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You’ve already had your independence referendum

I feel like I’ve been in one long referendum campaign for the past five years and more. I’ve written over two hundred blogs, nearly all of them about Scottish politics. It gets tiring. Now some Scottish nationalists want another referendum. The SNP campaigned for Scottish independence first time round and lost by 10%. They campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU and lost by 4%. Their response each time to losing is the same. We want another go. What if they had a second independence referendum? What if they lost again? Would they want still another go? This is fundamentally anti-democratic and is deeply damaging to our democracy.

It is exceptional for a part of a sovereign nation state to be given the chance to vote for independence. Few indeed are the places in the world that would allow such a vote. I can think of nowhere in Europe. Spain won’t allow Catalonia a legal vote to secede. France would not allow Corsica. Germany would not allow Saxony. The USA fought a war to prevent secession and doubtless would do so again. But the UK Government decided that it would not stand in the way of Scottish independence if that is what the majority wanted. The majority did not want independence. The vote was not even that close. 10% is a big majority in a referendum.

Now what is the point of having a referendum? It is to decide a question one way or another. If it doesn’t do that, it has no purpose. I would have been more than happy if the UK had never gone down the route of having referendums, if we had remained simply a representative democracy. But if you are to have a referendum, the result must be accepted by winners and losers and the result must stand for some considerable time.

So that everything would be fair, both the UK and Scottish Governments signed an agreement in 2012. It’s worth quoting from this Edinburgh Agreement. The Scottish independence referendum of 2014 was to “deliver a fair test and a decisive expression of the views of people in Scotland and a result that everyone will respect.” Has this happened? Have the losers accepted that the result was decisive? Did they respect the result?

Let’s imagine that there were to be another agreement between the UK and Scottish Governments to have a second referendum. Would they use similar wording about the result being decisive and that everyone respecting it? But what would be the point, for we already know that if the Scottish nationalists lost, they would immediately demand a rerun until such time as they won?

But what if the SNP eventually did win one of these independence referendums? Would there be a chance two years down the line for the Scottish people to vote again? Of course there would not. Why do Scottish nationalists get as many chances as they want, but Pro UK people only have to lose once?

It would have been undemocratic and a disgrace if the UK Government had failed to grant Scottish independence if there had been a vote in favour of it. Imagine if the UK Government refused to accept the result and described it as merely advisory. But here is the thing that is so undemocratic. If the SNP win that’s it, Scotland becomes independent. There would be no going back. But if they lose, they think they just have to wait a couple of years to have another go. Sorry, but this die is loaded. This game is rigged.

What we are learning about referendums is that losers don’t want to respect the will of the majority. They just want to win. But this is just the same as if Labour won the majority of seats in Parliament, but the Tories decided they would continue ruling anyway.

If referendums are to mean anything, they have to be implemented and there has to be some considerable gap of time between them. What does a “decisive expression” mean if less than two years after the Scottish independence referendum we have to try again? If referendums don’t decide questions, the answer is not to have more of them, but to have none of them.

Scotland is an integral part of a single nation state called the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom according to the normal usage of the English language is also a country. Far too many Scottish nationalists don’t understand this point. It’s worthwhile therefore once more going to the dictionary. This is from the OED definition of a country:

  1. The land of a person’s birth, citizenship, residence etc.; one’s homeland

Someone who has German citizenship is from the country called Germany, likewise someone who has British citizenship is from the UK. I can’t have Bavarian citizenship unless I can get into a time machine. Likewise I am not a citizen of Scotland. Scottish nationalists may not like this fact, but it nevertheless is the truth. The fact that the UK is made up of parts that formerly were independent, is no different from the fact that Germany, Italy, France and most other countries are made up of formerly independent countries.

This should all be basic. What it means though is that when we have a nationwide UK referendum it is quite simply irrelevant how the various parts of the UK vote. Similarly when there was a referendum in Scotland on independence, it would have made no difference if the Borders had voted to remain. They would have been “dragged” out of the UK against their will. Would that have been unfair and anti-democratic? No, because the vote was across the whole of Scotland and democrats are obliged to accept the will of the majority.

