The Scottish Government has announced that there is to be a draft bill for a second referendum on Scottish independence – indyref2. There is already much comment about what the question will be (perhaps a variant of Leave/Remain to comply with Electoral Commission guidance post 2014), whether independence will win this time, what the terms of divorce might look like and the perennial questions about currency, deficits and pensions. Yet, there has been no recognition that indyref2 has already been decided and the answer is No.
Whilst many, myself included, believe independence should be a matter for the Scottish people, the fact remains that it isn’t. Even the SNP reluctantly acknowledge that independence is reserved to Westminster. Should there be an overall majority at Holyrood in May 2021, the Scottish Parliament can only request permission from Westminster for a Section 30 Order under the Scotland Act for the temporary powers to hold indyref2. That was the process last time (the Edinburgh Agreement of 2012) and the assumption is that Westminster will once again meekly comply. Leaving aside the poor taste in raising deeply divisive constitutional issues in the midst of a global pandemic, there is one reason above all others why the UK Government and Conservative MPs are likely to reject a request for indyref2 – they have already promised their voters to do so.
Page 45 of the Conservative Party Manifesto 2019 couldn’t be more clear. In full:
“We are opposed to a second independence referendum and stand with the majority of people in Scotland, who do not want to return to division and uncertainty. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP promised that the 2014 referendum would be a ‘once in a generation’ vote and the result was decisive. We believe that outcome should be respected.”
This was written in the full knowledge that subsequent Holyrood elections may produce pro-independence majorities. Yet there are no caveats, no ‘unless circumstances change’ cop-outs. Even the bold script is Boris’s emphasis, not mine.
Manifestos matter. It’s not a legal matter – there is no question that Parliament has the power to decide what it likes. However, that doesn’t mean that it has the right to do so and this is where manifestos come in. Along with a candidate’s speeches during a campaign, the manifesto is effectively the contract between MP and voter. During the last Parliament, rebel Conservative MPs tested the country’s tolerance on this point nearly to breaking point by reneging on their No Deal pledge in their 2017 manifesto (page 36). They cited grounds of conscience although they, with very few exceptions, had made no mention of their dilemma when seeking election. The electorate rendered their judgement on them all at the subsequent general election.
Bottom line: you need the consent of the electorate for major constitutional decisions. Whether it is House of Lord reform (Blair 1997), joining EEC (Heath 1970), staying in EEC/EU (Wilson 1974, Cameron 2015), leaving EU (Johnson 2019), devolution (Wilson 1974, Blair 1997) and so on… they were all in the winning manifestos. It’s how our democracy works; our process for constitutional change. It has worked for generations.
The sole exception to this principle was Cameron’s decision to approve indyref1. This struck me at the time as pregnant with danger for our democracy, let alone UK. I wrote Betrayal of Britain (serialised on this site in 2016) as a result. If this analysis is wrong, then think about the Monarchy. If Parliament really does have the right as well as the power to decide these profound constitutional questions for itself, then how could anyone object if Parliament woke up tomorrow and voted to abolish the Monarchy? It would be perfectly legal but only the most naïve would expect the country to accept it. As with all this, to abolish the Monarchy you would first need a mandate from the people.
Given that the very existence of UK, the survival of Great Britain as an identity, let alone our flag and 313 years of shared history – good and bad – are at stake, it would be a brave MP indeed who could look their constituent in the eye and explain why this promise is being broken.
So how can Scotland become independent when it is subject to the tyranny of Westminster? The answer is simple. As with devolution, UK-wide parties need to be persuaded of Scotland’s right to choose and include it in their manifestos. I would support that pledge even if it resulted in the end of the country I love. I have yet to hear of an SNP supporter or politician making any such appeal to Labour, Liberal Democrats or even the Conservatives.
The Tory pledge to block indyref2 is there for all to read today. It would save a lot of time and energy that could be devoted to other things right now if anyone interested in indyref2 could give it a glance.
Indyref2 was decided on 12 December 2019. Someone, please tell Nicola.