Why the Scottish Government doesn’t want another referendum

On Monday 13th March 2017 Nichola Sturgeon announced the Government’s intention to seek a new referendum on Scottish independence. As expected this announcement was met with howls of protest from unionists and an all too predictably patronising response from the Prime Minister. In the following days there has been much speculation about Westminster denying Scotland the opportunity to hold a referendum or to force the vote to be held after the UK has left the EU. So far so predicable. Also predictable has been the the nationalist response that can be summed up as ‘Scotland’s future should be decided by Scotland’s people’.

So why do I think the Scottish Government don’t actually want another independence referendum? Let’s step back a bit and take a wider view. The SNP and Scottish Government are widely recognised as the most strategic and politically adept administration in the UK. They have consistently outmanoeuvred their opponents both locally and nationally since taking power in 2007. The evidence is in their phenomenal growth to the position as the pre-eminent party in Scotland with unprecedented levels of voter support, despite losing the 2014 referendum vote on independence.

There is a real problem in holding a referendum on independence based on whether or not Scotland should be taken out of the European Union. The positive case for the EU has never had a lot of traction in the UK. Constantly vilified and talked down by the mainstream media, its benefits are poorly understood by voters. Since the Brexit vote in June 2016 support for the EU has been almost entirely absent as the media seek to justify the the UK withdrawal. Consequently support for remaining in the EU, under this pressure, has weakened Even in Scotland, that voted by a significant margin in favour of remaining, you can feel support slipping. To seek independence on the basis that Scotland voted to remain and the will of its people should be heard at a point 3 or 4 years after the EU referendum was held is a very high risk strategy. The SNP is not known for risk taking, both as a party and a Government it has made a point of being risk averse. So why would it go for a referendum now.

Whether Scotland remains in the EU or not is of course, not the primary question. At the heart of Scotland’s union with England there is a fundamental conflict between the English concept of parliamentary sovereignty and the Scottish concept of the sovereign will of the people. In England politicians enact the will of the monarch through parliament, in Scotland politicians enact the will of the people, as in the past its monarchs did. What the Scottish Government needs to achieve is to move the debate explicitly onto this ground. A debate clearly on the question of ‘who decides Scotland’s future, the people of Scotland or, (given their inbuilt majority at Westminster), English MP’s’. What the Scottish Government should be hoping for is that the Westminster Government refuses permission for a referendum, or stipulates that a referendum can only be held after the UK leaves the EU.

How does this help the cause of independence you might ask. Simply, it means the Scottish Government can deploy its ultimate weapon in the struggle for independence. Margaret Thatcher famously said that all Scotland needed to do to achieve independence was to elect a majority of MPs supporting independence. Devolution gives a variant of this strategy. Elect a Scottish Government with an explicit mandate to end the union with England.

In the event of a referendum being refused by Westminster or being forced to hold it at a time when Westminster has been strengthened by withdrawal from the UK, the Scottish Government can resign at a time of its choosing, forcing a new election for Holyrood. It would be able to do so at a time entirely of its own choosing when Westminster is at its weakest and its chance of winning is greatest. The SNP and other parties supporting independence would then include an explicit proposal to withdraw from the union in their manifestos and seek a mandate from the electorate for that.

This would be an election that could then be fought explicitly on the basis of ‘who rules Scotland’, unmuddied by the issue of in or out of the EU or any other of the more peripheral issues. These could rightly be put to one side to be decided once Scotland was independent. The battle would be one of political principle too. In order to defeat the independence supporting parties voters would have to vote a Tory administration in to Holyrood – Labour now having only enough support to be a junior member of a coalition with the Tories and Lib Dems. There is nothing a Westminster Government could do to prevent this vote, it is entirely in Scotland’s hands. If it was elected, a Scottish Government elected on this basis could then just get on with negotiating withdrawal from the Union.

If I were leading a Scottish Government I know which path I would prefer, which path would be most likely to result in independence for Scotland. So let us all hope that Teresa May’s instinctive intransigence prevails, that she stamps her foot and refuses to allow Scotland another referendum, that is the way we will win. I would bet that Nichola Sturgeon is sat with her fingers crossed that this is what happens too.

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