Former Glasgow MP Tom Harris, a staunch No campaigner in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, explains why in the event of a second referendum he might vote Yes.
It doesn’t take much to proclaim a “constitutional crisis” these days, does it?
Holding a referendum and then the people disagreeing with the government is, we are informed, a constitutional crisis and not, as more naïve observers might claim, “people choosing to vote in a certain way”.
A Prime Minister choosing to resign between general elections is, apparently, “a constitutional crisis” rather than an event that tends to happen fairly frequently and without much noticeable upheaval.
Different nations and regions of the UK providing a different answer to the question on a referendum ballot paper might be considered an inevitability, given the diverse nature of the UK. But no, in 2016, such an event is – you guessed it – a “constitutional crisis”.
It was the SNP, and no one else, who decided that what they termed “a material change in circumstances” would provoke a second independence referendum. This was primarily to reassure Sturgeon’s party membership that her ill-judged and oft-quoted remark about the last indyref being, well, the last one for at least a generation, could be got round.
Our former First Minister, Alex Salmond, then proclaimed that the renewal of Trident – supported by both Labour and Conservatives at the 2015 general election and therefore always guaranteed to go ahead whatever the result – would constitute a material change of circumstance. And then Alex announced that if Boris Johnson succeeded David Cameron as Prime Minister, that too would constitute a material change in circumstances justifying another referendum.
Without the EU referendum result, it was only a matter of time before Alex decided that David Mundell looking at Nicola Sturgeon “in a funny way” would constitute a material change of circumstance, a “constitutional crisis”, if you will.
But the EU result happened, so here we are. The SNP manifesto – you know, the one that failed to secure a majority of SNP MSPs at Holyrood in May – admitted that the Scottish Parliament has no power to call such a referendum. That’s less a manifesto commitment and more a complaint about the Scotland Act endorsed explicitly in a referendum of the Scottish people in 1997 and implicitly by them in another referendum in September 2014.
This is what it actually said:
“We believe that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people – or if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.”
Well, of course the SNP believe the Scottish parliament should have the right to hold another referendum – what power does the SNP not believe Holyrood should have? That’s always been the party’s position – it has always wanted every power currently wielded by Westminster on our behalf to be devolved. It’s odd that it felt the need to restate its view in such terms in a manifesto.
Because as it is written, it is very definitely not a promise to do anything, even in the circumstances so explicitly outlined, namely Scotland being taken out of the EU “against its will”. It is merely a statement of opinion.
This is important, because the clever people who wrote the SNP manifesto knew exactly what they were doing. They were being deliberately vague, trying to give the impression that the party would definitely hold a referendum in certain circumstances while retaining the get-out that “we never explicitly promised we would.” And they’re right.
Because there are a number of obstacles in the way of a second indyref when, as is inevitable, the First Minister admits to the failure of her efforts to rewrite the founding treaties of the EU to allow Scotland to remain a member of the EU while the rest of the UK Brexits.
The first is that the expected bounce in the polls in favour of independence wasn’t as high as she had hoped. But that may change, and any unionist would be foolish to count on that not happening.
The second, rather more important, obstacle is the one flagged up by that manifesto commitment. If, as the SNP admit, it doesn’t have the authority to hold a referendum, then who does? Why, the UK government, of course. It’s why the Edinburgh Agreement had to be sought last time; without it, mandate or no, Alex would not have secured his referendum.
And circumstances are very different now, two years on. The biggest difference with 2012, when David Cameron gave the OK to the SNP’s demands, is that today, in 2016, an independence referendum is in the very recent past. Salmond and Sturgeon may not have meant what they said about the “once in a generation opportunity”, but you can’t blame everyone else for taking them at their word.
Secondly, Sturgeon failed where her predecessor succeeded. There may be a majority of MSPs in favour of independence, but less than half of them were elected on the manifesto containing the suspiciously vague complaint detailed above. That will be noted in Downing Street.
But let’s just assume that the backbone that’s been roaming restlessly across the country for the last two decades looking for a unionist to take residency in gives up, and the UK establishment capitulates to the SNP again, as they have repeatedly done in the recent past. Let’s assume they agree that, given the EU referendum result in Scotland, a second referendum is at least a possibility.
Last time round, in 2012, a deliberate calculation was made that if Salmond got his way on all his demands – on the timing, the wording of the question and the franchise to be used – then a defeat for the nationalists would kill of f the issue for good.
How did that work out, I wonder?
So, Michael Moore, the then Scottish Secretary, capitulated to every one of Alex’s demands. We’ll see if Prime Minister May approaches this whole question in the same conciliatory (or defeatist – take your pick) way.
So, assuming the First Minister even wants another referendum – and that’s a big assumption if the polls don’t go the way she would like them to – and assuming Theresa May accedes to that request (an even bigger assumption, I would suggest), UK ministers would at the very least be ill-advised to adopt the approach of 2012.
If they agree a referendum at all, they should insist on getting their own way in other areas. First, indyref2 must be held after the UK leaves the EU, so that the question posed to Scotland includes all the new obligations it would have to assume as a new member state of the EU – adopting the euro, surrendering freshly-won powers over fishing and agriculture, and making a sizeable donation to the EU coffers, courtesy of Scottish tax payers.
Second, it seems sensible and logical to insist that the franchise for indyref2 should be the same one that resulted in this so-called “constitutional crisis” (or “result” – take your pick). In other words, no one under the age of 18, no EU nationals – exactly the same franchise used on June 23 and at general elections.
And third, the question should be decided by UK ministers. I would suggest “Do you agree that Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom?”
I’m looking forward to getting my “Yes” posters printed. Any SNP members out there want to buy my “No Thanks” mug?