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Betrayal of Britain- A New Referendum?

Will the New Britain survive? Despite the absence of consent to the 2014 referendum, the country went to the polls in 2015 knowing that the SNP had received a surge of support since losing the independence referendum. When the referendum result was announced, Alex Salmond said the independence issue had been settled for a generation. He may be right. His successor, Nicola Sturgeon, was emphatic during the 2015 general election campaign that the election “was not about independence”. Indeed this was the only reference the SNP manifesto made about independence.

Incredibly, all the other parties’ 2015 manifestos contained no commitments or pledges on independence. The Conservatives, to their surprise, won a majority, thanks in no small measure to the SNP tsunami in Scotland. The SNP landslide was near-total. They took 56 of the 59 seats leaving solitary representatives for Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat respectively.

Cameron was committed to implement the manifesto pledge to implement the recommendations of the Smith Commission. These involved the transfer of further powers over tax and benefits to Holyrood – devomax at last. The SNP were unimpressed. Their 2016 Scottish Parliament election campaign is likely to demand that this go further. Nicola Sturgeon has stated that she will not seek another referendum unless there have been significant changes in circumstances. The sweep of SNP MPs and disappointment with Smith may encourage many in her party to decide that circumstances have changed and it is right to seek a second referendum. At the time of writing, it is unclear whether the SNP manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections in 2016 will contain any commitment to seek a second referendum. If it does and there is another SNP majority in Holyrood, we may have a repeat of the problem with the first referendum.

If anything the position after 2015 is worse that after 2010. In 2010 no-one saw independence coming, hence the absence of manifesto pledges either for or against a referendum. No such excuses in 2015 or 2016. The only party whose 2015 manifesto refers to independence is that of the SNP – to specifically state that their manifesto is not about independence. Whilst only six MPs could claim a mandate to authorise the first referendum, with the manifesto silence from the other main parties in 2015, there would be no MPs who could legitimately authorise a second referendum. In theory therefore a second referendum cannot take place during this Parliament. Sadly, no journalists had the imagination to seek clarification from the SNP on this point during the 2015 campaign.

The solution, as with the flaw in the first referendum, is unknown yet obvious. Despite the legal reality that independence is a matter reserved for the UK Parliament, that is not the political reality. As far as the Scottish public and Scottish politics are concerned, independence is a matter for Scotland alone. The passions and excitement aroused in the first referendum are unlikely to be dampened by the technical restraints of the Scotland Act 1998. For Great Britain to hope to survive, the 45 (perhaps now 51+) need to feel listened to and respected. The SNP conquered Scotland in the 2015 general election; the coalition for independence may sweep all before it in a second referendum. But, if there are demands from Scotland for a second referendum, once again the UK Parliament is the ultimate authority. There can be no certainty UK MPs will say Yes, particularly if they have read these humble notes and agree that not a single one of them has a mandate to make a decision of such gravity.

It is time for British politics to grow up, smell the coffee and clutch this last hope of Union. Forget devolving more taxes or control over more of the welfare benefits. Full Fiscal Autonomy is a noble aim, but would it be another cynical bribe to save the Union – the cheque behind the Vow? A bolder and more sincere settlement is required.

It is time to devolve independence itself.

To be specific, the UK Parliament should devolve authority for independence referenda to the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament can decide whether to hold a referendum but not itself decide on independence. Only then will independence truly be a matter for the Scottish people. The other reserved matters (defence, the currency, foreign policy etc.) are to remain reserved – they only make sense in a single political state. Upon independence, they automatically become the responsibility of the new Scottish nation.

With independence no longer a reserved matter, the Scottish Parliament takes on an awesome power. The Scottish people, the British people, will expect it to be exercised wisely. To authorise a referendum will require a majority of the Scottish Parliament. For the MSPs to make such a decision they require a mandate to do so – as with the UK Parliament – through clear manifesto pledges at Scottish Parliamentary elections. The Scottish electorate may not thank their MSPs for this new power to be exercised too frequently or without good cause to expect success.

This will require patience. The UK Government and Parliament have no more of a mandate to take this step any more than they do to authorise a second referendum. That doesn’t stop them declaring this intention and include it in their manifestos in the 2020 general election. The legislation may be complete in time for the Scottish Parliamentary elections due in 2021. Assuming the new MSPs included pledges in their respective manifestos, they could authorise a second referendum for 2022.

Devolution took a generation, perhaps it is no bad thing that independence and the end of Great Britain may take almost as long. It is a long time from the time of writing, but the process will be unimpeachable – democracy and profound change done properly, not in haste, not a gamble.

There will be no risk of the tyranny of the majority. No threat of flaws in the process being pointed out by those outside Scotland.

All that will hold Great Britain together is trust and respect. It needs nothing more.

I wrote most of this two years ago – before Brexit, before May, before Nicola Sturgeon’s request this week for a second Scottish independence referendum to be held in 2018 or 2019.

We now know that the 2016 SNP manifesto set out its criteria for seeking a second referendum – a material change in circumstances such as leaving the EU against the wishes of the Scottish people. And the Scottish people voted 62:38 to Remain whilst the whole UK voted 52:48 to Leave.

Yet none of this changes the two fundamental problems explored in Betrayal of Britain:

  1. The inescapable result of Scottish independence being that Great Britain as a political identity and the Union Jack would cease to exist. (Patently ridiculous to still be called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland when a big chunk of Great Britain has just become a foreign power or retain the blue bit of the flag).
  2. The process by which we all cease to be British citizens would have been agreed by MPs (another Order 30) without a mandate to do so – the tried and tested doctrine of consent to constitutional change ignored.

Should there be a second referendum, the campaign may be very different from the first. Expect economic arguments to be brushed aside. And not just because the debt, currency and oil issues are less positive for the SNP this time, but because voters are now more aware that this is about identity. Scots who are currently both Scottish and British, will have to be decide whether to be Scottish alone. As for the rest of us, particularly those of us who cherish being British, we may have the unenviable task of seeking a new identity without ever having cast a vote on the matter. The quiet death of Great Britain.

Timing may be the key immediate issue. The SNP request to hold a referendum campaign during the climax of the Brexit negotiations requires the UK Government to fight a battle on two fronts simultaneously – not very helpful in ensuring UK gets the best possible Brexit deal. Delaying an independence referendum therefore has great attraction – get Brexit done first. That takes us into 2019. With just over a year to go before the general election, it might make sense all round (i.e. consensus in Parliament to comply with the Fixed Term Parliaments Act) to have an early general election in 2019 – UK voters in effect delivering their judgement on the Brexit deal (or lack of one) plus the opportunity to consent to a second Scottish independence referendum within say the following 12 months.

It may still be the quiet death of Great Britain, but it will be with consent, democracy restored – a dignified end to an extraordinary history.

About John Hartigan

Profile photo of John Hartigan
John Hartigan is author of Betrayal of Britain: How politics failed Great Britain in the early 21st Century now available on Amazon. Founder of the AskBritain movement to restore voters' rights to consent to constitutional change. He is a member of the Labour Party and candidate in local elections. His postgraduate research on the World War One volunteers was published in Midland History. He is an investment manager and former bank manager.

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