The country has never been asked.
The precedent of Northern Ireland
There is a precedent. In March 1973 a referendum was held in Northern Ireland. The electorate was presented with two proposals:
1. Do you want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom? or
2. Do you want Northern Ireland to be joined with the Republic of Ireland outside the United Kingdom?
The nationalist parties and supporters largely boycotted the referendum. Unsurprisingly, the result therefore was 99% in favour of Proposal 1. However, Northern Ireland is different. Its status as a part of the United Kingdom or not has been the sad source of tragic events for almost a hundred years and, for too many years since the author’s birth, of bitter violence. As a result, potential constitutional settlements have been discussed across all parties across the whole of the UK for over forty years.
Specifically, in the Conservative Party manifesto of 1970, consent was sought for the following pledge:
“We reaffirm that no change will be made in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the free consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland.”
The future of Northern Ireland thus required the consent of Northern Ireland, in this instance, through Northern Ireland’s Parliament which was in place at the time. The 1973 referendum was in keeping with this pledge which had received the consent of the UK electorate. The principle oft repeated in this debate, affirmed in election manifestos and enshrined in legislation and international agreements between the governments of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, is this: the status of Northern Ireland to be part of the UK or not is to be determined by the people of Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 (following the Good Friday Agreement) sets out steps for future referenda in Northern Ireland on Northern Ireland’s future.
The British people have been presented with this principle in manifestos over successive general elections.
In 1997 the Labour Party manifesto stated:
“There is now general acceptance that the future of Northern Ireland must be determined by the consent of the people as set out in the Downing Street Declaration.”
The UK electorate has consented to the principle of Northern Ireland determining its fate by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. Everyone knows where they stand.
Scotland and Wales – trusting the British people
Wales is different. For instance, Wales has an independence movement, Plaid Cymru, but it has yet to command support large enough to run the Welsh Assembly. Wales’ Home Rule is represented by an Assembly rather than a Parliament with powers more restricted than the Scottish Parliament, although these may change. Wales is a Principality rather than a Kingdom.
Scotland is different. Scotland had debates and manifesto pledges over devolution since 1974. This required the consent of the UK. Independence, by the same token, should also have passed this test.
Three hundred years of history and democratic processes firmly embedded for over a century, including the option to vote for a party dedicated to pursuing independence, allow us to assume that the people of Scotland consented to the union with England, Wales and Ireland/Northern Ireland.
It is conceivable that some may argue that, whilst devolution required consent, independence should not. John Major, for one, would disagree. His argument against allowing the people of Wales and Scotland a vote on devolution in 1992 was that it would ultimately lead to independence and the break-up of the Union. Devolution and independence are different points on the compass of sovereignty.
The alternative to being presented with manifestos offering differing pledges on whether an independence referendum should be held would have been to have held a referendum across the UK, including Scotland and Northern Ireland, to validate that the independence referendum should go ahead. This would have been more antagonistic as it runs the risk of being interpreted as a “Yes/No” to independence itself rather than the actual constitutional question of providing consent to the process decreed by Parliament.
The problem of course with a democratic process that seeks consent is that the people may say No. The fundamental issue is whether Parliament can make these decisions for us without a mandate; the particular question is whether an independence referendum for Scotland should have been held. By implication the UK and Scottish voters said No on this point when it came to devolution in 1992. There were few fevered passions raised at the time. This was perhaps because Scotland itself wasn’t quite ready (the Conservatives gained a seat; they were only obliterated in 1997).
During the referendum campaign there were fevered passions amongst Yes campaigners when it was noted that consent was missing on the question of whether independence was a matter for Scotland alone.
We cannot challenge the motives of voters. If given the opportunity to vote on whether independence is a matter for Scotland alone, some would undoubtedly vote No. Some may be inspired to do so out of spite or bloody-mindedness rather than a considered view on the issue at hand.
That is democracy.
Having tasted the freedom to make their own decision in 2014, it would be very hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Many Scots would be outraged that their freedom to choose their fate would once again be held by those outside Scotland.
These are powerful arguments. The point is that they are tested in debate and decided by the electorate and not decided by Parliament.
In reality, the issue is perhaps more one of timing than permission. We are British. The prospect of denying the Scots their voice forever would jar with common decency. The 1992 election results were probably more determined by whether the country felt it wasn’t yet ready for devolution rather than a permanent refusal to contemplate devolution. Nonetheless, a major political party representing the government of the day repeatedly refused to offer the people of Scotland and Wales a vote on devolution.
The British people would expect to see ample evidence of strength of opinion before being asked to consent to a constitutional question or expect to see it included in a manifesto. Take Welsh independence or Cornish devolution. At the time of writing, the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, has yet to gain a large proportion of Welsh seats at Westminster or in the Welsh Assembly; similarly with representatives seeking Cornish devolution with respect to Cornwall. But this may change. When it does, expect to see a manifesto offering the Welsh or Cornish a choice.
Is independence a matter for Scotland alone? It is not necessary to answer this question. It is sufficient that there is public debate and the opportunity to express an opinion through the ballot box. This can be either directly from a referendum on this question or from a manifesto pledge where choice is available to the voter.