THREE significant things have happened recently for those interested in preserving the integrity of the United Kingdom.
Firstly, Nicola Sturgeon failed by a whisker to get either 50 per cent +1 of the popular vote or seats, in the recent Scottish parliamentary elections. But her shortfall was literally by a few hundred votes here and there. To get 48 per cent of the popular vote with such a lamentable record, after 14 years in office, is an extraordinary achievement, like it or not. Since then pre-election panic in London and Scottish Conservative circles has subsided to complacency and even smug satisfaction. Plus ca change.
Second, the UK Government seems to be softening on its refusal to offer a second referendum. A flat ‘not on my watch’ seems to be morphing, if Michael Gove is to be believed, to ‘we will not stand in its way if it is the settled will’.
Perhaps he thinks to say the Government would concede a referendum is to be seen to be reasonable? Perhaps it is because support for independence has dropped very marginally and he thinks he could win? Perhaps the Government has no intention of granting one at all, saying there is no evidence of ‘settled will’? Whatever his reasoning, Gove’s nod has rather predictably been jumped upon by nationalists as confirming their right to secede at a time of their choosing.
Third, the Scottish Government continues to move from one failure to the next, with Scotland’s appalling record on illegal drug misuse and mortality being but the latest example. Despite this SNP support barely budges. Abject failure on almost every measure is not translating into their political demise.
Of these three observations perhaps the second is most noteworthy. At one level one might say it’s nothing new; that ‘settled will’ is an opaque term which can be used to virtue signal. At another level it offers the kind of dangerous establishment over-confidence that may well come back to haunt Gove – with the rest of us paying the price.
The SNP predictably responded arguing ‘it’s the settled will already.’ They will use this as evidence of their moral right to hold a plebiscite on their terms at their time of choosing. In an increasingly legalistic world, where the right to hold a referendum is already subject to judicial review, Gove’s comments further muddy the waters. Indeed the Scottish Government is already working on its plans for another referendum and all we are currently experiencing is the lull before that storm.
The first rule of warfare is so obvious it should not need saying. If you fight a battle fight it on your terms. That normally means the high ground, not agreeing to a referendum when those who would break the Kingdom apart have their tails up.
David Cameron almost found that to his cost in 2014 with support for breaking-up the Union increasing from 28 per cent to 45 per cent over the long campaign period that emerged from him announcing he would grant a referendum. The SNP has massive advantage. It has the entire Scottish Office at their disposal (50 media staff alone), huge financial and political patronage of office, a media that accepts what Sturgeon says with limited challenge, a weak and divided opposition with no obvious unifying leader to challenge Sturgeon’s failings – and a frankly incoherent economic, social and cultural defence being made for remaining in the UK.
As a leader of the successful Leave EU campaign, Gove should be well aware an In-Out referendum does not necessarily pan out as the establishment wishes – and of the dangers of relying on a Project Fear approach. Cameron thought by offering the In-Out question he would win and win big as the people would be too feart to Leave. Ask the ultimate question and they will fall into line. He was completely wrong and totally misread the motivations of the country. Contestable economics cannot be assured of trumping issues of identity or sovereignty.
Gove is in grave danger of making the same mistakes with the UK Union. It is not, however, too late to arrest this potentially serious mistake. Let’s learn from the 2014 Scottish referendum and subsequent EU referendum. Here are some suggestions as a starter.
Firstly, shut up. The concession of sounding reasonable has been made. Move on; give no more oxygen to nationalists and their infatuation about breaking up Britain. Let them offer the wrong priority at this time when what we need in Scotland is Covid recovery and the fixing of so much that the SNP has broken. Concurrently, the opposition parties must raise their game and be far more effective critics – but crucially offering practical alternatives that they can share. Ultimately, even as a minority, there needs to be an alternative administration waiting in the wings.
