29 June 2022

Downing St’s answer to Sturgeon’s latest referendum gambit should be short and simple

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The Scottish National Party’s approach to independence can be roughly summarised as follows: we only have to be lucky once, you have to be lucky every time. Having failed to win the referendum described by Alex Salmond as a ‘once in a generation opportunity’, the SNP’s tactics have shifted to finding any excuse to hold another vote, and another one, and another one, until they finally get the result they want – which will, of course, reflect the settled and incontrovertible will of the Scottish people.

The primary barrier to this process is the fact that the Scottish Parliament does not have the right to break up the United Kingdom whenever it should so choose. Nicola Sturgeon’s latest attempt to evade this barrier is to present a bill on holding a ‘consultative’ referendum, and invite the Supreme Court to rule on its legality. The Court seems likely to find that it would be unconstitutional, and if it doesn’t then Westminster would be within its rights to simply overrule Holyrood anyway

This brings us to Sturgeon’s back-up plan. In the event that a vote can’t be held, the SNP will designate the next general election a ‘de facto independence referendum’. The Scottish Government first said a vote share over 50% would be considered a mandate to negotiate with Downing St over the terms of separation. Today, however, John Swinney is suggesting it means getting over 50% of Scottish MPs – a very different proposition indeed.

These negotiations on Number 10’s part should be very short, and consist of the word ‘no’. The United Kingdom is almost unique in its relaxed approach to secession, but there must, at some point, be a limit. The SNP’s latest actions are pushing the boundaries not just of what is legal, but what is tolerable.

A country needs a certain amount of stability in order to function. If large sections may detach themselves at any point, this is almost impossible to provide; government decisions on investment, borrowing, infrastructure, public services, would all have to be made with the thought that Scotland could leave at any moment. For a union of nations to function, it cannot be purely transactional; if Scotland leaves the moment the cost-benefit equation tilts the wrong way, then we can equally ask why England should stay when it finds itself subsidising Edinburgh. There must be an assumption that the members of the union will stay together when times are rough, as well as when they are good.

This need for stability has undermined the Government’s approach to handling independence: one referendum, one vote, before the issue is closed for an extended period. The new tactics adopted by the SNP threaten this stance. Any referendum held by Edinburgh would be ‘consultative’, as Sturgeon notes. Well, so was the Brexit referendum, technically speaking. The very act of holding a vote can create political forces that make it difficult to ignore the vote.

In this vein, while the rhetoric around treating the next election as a de facto referendum is electoral grandstanding, this does not mean that it is without consequences. If other parties correctly point out that no mandate for independence would result from the vote and the SNP sneak over the line to a majority, then we will face years of Sturgeon and company using the result to attempt to drag Scotland ever closer to the door.

What if there is a second referendum though? There are a range of tactics Unionists could deploy. We could make it clear that we will not subsidise a newly independent Scottish state. We could state that conditions of exit would include the assumption of a share of debt proportional to the money spent on Scotland. We could draw the boundaries around oil and gas fields in the way most beneficial to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. We could even point out that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and insist that regions which vote to remain in the Union should be permitted to do so.

But really, we shouldn’t get to a position where any of those things are necessary. Sturgeon’s aim may be to provoke a response, but there are points at which responses are warranted. Westminster must be absolutely clear that there will be no referendum in 2023, that if the Supreme Court says it can go ahead, Parliament will strike it down. Clear too that there will be no negotiations after the next general election, and that any attempt to hold an illegal vote in the future will be met with the full force of the law.

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Sam Ashworth-Hayes is an economist, writer and policy analyst who has previously worked as Director of Studies at the Henry Jackson Society.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.