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Changing the conventions of Scottish politics

British politics is about conventions. One of the most important of these is the one about a political manifesto. Few of us read manifestos. But this is not really their point. A party does write a manifesto to persuade people to vote for it. How many voters read manifestos? Rather a party uses the manifesto to justify what it hopes to do in the future. This is really why we are having a General Election at the moment. There is a convention that if something is in a party’s manifesto, then the House of Lords will not block it. The British public by voting for a government shows that it gives its consent to that party’s manifesto. It does this even if almost no-one reads the manifesto.

The fact that something is in a manifesto then has a peculiar force. It turns it into government policy backed by the electorate. It is for this reason that it is usually worth digging around a manifesto to see if there is anything of importance.

In the present Conservative Party manifesto there are some sentences that I think are of crucial importance.

We have been very clear that now is not the time for another referendum on independence. In order for a referendum to be fair, legal and decisive, it cannot take place until the Brexit process has played out and it should not take place unless there is public consent for it to happen. This is a time to pull together, not apart. (p.32)

This might seem just like a repetition of what Theresa May has been saying since the SNP said that they wanted another independence referendum. But remember this is now not merely a Prime Minister expressing an opinion this is a manifesto commitment that will be backed by everyone who votes Conservative. If Sturgeon later questions Theresa May’s right to say “not yet”, then May can simply point to her manifesto and the backing of the British people.

It’s worth looking in some detail at the wording of these sentences. The phrase “fair, legal and decisive” has been heard before. It is from the Edinburgh Agreement of 2012. At this point the SNP and the UK Government agreed that the independence referendum would deliver a “fair test and a decisive expression of the views of people in Scotland and a result that everyone will respect”. The Conservative manifesto is reminding us that crucially we have already had an independence referendum. The result was decisive. What does this word “decisive” mean? It means that the independence referendum of 2014 settled the issue. It was final. It was conclusive. If you disagree I suggest that you get hold of a dictionary and look up the meaning of the word “decisive”.

What the SNP frequently fail to realise is that having the referendum of 2014 changed the convention. Until that point no-one had ever asked the Scottish electorate whether we wanted to stay in the United Kingdom. Our saying that we did want to stay changed the political convention in Scotland.

At some point in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher said that if the SNP won a majority of seats in Scotland they could have independence. David Cameron thought that the mere fact the SNP had won a majority in the Scottish Parliament was enough for him to have to give in to SNP demands for an independence referendum. But conventions change. It may seem unfair that this is so, but this is how British politics works. The convention about when and whether Scotland can have an independence referendum has changed. It has changed because we have already had an independence referendum and the result was decisive.

There is no right to an independence referendum in international law. If there were then the vast majority of Western democracies could be prosecuted. But there is a convention in British politics that we govern by consent. If it became clear that Scotland really wanted another independence referendum then the convention is that the UK Government would allow it. This remains the case. But we are not in the same circumstance that we were in when the SNP asked David Cameron. The SNP signed up to the Edinburgh Agreement and agreed to respect the result. It is obvious that the SNP never did respect the result. They were campaigning for indyref2 the day after indyef1. But the UK Government signed up to the Agreement too and Theresa May is justified in respecting the 2014 result and recognising that the result was decisive. It is this above all that has changed the convention of Scottish politics. It must take into account that the Scottish electorate exercised its right to self-determination in 2014 in a way that it has never done before or since. No mere election can overturn this act of popular sovereignty in which the Scottish electorate expressed a clear wish to remain a part of the UK. Having had a decisive referendum a second one precisely thereby becomes harder to justify. It is this above all that justifies Theresa May’s decision to say “not yet”.

But when might there be a second independence referendum? Here the Conservative manifesto adds a few interesting words. Brexit must be “played out”. What does this mean? The sentence could have said simply that the Brexit negotiations must have been completed. But “played out” implies something further. The manifesto is suggesting that it won’t be enough merely to complete the negotiations, we will also have to see how Brexit is working in practice. The reality is that “play out” is vague enough to justify any sort of delay that Theresa May might wish for. At any rate we shall have to exhaust Brexit before we even approach indyref2. This means not merely 2 years starting from March 2017, but perhaps 4 years or who knows how many years.

