Tom Harris says the First Minister’s much vaunted “cast iron mandate” for a second independence referendum does not stand up to close examination, and this leaves Nicola Sturgeon in a tough spot.
John Curtice, the esteemed pollster, is the latest commentator to repeat the rarely-questioned line that Theresa May dare not risk saying No to the nationalists if they call for another independence referendum. To do so would be to risk sending support for separatism soaring, apparently.
Well, maybe, but maybe not. After all, many of the same commentators wrongly predicted that support for independence would soar in the event of Scotland voting differently from the rest of the country in the EU referendum. Still, it’s worth re-examining the case for Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that she has a “cast iron” mandate for holding another referendum less than three years after the last one.
There’s undoubtedly a majority in the Scottish Parliament for another referendum – and another one after that if we get another “wrong” result, and another one after that… But mandates don’t come from politicians, they come from the voters. So what “mandate” did voters give Nicola Sturgeon and what was the mandate for?
The SNP could have, had they wished, made an unequivocal manifesto promise to hold a referendum in the event of Scotland “being taken out of the EU against its will”. So why didn’t they do that? It’s odd that I have asked this question on a number of occasions in the last nine months, but no one has yet even tried to answer.
When David Cameron presented his 2015 general election manifesto, the commitment within it was unambiguous: “We will hold an in-out referendum on our membership of the EU before the end of 2017”. Why didn’t the SNP manifesto say something along the lines of “If Scotland votes Remain but a majority of the UK votes Leave, we will hold a referendum on Scottish independence”?
Against such unequivocal language, what actually appeared in the SNP manifesto looks strangely ambiguous: “We believe the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another independence referendum…” Well, of course you do. That’s always been the SNP’s opinion, consistently held over many years. So what? Why announce in a manifesto that the party hasn’t changed its mind as to which legislative body should have the right to hold referendums?
The ‘commitment’ in the SNP’s 2016 manifesto was no commitment at all: it was a complaint, a grievance, a statement of the obvious. But it was not a promise to take any action whatever, and we should ask why. Why was a more explicit commitment to a referendum not made?
Then there is the other aspect of the claimed “mandate”. In 2012, David Cameron accepted Alex Salmond’s mandate to hold a referendum because he had won an overall majority at Holyrood the previous year. Lest we forget, Nicola Sturgeon fell short of that achievement in 2016. Not only that, there is the other matter of the so-called Edinburgh Agreement, in which both Scottish and UK governments agreed to abide by and respect the result of the referendum. Was this agreement respected? No, it was not. So why would the UK government enter into yet another one?
Ah but, say the nationalists, circumstances changed after September 2014, circumstances that no one could possibly have foreseen. Who, after all, could possibly have predicted that UK voters would wish to leave the EU while Scotland voted (for the UK) to remain? Well, since you ask, Alex Salmond. It’s right there in the SNP’s White Paper, “Scotland’s Future”, published a year before the 2014 referendum, near the top of page 210: “If we remain part of the UK, a referendum on future British membership of the EU could see Scotland taken out of the EU against the wishes of the people of Scotland.”
The nationalists did their best to warn us of this possibility during the campaign. Scots understood those warnings, understood that the Tories would call an In/Out referendum if they won a majority at the next UK general election. And then they voted No. Nothing has changed since then.
If Salmond and Sturgeon believed that another referendum could be justified in those circumstances, why didn’t they think to mention that before we went to the polls in 2014? Shouldn’t they have inserted words to that effect in the Edinburgh Agreement? Wouldn’t that have been more honest?
And let’s look at this argument that a “material change in circumstance” warrants a rerun of a referendum. Let’s imagine that Yes won in September 2014. The fall in the global price of oil that materialised shortly afterwards would still have occurred, blasting a hole in the finances of the soon-to-be independent Scottish Government. That, surely, would have constituted a “material change in circumstance”.
Would such a change have justified a second referendum to give Scots a chance to change their minds? No. Because, as the then First Minister promised us repeatedly, the 2014 vote was a “once in a generation opportunity.” Or were we wrong to believe him?
And the other significant reason Cameron authorised the 2014 referendum was a very simple one: there had never been such a referendum before. Today is different. There was a recent independence referendum, one in which a decisive majority of Scots said No.
The current First Minister added her name to the Edinburgh Agreement, formally stating that she would accept the result. Her party warned us of the possibility that Scotland might be taken out of the EU if we voted No, and we voted No anyway. The SNP chose – for reasons no one quite understands yet – not to include an explicit commitment to holding a referendum in their 2016 manifesto. And anyway, that manifesto did not receive enough support to win the SNP an overall majority at Holyrood.
I sympathise with the First Minister. She probably understands these arguments as well as anyone. But she has a party to satisfy, an army of activists with no patience for legalities or mandates or logic.
Sturgeon is in a difficult position. My heart bleeds. No, really.