This is the second in a series of articles looking at the topics which will dominate the coming independence referendum campaign. These pieces are aimed at undecided voters and soft no voters. In this piece I look at the claim that the first referendum was promised to be a “once in a generation vote.”
For the past year or more, Boris Johnson has been fnaugh fnaughing his way through Prime Minister’s Questions whenever the topic of another independence referendum is raised, refusing to acknowledge that the SNP and the Scottish Greens have been given a mandate by the Scottish electorate for another independence referendum.
Johnson has conceded that it’s up to the people of Scotland to decide whether they wish to remain a part of the UK, but insists that the right was exercised in 2014 and that it was a “once in a generation” vote. We’re going to hear this excuse a lot, especially now that the Scottish elections have given a victory to pro-independence parties and a large majority to parties asking for a mandate for another referendum within the five year term of this Holyrood Parliament. Together with deflections about the need to focus on recovery from the pandemic, it’s the only excuse the British government has got left.
Boris Johnson can’t plausibly argue that the SNP has no mandate from the Scottish electorate when that party won a larger vote share and a larger share of seats than his Conservative party did in the UK as a whole. He can’t plausibly maintain that there’s no mandate for another referendum when his own branch office in Scotland stood on the single platform of opposing another referendum and got its collective arse handed to it on a plate glazed with Stephen Kerr’s tears. He cannot maintain that there is no mandate when the people of Scotland elected a large majority of MSPs to Holyrood in the full knowledge that they are committed to delivering another referendum. If Boris Johnson maintains that he got a mandate from the UK electorate to deliver Brexit, the SNP has an even stronger and more convincing mandate from the Scottish electorate to deliver an independence referendum. If democracy in the UK is to mean anything at all, the choices of the people of Scotland as expressed through the ballot box must be respected.
This was a parliamentary election, not a referendum. The percentage of people voting for ostensibly anti-independence parties is irrelevant. A mandate is established when a party or parties win sufficient seats to form a majority in parliament. The SNP and the Scottish Greens stood on a platform of support for another independence referendum. They won. The Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems stood on a platform of opposition to another referendum. They lost.
The point about a mandate is unarguable, except that is if you’re one of those people who deny the existence of Scotland as a political and national entity and claim that the SNP won merely a “subset” of UK seats in a UK election. Describing the nation of Scotland, a constituent nation of the UK as a subset of Westminster seats on a par with an English city, region or county is quite possibly the cringiest description of Scotland ever, more cringey than North Britain. Even more cringey than “up there”. Scotland isn’t just any random selection of Westminster seats, it’s an ancient nation which was one of the founding kingdoms of the United Kingdom. The Treaty of Union which founded the unitary state known as the United Kingdom guaranteed the continuing existence of Scottish national institutions, and the Scottish nation itself. The very foundation of the UK itself recognises that Scotland is a distinct polity within the UK, a polity with its own distinctive political character.
Last year at PMQs, Boris Johnson was forced to concede, amidst the usual disrespectful barracking from Tory backbenchers whenever an SNP MP rises to speak, that it is indeed up to the people of Scotland to decide whether their future is as a part of the UK. He could hardly say anything else. However his admission has an important implication.
If it is up to the people of Scotland to decide whether they wish to remain a part of the UK, that right to self-determination is either conditional or it’s absolute. Boris Johnson appears to believe that Scotland’s sovereign right to self-determination as a nation within the UK to decide its own future is conditional upon a timing that he’ll decide. So it’s not really a sovereign right to self-determination at all. If it’s up to political forces outwith Scotland to decide when Scotland can exercise its right to self-determination, then it’s not a right to self-determination. It becomes a question of Westminster’s convenience and permission. A right to self-determination which is conditional upon the convenience and permission of Westminster is no right to self-determination at all. It’s simply another way of stating that Scotland doesn’t have the right to determine its own future, a Conservative PM does. And if that is indeed the case, then this is not the Union that the Conservatives and the Labour party have always told us it was.
