Part 1 – Blocked Parliamentary Routes.
I am in complete disagreement with Tony Blair. As anyone who can read my blog will know, this is surprising. To me he remains the best Prime Minister of my lifetime (1954, since you so kindly ask) and will judged as such by history. However, he was not infallible, and is not infallible now, which is why I take issue with his warning that a No vote in the forthcoming EU referendum will lead to Scotland leaving the UK (Tony Blair interview)
In fact there are a number of very serious legal and political hurdles in the way of such a thing happening.
- The Law.
It remains undisputed that under the 1998 Scotland Act, the constitution of the UK is a reserved power; and that as in the case of the 2014 referendum, a specific Order in Council would needed to temporarily transfer the authority to the Scottish Government for calling a further referendum. In short, a repeat referendum is not in the power of the Scottish First Minister, or her Government or the Scottish Parliament.
To hold a referendum without the legislative consent of Westminster would be both pointless and impractical, as it would be clear that it has no standing in the law of the land. It would be pointless as those opposed to the independence proposition would be feel totally justified to boycott such a referendum, and the UK government to ignore it.
An unofficial referendum would also be impractical. Those responsible for staffing polling stations, counting ballots, and monitoring outcomes would all need to be paid – at the same cost as the 2014 referendum this would be £15.8 million (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-34157264). As the referendum would be pointless, it would be quite reasonable for taxpayers to seek legal redress against such expenditure; alternatively, the Scottish Government would need to risk the political fallout and ridicule from such an expensive vanity project.
To conclude: the Scottish Parliament route to a second independence referendum has no foundation in law unless approved by Westminster.
- Referendums 2014 and 2016.
The first point to make about the 2014 referendum is that its result was firm No. Even the SNP admits this, although many of their supporters still subscribe to conspiracy theories of fraud or ascribe their defeat to such bogey figures as “pensioners” or “the old” or “English incomers” or the like. In fact, the big problem for the nationalists is that NO won in every age group except one, according to the best available polling evidence (YouGov recall poll)
So the result was cut and dried – although it is part of the nationalist mentality to deny this piece of historical fact. Like the old Scottish football manager Jimmy Sirrell used to say: “the score is what it says in the paper – anything more is gossip.” In this case, the score was 55 No, 45 Yes, and the rest is tosh.
What is more, even though the Nationalists insist that it is just a matter of time, or one more heave, or a short put on the 18th green, the winning margin of 10% actually works to their disadvantage.
In 2012 when the Conservative-LibDem coalition agreed to the 2014 referendum, it did so a number of assumptions. Chief amongst these was that independence was not a popular cause: at the time opinion polls put No about 20% ahead, and it was expected that this lead would climb in common with other the progress of comparable campaigns. As in: “Basic rules of referendum dynamics” in attached article, especially “(1.) Opinion during referendum campaigns tends to shift towards the status quo.”
In the event, the progress was in the other direction. This means that no-one will take a No vote for granted when considering a future referendum. In short, the more likely it is the independence will win, the less likely a referendum being granted will become.
The 2014 referendum was also widely trailed by the SNP, the Scottish Government (in its White Paper), the Electoral Commission and the official Yes campaign (as well as by the UK government) as a “once in a lifetime” or “once in a generation” event. So there can be no surprise when it transpires to be just that.
There is considerable speculation that the 2016 EU referendum could be the trigger for a second independence referendum, i.e., if Scotland votes one way and the rest of UK votes the other. This is described as “Scots being dragged out of Europe against their will.” (Another possible outcome in a close vote would presumably be “the English being dragged into Europe against their will.”)
In fact, the EU referendum would and should have no such status. It will be an all-UK (and Gibraltar) vote with every voter having the same voice and weight of opinion – that is the whole point. The border between England and Scotland will for this purpose have as little meaning as that between East and West Sussex. Any move to have the result of the 2016 referendum trigger a further independence referendum would need to overcome the same hurdles as any other attempt and are described here.
To conclude: the closer than expected outcome of the 2014 referendum makes a second referendum less likely rather than a near-certainty. The 2016 EU referendum does not create any special conditions which make it more likely.
- Westminster and 2015 General Election.
The No outcome of the 2014 referendum confirmed above all that Scots wish to continue to be part of the UK and to be governed though two institutions: their Scottish Parliament at Holyrood (for devolved matters ) and their UK Parliament (for reserved issues.)
In doing so, they accepted that in electing its Westminster MPs, these would be in a minority when included with the MPs from the much more populous other parts of the UK. In choosing to elect 56 (then) SNP MPs, the constituencies concerned were also aware it was unlikely that their MPs would take any part in a UK government. This was unfortunate – in that they had given up any realistic chance of influence on reserved matters such as social security, pensions, or indeed the constitution – but was their free and democratic (if arguably ill-advised) choice.
For the purposes of scotching the myth that a second referendum can happen, the eclipse of the Labour Party in Scotland and its decline in marginal seats in England in the 2015 General Election mean that the Conservatives are likely to be in power continuously for the foreseeable future. It is therefore unimaginable that there will be a party in power at Westminster with a mandate – the consent of its voters – to take any step that would lead to the dissolution of the UK.
Alternatively, the outcome of the 2015 general Election in Scotland can be seen as a paradoxical neutering of the SNP. By taking nearly all of the seats, they have ensured that Scottish voters have negligible leverage over either Tory government or the Labour opposition, who both have next to no seats to lose. The House of Commons arithmetic also means that any movement towards a non-Tory government would need to include Labour gaining seats in Scotland, which would be at the expense of the SNP itself – and a declining presence would be the opposite of a mandate for a second referendum.
To conclude: the Westminster Parliament route to a second independence referendum is so unlikely as to be negligible.
(Part 2 – Extra-Parliamentary Routes To Follow.)