Secondly, while a political system only works if there is consent, let’s work away quietly and be ready to insist upon the conditions under which any referendum might be allowable, the rules for such a referendum and broad outline of terms so the implications of such a vote are clear – to protect the interests of both parties should there be a split. Such an important decision cannot be made in ignorance.
The existing legal sovereign entity is the United Kingdom and a decision to offer a referendum can only be granted in Westminster. Critically the fatal mistake of allowing the SNP to choose the date, the question and the terms of the referendum last time cannot be repeated again. It must be clear the UK Government would determine the franchise, the date of a referendum, the question and the basis upon which a split would take place.
The British Union has without doubt been one of the most successful unions in the history mankind. It has, over 314 years survived tests of war, plague, discontent, revolutionary upheaval in much of Europe and acted as a force for good in the world. Its integrity has only been challenged in recent times and for the vast majority of that period has had overwhelming political, social and cultural support. That support was again given tacitly in 2014 by a reasonable margin.
For instance, mindful that a country survives by consent, let us propose that the principle of a referendum would be accepted if over three consecutive Scottish parliamentary elections the official nationalist party gets over 50 per cent of the popular vote. That would be the test for the ‘settled will’ and it is somewhat more generous than the nationalists ‘once in a generation’ promise in 2014.
Third, the question should be Leave or Remain. It’s tried and tested and clear. Yes and No are loaded. Yes to what – apple pie? Further, it would be for the UK Government to set the timetable and the franchise not the nationalists. This would be overseen by the same regulatory framework that applies to all UK elections.
Fourth, at least six months before any referendum the broad terms of severance should be clearly set out in a Clarity Act. This is essential so voters can make an informed choice but also to protect the interests of the British population as a whole, for it is their country under threat of significant disruption. It also removes the painful and frankly spiteful tactics that could be adopted by either side and might help smooth a longer term relationship. Do the electorate really want a repeat of the Brexit negotiations that would store up bitterness on both sides?
The broad principles of separation should be fair and unambiguous. As a starter the UK Government should state it would seek to negotiate generously with the offer of a free trade and free movement of people if possible, predicated on Scotland remaining outside the EU, so there would be no need for a hard border.
Further, while Scotland would keep all state assets on its territory it would be responsible for the commensurate liabilities. Scotland would be liable for its population share of the national debt which would be transferred to the new entity on day one.
Scotland would be free to choose its own path for its currency but on leaving the UK it would leave the jurisdiction, supervision and regulation of the Bank of England. It could borrow Sterling if it wished but would need to provide its own ‘lender of the last resort facilities’, regulatory structures and currency board management. Scotland would be solely responsible for all its own taxes and spending but would also be responsible for meeting liabilities should future pandemics and financial crisis occur.
In terms of defence the UK Government should be clear that the security of the British Isles is paramount. Just as the UK has sovereign bases in Cyprus and had Treaty Ports in the West of Ireland HMG should insist that key strategic military assets and associated corridors for access would remain UK sovereign territory on a 999 year lease for an agreed peppercorn sum. The naval base at Faslane (home of the UK’s nuclear submarine fleet) and one of the RAF bases in the North of Scotland would be retained in perpetuity as a minimum. Members of Scottish regiments could choose to remain with the British Army or port to some Scottish Defence Force, just as happened post-partition in India.
Broad terms could also be outlined relating to heath tourism, education, transport links and energy security with clear responsibilities and obligations.
It should also be clear that just as Scotland, under agreed terms, would have the right to leave the UK any region of Scotland that voted to remain in the UK could not be taken out of the UK outside its will and would remain subject to UK laws and taxes. Democracy is a two way process.
Gove is right on one thing. No country can remain unified forever without consent. But now is the time to say, Soto Voce and with regret – that while Britain wishes to stay united – should there be overwhelming support over a meaningful period to leave, a fair and clear referendum would be granted – but to avoid chaos, divisive debate and ensure equity the rules of engagement must be agreed before the event – not leave it to haphazard chance and overconfidence like the last time.
Photo by Scottish Government – The Edinburgh Agreement signing, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=99601190