There was absolutely nothing in the Edinburgh Agreement between the Scottish and British governments setting the terms for the 2014 referendum which stipulated that an independence referendum could only be held once in a generation. The rider that the referendum was a one in a generation affair did not appear on the ballot paper. It was not a part of the question that was put to the people of Scotland and which they voted on.
Alex Salmond described the referendum as a once in a generation opportunity, and was careful to add the rider that this was his personal opinion. Yet it appears that Scotland is to be held hostage to the opinion of a former First Minister, an opinion which has no force in law. The personal opinion of Alex Salmond is only being elevated to the lofty position of holy writ for the simple reason that Boris Johnson requires an excuse to prevent another independence referendum because he’s afraid he’s going to lose it.
The phrase once in a generation opportunity also appears three times in the White Paper on Independence published by the Scottish Government prior to the referendum. On page 3, the referendum is described as a “once in a generation opportunity to follow a different path”. On page 10 it is described as a “once in a generation opportunity to chart a better way.” On page 576 there is the statement, “It is the view of the current Scottish Government that a referendum is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”
There are twos reasons why Alex Salmond’s administration took the view that the referendum of 2014 was a once in a generation opportunity. Neither of them are binding, and neither of them apply today. The first reason is that the referendum of 2014 only took place because the SNP broke the Holyrood electoral system and won the 2011 election with an absolute majority in Holyrood. Prior to this election it was not thought possible for a party to do this, and the SNP’s victory came as a surprise to everyone, not least the SNP. However the referendum campaign radically changed the Scottish political landscape in ways that were unforeseen. It is now perfectly plausible for pro-independence parties to win a majority of seats in Holyrood just as they did in May of this year.
The second reason is more important. Alex Salmond’s government took the view that they did because they had just negotiated the Edinburgh Agreement with Westminster, as a result of which both parties agreed to respect the outcome of the referendum. It was implicit in that understanding that both parties would respect the promises and commitments that they made to the people of Scotland during the referendum campaign. What is happening now is that Westminster is demanding that the current Scottish Government upholds everything that it stated during the referendum campaign, but it itself is not bound by its own promises and commitments.
Promises and commitments like telling Scotland that the only way it could remain a part of the EU was by voting no. Promises and commitments like promising that the powers of Holyrood would be enshrined in law and put beyond the ability of any Westminster government to alter without the express consent of the Scottish Parliament. Promises and commitments likes telling Scotland it was a much loved and equal partner in a family of nations, that it should lead within the UK instead of leaving it.
Indeed, it is all the more important for Westminster to uphold its promises and commitments to Scotland because it was the proposition of the No campaign which won the referendum. Yet now the SNP and Scotland are being held to ransom by a Westminster which hasn’t fulfilled its end of the bargain. If Westminster had respected all the promises that it made to Scotland in 2014, then the referendum would indeed have been a once in a generation opportunity. But they didn’t, did they. Westminster cannot insist that the SNP abide by statements that it made during the referendum campaign without itself abiding by the statements that Better Together made.
It’s Westminster’s failure to uphold its end of the bargain that has created the renewed demand and the justification for another referendum. Boris Johnson’s hypocrisy in claiming it was “once in a generation” merely highlights his own party’s failure to respect the promises and commitments that it made to the people of Scotland. When he tells us that the referendum was “once in a generation”, he’s telling the people of Scotland that we are suckers for ever believing that Westminster would keep its promises.
Yet even if there was a solemn commitment made by both sides in 2014 that the referendum was a once in a generation affair, so what? The people of Scotland have a sovereign right to decide for themselves which path Scotland will take – even Boris Johnson admits that much. That right cannot be bargained away, signed away, time-limited, or given up by any political party because it is a right that rests with the people of Scotland, not with the Conservatives, not with the SNP, not with any other party. It follows then that it’s up to the people of Scotland and no one else to decide whether or when we demand another independence referendum. In the recent Scottish elections the people of Scotland did decide to demand another referendum.
The UK that Scotland was told it could be a part of in 2014 doesn’t exist. Scotland has an absolute right to revisit the question of independence. Scotland’s right to self-determination is inalienable.
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