Tom Harris says much of the reaction to the recent poll showing a majority in favour of Scottish independence ignores two critical points, one political and one moral, which should give us pause for thought.
The latest poll from Lord Ashcroft is getting everyone in Scotland very excited. Years of polling that consistently showed little or no change since the independence referendum of 2014 isn’t very newsworthy, it seems. But a single poll, in the wake of Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister, showing 52 per cent prepared to vote for independence, is.
It may be an outlier, it may be not. It may be more of a short-term reaction against Johnson and Brexit than a new determined view of the Scottish electorate. No doubt we’ll find out in time. In the meantime, nationalists see an opportunity to take Scotland out of the UK with the support of a bare majority.
We need two lessons: one is political, and one is biblical.
So often have we heard the expression, “The settled will of the Scottish people” that we perhaps don’t bother thinking about what it means. It was one of the late John Smith’s favourite ways to explain why devolution for Scotland was right. He didn’t claim that a Scottish Parliament should be set up because a majority of Scots wanted it to be so; he said that devolution was right because a constant and large majority of Scots had decided that this was the right solution for the whole country.
It’s why the 1997 devolution referendum didn’t divide Scotland in the same way that subsequent referendums did. When any poll or referendum could comfortably gather the support of two thirds of the electorate, the outcome could hardly be described as controversial. Even those opposed to devolution had to accept the result. It was the settled will.
So even if, on two or three days last week, a small majority of Scots claimed to support independence, that does not in any way represent our nation’s “settled will”. I do not suggest that it cannot become so – it can and it might, although obviously I hope it doesn’t. Arbitrary figures plucked from the air are always unreliable, but if I had to define what the “settled will” of the Scottish people would look like, I would suggest that consistent support of at least 60 per cent over an uninterrupted period of at least a decade should be demanded.
Do nationalists who rub their hands at the prospect of a 51 per cent victory in a future referendum never stop to ask themselves whether launching a brand new country on such a marginal victory is the best thing for Scotland?
Which brings me to the Bible and King Solomon.
You may be familiar with the story, and if not I blame the schools. King Solomon of Israel had been given wisdom in abundance by God, and he would invite his subjects to come to him with their problems so that he could adjudicate. One day two women, carrying a baby, approached his throne, each claiming to be the true mother of the baby.
Solomon offers to settle the dispute by having the baby cut in half so that each woman can have equal parts, at which point the real mother begs the King to let the other woman have the full, uninjured baby. Solomon wisely deduces that the true mother was the one who was willing to sacrifice her own rights for the good of her child. Read the whole thing for yourself here.
You see where I’m going with this? So long as there exists no settled will of the people in favour of independence, Scotland will be scarred by division and resentment. The creation of a new country is a challenging task, for all citizens. To enjoy success there has to be a near unanimous enthusiasm for the endeavour. Old rivalries and resentments have to be buried. There could be a high chance of that happening if a 60 per cent-plus majority supported independence, and if that figure were long term.
But to trigger another insane dash for 50 per cent of the vote plus one and to claim that as a mandate for ripping Scotland out of a 300-year-old union, would be catastrophic. It would sow the seeds of resentment and hatred for generations. It would take Scotland on a perilous, uncharted course that almost half its population opposed.
Yes, the UK is leaving the European Union on the back of a 52 per cent vote for Leave in 2016. Is that the example Scottish nationalists want to follow? Look at the discord, the family rows, the hounding of politicians, the anger and sadness felt across the country. All this because there was no settled will of the people – there was only a majority. And Scotland would be attempting something far more radical and perilous than merely leaving a trading bloc.
A quick survey of international comparisons concludes the same thing: where countries demand, and win, independence, they do so on the basis of the settled will of their populations.
Surely those who hold a genuine love of Scotland and her people want the best for her? Even if you believe that independence is the best thing for Scotland, surely it’s better to take the whole of Scotland with you, perhaps at some point in the future, than take half of it with you today? Unless, of course, you love your political philosophy more. Unless you place the principle of independence over the happiness of the Scottish people?
Or perhaps you don’t have the confidence in your own arguments that they’re powerful enough to attract widespread support in the future, that they are so limited in their appeal that 50 per cent plus one is the best you can ever hope for? If you think Scotland deserves that, then we will have to continue to disagree. Because Scotland deserves much, much better than that.