2 September 2020

Unionists must do much more than just deny the SNP their referendum

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With the polls suggesting that the Scottish Nationalists would be well-positioned to win a second referendum on independence, it is perhaps not surprising that the Government appears to be gravitating towards a strategy of simply refusing to grant them one.

The reasoning is perfectly simple. The 2014 vote was supposed to be a ‘once-in-a-generation’ event. David Cameron even made a point of making concession after concession to Alex Salmond on things like the question and the timing in order to make sure that it produced a decisive result. It would be ridiculous to suggest that the mandate of that referendum has expired a mere six years after it was held.

So far, so reasonable. But unionists have, alas, made life very difficult for themselves when it comes to holding what should be a very straightforward defensive line. Whilst the last referendum was fought on a clear in-or-out question, panicking pro-UK campaigners ended up, through eleventh-hour initiatives such as ‘The Vow’, allowing the separatists to paint the No vote as an extremely conditional one.

Nicola Sturgeon therefore gets a sympathetic hearing from many when she suggests that political events since 2014 have changed the material conditions of the debate enough to justify putting the question again (even if the specific impact of Brexit on support for independence was not what she hoped). Her case is further bolstered by those who argue that any refusal is ‘undemocratic’, a point which is apparently conceded by some on the pro-UK side.

If the Government truly intends to stick to its current position of refusing a referendum, therefore, it can’t just rely on the ‘once-in-a-generation’ mantra. Ministers must start to make a much deeper and more well-rounded case. It won’t convince the nationalists (big-N or small), who will always be ‘outraged’ when they don’t get their way on any given question. But it may win the Government a fairer hearing from ordinary voters who can distinguish a good-faith argument, even one they disagree with, from an unjustified stalling action.

On the democracy argument, they would do well to point out that limitations on how often certain issues can be litigated are in fact a perfectly normal feature of modern democracies. Indeed, many of the ‘normal’ countries the SNP apparently aspire towards combine democracy with constitutional prohibitions on secession and referendums, or both. The UK is actually unusually liberal in its treatment of attempts to break itself up.

Next, there is simply the extraordinary uncertainty of the present political moment. If Scottish voters return a separatist majority at next year’s Holyrood elections, it is almost certain that we will neither know the long-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic nor have a clear idea of what Britain’s future relationship with the European Union will look like. There is a good case that a vote on independence should wait until voters have a clear idea both of the country they are being asked to reject and the international order they are being asked to join.

Then we have the impact of this debate on the Union itself. With the emotional case for the United Kingdom decidedly under-developed, the bulk of the current pro-UK case rests on appeals to the utilitarian benefits of the Union, especially the pooling and sharing of resources and government investment in Scotland – the so-called ‘Union Dividend’. But this function is severely undermined if we don’t place limits on how often the independence question can be asked.

For example, Scotland is currently a net beneficiary of the ‘pooling and sharing’ of money around the UK. There are some signs of growing English dissatisfaction with this, but for the moment it is a fact of life which is borne by the great majority of the population without much complaint.

But this is surely only so because it is supposed to be a system of mutual solidarity: different parts of the country support each other when such support is needed. Scotland and Wales may benefit today, but if the balance of economic fortunes were to change tomorrow their money would help to support struggling parts of England in turn.

A glance at the arguments offered up by some ‘utilitarian unionists’ dispels any such illusions. In such an event, the Union would no longer “make sense for Scotland”, which would – at least in the short term – be better off by going its own way.

This gives unionists two strong motivations to impose some sort of control on independence referendums. The first is to make sure that the SNP aren’t able to sell independence on the back of what could be a short shift in the economic balance of the UK. The second is to ensure that ‘pooling and sharing’ remains just that: a mutual commitment. 

If one party is happy to be a net recipient but reserves the right to walk away should they ever be asked to ‘pay in’, the moral justification for the ‘Union Dividend’ collapses, and voters south of the border will eventually notice. (This is one way in which the Union could be lost ‘in England as well as Scotland’, although perhaps not one which those who usually use that phrase have in mind.)

The same goes for strategic investments, such as shipbuilding, infrastructure, and the Royal Navy base at Faslane. For as long as they remain part of the UK, Scottish voters have every right to expect to be treated equally with other parts of Britain when it comes to such spending.

But the Government also has a duty to the entire country to make sure that these resources are going to benefit it over the long term. It is not unfair to have second thoughts about committing to locating British shipbuilding in Scotland if Scotland may not be British a few short years from now. The relocation of things like naval yards and submarine ports could take decades to complete – if Scottish independence is imminent, there’s no time to waste.

Of course, the Government could also explore alternatives, such as retaining Faslane as a new Sovereign Base Area, but simply placing a reasonable moratorium on a second referendum is likely a less controversial route to some medium-term certainty.

Will the nationalists cry foul? Of course. Theirs is a well-worn strategy of claiming that refusing them anything is both a democratic outrage and, conveniently, in some way unhelpful to the cause of the Union.

But it is difficult to argue that an electorate they deem capable of dissolving the Union forever is somehow incapable of voting to retain it for 15 or 20 years. After all, who is to say that the ‘material conditions’ that deliver a hypothetical pro-independence majority in the mid-2020s won’t have changed just as dramatically by 2030? A ‘No’ vote was, for good reason, no less serious and binding an undertaking than ‘Yes’ would have been.

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Henry Hill is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

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