t enough to declare that the next election will be a de facto referendum on independence because other parties and the electorate might not agree. Scottish Labour and the Lib Dems will hope to win the election with the help of their colleagues in other parts of the UK. The Conservatives will hope to defend their majority. Some voters will be desperate to get rid of Boris, others will hope to bring about socialism, still others will want the UK to rejoin the EU. Sturgeon cannot decide what an election is about.
If Sturgeon can turn a General Election into a referendum on leaving the UK, other parties could equally turn it into a UK wide vote on the UK remaining united in perpetuity, making a manifesto commitment to abolishing the possibility of Scottish independence. If the whole of the British electorate voted for this what could Sturgeon do?
This is the problem with acting unilaterally. Amusingly it is possible at any time for a British Government to vote to repeal the Scotland Act and abolish the Scottish Parliament, thereby making Sturgeon unemployed and preventing at a stroke the SNP doing anything at all. A British Government with a majority and the will to use it can pass any bill to counter any SNP threat.
But there is a more important reason why a General Election cannot be turned into a referendum. Multiple candidates stand at an election. With a First Past the Post system, it is possible to win all of the seats with around a third of the vote. Yes won 44% of the vote in 2014, but 44% will win most seats in Scotland when the Pro UK side is divided into three competing parties. Sturgeon wants to rerun a two-horse race by chopping the opposing horse up in to three parts as if Yellow Nat versus a tin of dog food was a fair contest.
The SNP would need to win a plurality of the electorate at a General Election to claim any sort of mandate. People who stay away from the polls are obviously not enthusiastic enough about independence to vote for it.
But there is a further problem for Sturgeon. If we were to decide independence by means of a General Election then we would be having a referendum in each constituency. This would mean that those constituencies that voted for a Pro UK party would be justified in remaining in the UK. If the Borders or Orkney and Shetland didn’t vote SNP, why should they be dragged out of the UK against their will?
A still larger problem with Sturgeon’s desperate plan either to try to obtain independence by means of an unofficial referendum or by means of a General Election is that Scottish voters would have no idea what we were voting for. Assuming that the British Government does not put forward a series of briefing papers explaining what it would intend to do in the event of Scotland leaving the UK, we would only have the SNP’s view about issues like currency, the border, shared debt and shared assets and the future of trade between Scotland and the former UK.
People argued that in the EU referendum voters were ignorant, but at least both sides were able to debate the issue and both the EU and the British Government expressed their views. Neither an unofficial referendum nor a hijacked General Election would properly scrutinise what leaving the UK would involve for Scotland, because only the SNP would be arguing and everyone else would either not take part or would be talking about something else.
It is for this reason that Sturgeon’s plans cannot possibly work. Scotland cannot legitimately leave the UK until the Scottish electorate has the details of separation explained in such a way that everyone knows what we are voting for and chooses it. But this can only take place if there is a referendum like in 2014 where both sides are engaged and both sides are involved.
Sturgeon needs the Pro UK side to take part if she hopes to bring us with her into an independent Scotland. She needs us to accept that we have legitimately been defeated. We would have accepted that in 2014, because it was a fair fight and both sides gave it their best shot.
But we will not cooperate in founding an independent Scotland if the SNP tries to get there by means of a ruse or a General Election where the meaning of the outcome is contested. In that case we will either leave, which would be a disaster for Scotland with a declining population, or else we will sullenly do our best to ignore Scottish independence.
I would think of myself as an ex-pat British citizen and would pay as little attention to the Scottish state as I would if I were working in Iran pay attention to the outpourings of the mad mullahs. I would merely continue to delight in the mountains and lochs that even the SNP could not ruin.
The SNP needs to bring us with it to succeed in the end, otherwise it will merely win a Scotland more divided even than it is now. It’s not enough for Sturgeon to convince the Jacobites absurdly re-enacting the Battle of Bannockburn, she must convince us too that the process by which each side of the debate wins or loses is a fair contest rather than a rigged race.
The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.