But Nicola Sturgeon is going to have to wait not merely for time, she is also going to have to wait for “public consent”. This again shows that the convention governing a Scottish independence referendum is being changed. The most important point to realise is that the Conservative manifesto implies that the SNP do not have “public consent” right now. If they did have “public consent” how could Theresa May justify delaying the referendum? But the Scottish Parliament recently decided that it did indeed want to have a second independence referendum. There was a vote and the SNP joined with the Scottish Greens to form a majority. The Conservative manifesto is arguing that this does not amount to “public consent”. Mere elections are not now enough.

What would constitute “public consent”? I have no idea. This is the beauty of the Conservative manifesto commitment on Scottish independence. Not only is the time frame vague, but so also the idea of “public consent” is vague. Taken together it amounts to this. You can have your independence referendum when I decide you can have it.

In Britain we govern with consent. But the fact that we had a decisive referendum on Scottish independence has changed the game. The SNP are going to have to demonstrate an overwhelming desire in Scotland for an independence referendum before they get one. How might they do this? For instance, when next there is an election for the Scottish Parliament, the SNP could put in its manifesto an unambiguous commitment to a second independence referendum. They could then explicitly say that this election is about independence rather than attempt to hide this. They could then win a large majority. If all of these things happened and public opinion polls showed a consistent desire for an independence referendum then our new Scottish political convention might well be to grant it. But the independence referendum of 2014 has created a higher bar than previously for the SNP to jump over. Merely winning an election is not enough. They have to overcome the will of the people that was expressed in 2014. This anyway is the view that Theresa May is putting forward in her manifesto. The act of doing so in itself changes the Scottish political convention.

If the Conservatives win a large majority in the UK then the commitments in their manifesto will be backed by the British electorate. Scottish independence would destroy the UK. It concerns all of us. There is nothing in the manifesto to suggest that “public consent” applies only to Scotland. Perhaps we are moving to it being a matter for the UK as a whole. We shall see. These things evolve.

It is clear then that the Conservative manifesto could hardly be more Pro UK. It can act as an anchor guaranteeing our position rooted in the decision of 2014 being decisive. It is vital then that as many parts of Scotland as possible show that we support the Conservative stance on a second independence referendum. It is essential too that we reject the Lib Dem idea that there should be a second EU referendum, for this crucially undermines our stance on Scottish independence.

Every Scottish constituency that is Conservative is demonstrating that it does not consent to indyref2. It also demonstrates that we agree with the Conservative manifesto commitment to preserving the United Kingdom’s unity.

Theresa May is changing the conventions of Scottish politics. She is gradually making it harder and harder for the SNP to break up our country. We must back her and we must show her that we support this. Even if just once, lend the Conservatives your support for the sake of preserving Britain. This is our chance to tell Nicola Sturgeon that we are sick of her continual threats. This is our chance to shut her up.

The SNP must be made to accept that we said “No” and that just as Brexit means Brexit so too “No means No”. There is a word for someone who doesn’t accept this. For too long the SNP have tried to ride roughshod over the fact that we said “No” and that we do not consent to their continual attacks on our country. On June the 8th it really is time that we sent the SNP a clear message. We reject your attentions, we reject your assaults and your refusal to respect our decisions and our wishes. You do not have our consent. Show them this by voting Conservative. If enough of us vote Conservative we will be able to stop indyref2. Theresa May will be able to point to every Conservative Scottish constituency to remind Sturgeon that she still lacks “public consent” and she will be able to point to her manifesto as justifying her “not yet” strategy indefinitely. Every Conservative vote anywhere in Scotland is one more that will help our Theresa May continue to stand up to Sturgeon.

This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: http://effiedeans.blogspot.com/2017/05/changing-conventions-of-scottish.html

About Effie Deans

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Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger who works at the University of Aberdeen. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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One comment

  1. Excellent Effie. I presume it can be taken as read that nowhere in the 2012 agreement to hold indyref1 did it say that a secongpd referendum would be held if Scottish circumstances changed materially, hence negating this statement by Sturgeon that the EU Referendum was a material change and therefore indyref2 must happen.
    I also totally agree with your staythat Scottish independence is not just a matter for Scotland as the break up of the UK is of material importance to us all.

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