Boris should stick to his own best instincts, refuse a referendum and face Sturgeon down

Boris should stick to his own best instincts, refuse a referendum and face Sturgeon down

by Alan Sked
article from Monday 25, January, 2021

ACCORDING to a Sunday newspaper faith in Britain is disintegrating although its polling figures are not as alarming as they seem. They indicate that 49 per cent of Scots would vote for independence, 44 per cent to remain in the Union while 7 per cent don’t know. 49 per cent is not a majority, and it is a far smaller polling number than in about a dozen recent polls which gave the Nats a majority of up to 60 per cent. So it can be argued things are going in the right direction. 

True, the SNP is forecast to win 70 per cent of the vote at the next Holyrood elections but this doesn’t matter. That doesn’t give them the right to hold a referendum. 

The SNP has said it will enact a Referendum Bill of its own in the Scottish Parliament. This would be illegal since under the 1998 Scotland Act, the right to hold a referendum is reserved to the Westminster government. Such a move would be a repeat of Catalonia’s experiment which turned out so disastrously. The Spanish Government arrested the ring-leaders, discouraged voting and the result proved meaningless. Only the SNP offered support. The EU remained silent and opposed. So did most member states. They won’t support a Scottish repeat performance either. Five EU member states it should be remembered still do not recognise the legitimacy of Kosovo which broke off from Albania.

The real reason why the Catalan referendum proved a fiasco was that only 40 per cent of voters turned out. Spanish nationalists refused to take part. Were Scotland to hold an illegal referendum, the result would be the same. Why should Unionist voters play the SNP’s game? They would simply boycott the illegal poll. 

Supposing the Scottish Court of Session agreed that such a poll were actually legal? In my experience Scottish judges tend towards nationalism. After all, Scottish Law is their own world where they are top dogs. I have no idea what political views are held by Lady Carmichael, who is at present presiding over such a case in the Court of Session. However, were she to back the legality of a referendum, the Supreme Court in London would have to decide and its previous record is politically appalling. Anything might happen. We really must restrict the role of our top judges. 

The atmosphere surrounding the independence debate is being heightened by a marginal majority of voters (50 per cent) saying they expect a referendum will be held in Scotland in the next five years. Big deal. Their views on the weather are no more important. 51 per cent of Northern Ireland voters expect a poll on the Irish border in the same time period and 42 per cent would vote for Irish Unity (a minority – 47 per cent would vote against.)  

I am sure the Irish Government has no desire for one at all. It knows quite well the cost to Ireland of incorporating the North would be financially prohibitive, to say nothing of the security problem of containing the potential for loyalist terrorists. But silly nationalist ideals, as in Scotland, overlook economic reality. Only 23 per cent of the Welsh, of course, want Welsh independence – which would bring pressure on the vast majority to learn the native language spoken by only a minority.  

A poll published recently in Scotland showed only 23 per cent of Scots over the age of 55 see themselves as ‘Scottish not British’ whereas 40 per cent of voters under 34 reject any identification with Britain. That is not a majority. Besides does it really matter whether you see yourself as Scottish or British? Either way you may well decide that an independent Scotland would be a disaster.  

The SNP would have to explain to voters what currency it would use. It would have to explain how with no Central Bank or gold reserves it could manage any currency. Again, how could it retain the value of people’s wages, pensions and mortgages? How could it manage the highest deficit in Western Europe? How could it manage without the £12 billion a year treasury subsidy through the Scottish block grant or without EU subsidies? How could it overcome immediate bankruptcy in other words?  

Scottish voters are canny. They cannot live on flags alone. 

Again, given the SNP’s belief that a Scottish majority vote against Brexit justifies its secession from the UK, how could it in principle prevent Orkney and Shetland, the Borders and maybe even Edinburgh and Aberdeen seceding from Scotland if they voted no to independence? An independence debate would soon provide the basis for a No Vote once again.

Meanwhile, on the British Right people like Nick Timothy, Daniel Hannan. James Forsyth, Frank Field and others are pushing for Boris to set up a Royal Commission to set out a written federal constitution which nobody wants. Maybe this is a move to delay a referendum. But it will only upset Scottish Nationalists rather than appease or placate them. And it should also upset Unionists who can see it spectacularly backfiring. Besides, it is a Liberal not a Conservative move. Churchill once said in his campaign to defeat Hitler that he did not need the support of “milksops and mugwumps and pussyfoots”.  Neither do Unionists today. But if the British ship is listing these rats unfortunately are clambering off its decks.

Let them drown. The Union is still well capable of being saved without them. What we need is unity. 

That is where George Galloway’s Alliance4Unity comes in. It aims to have only one Unionist candidate in each constituency to oppose the SNP candidate. In the lists, A4U candidates will have a free run. I will head the Highlands and Islands list. We hope in this way to end the SNP majority. With any luck, Sturgeon cannot then demand a referendum. It is the only strategy that can work.

One final point. The A4U believes that before any future referendum is held Westminster must pass a Canada-style Clarity Act setting out the conditions under which it would take place. For example, as in the case of amendments to the SNP constitution, a 60 per cent majority would be necessary for constitutional change. Such provisions are standard in written constitutions – witness the two thirds needed in US votes. Again, we would demand all citizens born in Scotland but now living anywhere in the UK or abroad should have the right to vote. This would not however apply to foreigners living in Scotland. Moreover, the right to vote should be restricted to law-abiding citizens over the age of eighteen. Finally, the question would be: ‘Do you want Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom?’ A Yes vote should be one to retain the Union. David Cameron allowed the SNP to frame the referendum question and all the rules last time. Not again. The British constitution should not be their political football – nor that of the new breed of demented Tory federalists.  

The latest intrusion into the debate is by Gordon Brown whose previous contributions have been dire. He has already apologised for failing to see how his devolution act of 1998 encouraged separatism. His last-minute panic intervention in the 2014 referendum with his crazy Vow almost backfired too. Now he is playing politics with Covid to undermine the Union and confusing all sorts of constitutional issues from here and across the world in an article in the Telegraph which simply shows off once again his well-known Messiah complex. Politically the man is mad and should be ignored. His main aim is still to save Labour – which he destroyed in Scotland – rather than the Union. 

Nothing he writes make sense. It is a counsel of despair and confusion.  

The Scotsman says, however, that Michael Gove is in talks with him – perhaps about arranging for a referendum with three questions? This is another form of madness that assumes the SNP can be bought off with less than independence. Gove is in danger of morphing into Brown. He, too, seems to think he can save everything – Northern Ireland and fishing most recently – with less than obviously successful results. I don’t trust him to get Scotland right now either. 

Boris should stick to his own best instincts, refuse a referendum for thirty years, and face Sturgeon down. She has passed her peak in popularity. Her record on Covid as on everything else is miserable. She can be dealt with in any referendum debate if only Unionists keep their nerve. Let’s do that. Back the plan of the Alliance4Unity as a first step and deprive Sturgeon of her majority. 

Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. @profsked   

Photo by Foreign and Commonwealth Office - CC BY 2.0,

ThinkScotland exists thanks to readers' support - please donate in any currency and often

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter & like and share this article
To comment on this article please go to our facebook page