Scottish nationalists will object that the Borders are not a country. But strictly speaking and in international terms neither is Scotland. Scotland is not an independent sovereign nation state. If you ask people all around the world to name the countries of the world they will name nation states. They will not generally name parts of nation states. Scotland has not been a nation state for centuries and recently we voted decisively not to become one again. The fact that Scotland is frequently called a country or even a nation is completely irrelevant. In international terms Scotland is not a country in the way that France is, because Scotland lacks the qualities that define what countries are in international terms. The quality that Scotland lacks is that it is not an independent sovereign nation state. Scotland therefore has no more justified grievance about being “dragged” out of the EU than would the Borders or Aberdeenshire have a grievance if they voted to stay in the UK but Scotland voted to leave. Nicola Sturgeon may act as if she leads an independent country, but she should continually be reminded that she does not. She has the status of the Governor or Texas or the leader of Lower Saxony. Such people are no doubt important in their way, but they really should not get above their station.

Amusingly if the SNP really thinks that parts should have a veto against the whole, then it would be worth reminding them that this could equally apply to any future Scottish independence referendum. In that case they may end up with an independent Scotland consisting of Glasgow and Dundee.

How though should we respond if the SNP actually do decide that they want another independence referendum? I don’t think they will in the end. As I have frequently argued, Brexit makes the argument for Scottish independence much harder to make. But I may be wrong about this. Ruth Davidson and others have suggested that the UK Government ought not to oppose a second referendum. The logic of this is that it would encourage support for independence if the UK Government was seen to be thwarting the will of the Scottish Parliament. The trouble is that too many Scottish politicians respond to the SNP with appeasement. If only we make one more concession to the nationalists, they’ll become proud Brits once more. This is obviously false. There is no appeasing Scottish nationalism. They will take every concession and still ask for more. It’s time to cease giving in or we might as well give up.

But how should we respond to SNP demands? There are a few alternatives that are worth exploring. We could take the Spanish route and follow the example they have shown in dealing with independence demands from Catalonia. The Spanish Government simply tells the Catalans that they will never have a legal vote on independence and that Spain will do everything in its power to stop secession. From the perspective of keeping Spain together, this is without doubt the safest route. But on the other hand it isn’t very democratic. Why force people to stay if they really don’t want to? If the resolve to leave builds up enough, you may even end up with some sort of revolt. The Spanish route is quite clearly both possible and legal. It’s working out fine in Spain. Catalonia is no closer to independence. Still I would be reluctant to suggest that the UK should go down that route unless absolutely necessary. Every time Alex Salmond pops up on television however, I’m inclined to prick his pomposity with an outright refusal. Let us however not play this card, but rather simply keep it always in reserve.

Alternatively you could go down the route of saying to Scotland you can have another referendum whenever you please. The Scottish Nationalists want the Scottish Parliament to control the timing and the wording of all future referendums. But do we really want to go on having endless referendums until the SNP get the result they want? That too is unfair and does not respect the referendum result we had in 2014.

A better position would be to say to the SNP, like Theresa May has just done, you have already had your referendum and the issue is settled. This isn’t to say that there will never be another Scottish independence referendum, but there has to be a decent gap between them. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, the UK simply does not have the time and energy to both deal with leaving the EU and Scottish independence. Secondly we don’t know yet what sort of a relationship the UK will have with the EU. This is not because we don’t have a plan. We do. We plan to leave the EU. But where we will end up depends not just on what we in the UK want, but also on what the European Union wants. We can’t dictate to them. Our plan may conflict with what they want. Let’s hope we end up with a relationship of free trade between friendly European countries. Let’s hope we can all more or less continue to live and work in each other’s countries. But no-one can know for sure how a post Brexit UK will relate to the EU, because we haven’t even begun the negotiations yet.

For this reason any Scottish independence referendum must wait at the very least until the UK leaves the EU. It would make sense furthermore to see how this relationship is working out before Scotland decided that it couldn’t bear to remain in the UK. So the answer to a request from Nicola Sturgeon to hold a second independence referendum ought not to be “No”, but rather “Not yet”. Less than two years have passed since the last one. The SNP talked of that referendum as being a once in a lifetime opportunity. Well two years isn’t a lifetime. How long should the SNP be made to wait? Who knows? This need not be determined now. But here’s my suggestion. Brexiteers had to wait 41 years for a second referendum. Let the SNP wait at least half as long.

In the meantime it is vital that Pro UK remain supporters accept that the UK is going to leave the EU. Decide if you still want Scotland to be part of the UK. If you do, stop helping the Scottish nationalists by agreeing with them. Rather start helping the UK by fighting those who would try to dismember our country. Cease being negative about Britain and our economic prospects. Such negativity is liable to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead help turn life outside the EU into a success story. There are challenges ahead but if Leave and Remain people unite we can meet them all. Above all don’t be like the SNP. Accept the result and move on.

This post was originally published by the author 15 July 2016:  

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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