Given the state of the opinion polls which point to the SNP winning an absolute majority in the next Scottish elections, combined with consistent majorities for independence, the Tories appear to have fallen back on that trusty old stand-by for denying Scotland another referendum. They tell us that Thatessempee “promised” that the referendum of 2014 was a once in a generation/once in a lifetime event, and they’re jolly well determined to hold them to that promise.
This is pretty rich from the Tories, a party which has never made a promise to the Scottish electorate that it hasn’t gone on to trash. But then hypocrisy is their stock in trade. The Conservatives would have rather more of a leg to stand on in their insistence that they’re going to make sure political promises had been kept if they themselves had kept the promise that Scotland would be an equal partner, a leader in a family of nations. They’d have more of a case if they were not currently engaged in undermining the powers of the Scottish Parliament without the express consent of Holyrood, when they themselves solemnly swore that they’d draw up legislation to ensure that no Westminster government could ever do any such thing. Then they inserted the weasel clause “normally” into relevant section of the Scotland Act, and compounded their lack of good faith by going to the Supreme Court to get a ruling that the provision had no legal effect – with or without the word “normally”.
The Tories would have more of a case if they had at least ensured that the Scottish Government was consulted and involved in the shape that Brexit took instead of Holyrood finding out what Westminster had planned when they read about it in the newspapers along with the rest of us – never mind having swore blind to us in 2014 that voting against independence was the only way that Scotland could remain in the EU, and then dragging us out anyway. When it comes to posing as the guarantors of political promises, the Conservatives have as much credibility as Boris Johnson at a count your children competition.
However this is not the really shocking thing about the Conservatives’ insistence that they will refuse to agree to another independence referendum even if the SNP is returned to Holyrood following next year’s Scottish election with an absolute majority. What’s shocking is that it would represent a direct strike at the very foundations of democracy itself. Because when the Conservatives say that they’re going to hold Thatessempee to the promises of 2014 – and we can dispute until the cows come home as to what those words once in a generation opportunity really meant – what they’re saying is that they’re going to hold the Scottish electorate to account for a promise that they claim the SNP made.
The Conservatives are taking it upon themselves to be the arbiters of which electoral results they are going to recognise based upon their own interpretation of what another party’s leadership said seven years previously. It is a fundamental tenet of democracy that it is for the people to bind political parties with electoral mandates. Parties cannot bind the electorate, yet that is exactly what the Conservatives are proposing to do. They are putting limits on democracy to suit their own narrow political interests. It would be nothing less than a direct assault on the very foundations of democracy itself.
Democracy means that the voters get to decide, not that a political party decides which result it’s going to accept. The sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament is a fetish for the Tories. Amongst other things it means that the decisions of one parliament cannot bind the decisions of a future parliament. Yet the Conservatives want us to believe that the entire electorate of Scotland can be bound by what Boris Johnson tells us Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon ‘really’ meant back in the early days of the first independence referendum campaign. That’s not democracy.
Personally, I’d not be too distressed if the Conservative Government decided to do all it could to block another independence referendum following the reelection of the SNP in 2021 with an absolute majority after standing on a mandate for another referendum. As Professor John Curtis suggests, the SNP should stand in the 2021 election asking for the same mandate that they asked for in the 2011 election. A majority result next year would give the exact same set of political conditions as obtained in before the first independence referendum. The Tories would stand exposed as the undemocratic and authoritarian creatures that they are should they continue to refuse Scotland another referendum under those circumstances.
This would set up a simple equation in the minds of Scotland’s voters between independence and democracy itself. It would deprive any Better Together Mk II campaign of its strongest argument – the claim that Scotland is a voluntary member of a union and not a nation kept captive against its will. The public anger that would be generated would guarantee that when Scotland did vote on the question of independence that rejoining the world as an independent state would be the settled and unarguable will of the Scottish people.
There are, as this blog has repeatedly argued, several ways in which Scotland can have a legitimate vote on independence without a Section 30 order. However the key to the success of any of these strategies is that they must enjoy the support of a clear majority of the Scottish electorate. That’s a condition that will only be met when there is widespread public anger at the refusal of Westminster to recognise Scottish democracy. That anger is seething amongst the independence movement right now, but it has yet to spread into the wider population. That will change if Boris Johnson tries to block another referendum following the reelection of a majority SNP government next year. It’s not when long standing independence supporters demand that Nicola Sturgeon adopt a Plan B that a Plan B will succeed – it’s when the majority of the Scottish population demand it.
In the meantime remember this. When Boris Johnson says that he will not allow Scotland to have another referendum, he is guaranteeing Scottish independence. If he is foolish enough to refuse a Section 30 order following the reelection of the SNP with a majority, independence becomes a certainty. The debate will then centre around the need to restore democracy to Scotland, and they only way in which that can be achieved will be through independence. It will be a powerful and irresistable argument for independence, delivered into our hands by the stupidity and intransigence of the Conservatives and their British nationalist allies themselves. They are the unwitting midwives of independence.
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