They’re at it again, you can hear the sound of goalposts being shifted all the way from Westminster to Scotland. The Times newspaper is reporting that “senior Tories”, that would be Michael Gove then, are urging Boris Johnson to change the existing franchise for the next Scottish independence referendum and extend the right to vote to all Scots living elsewhere in the UK. That’s the Tories there, the self -proclaimed scourge of divisive nationalism, wanting to ensure that the franchise is based upon ethnicity and not upon residency.
Can you imagine the outcry if the Scottish Government proposed that the franchise should be restricted to people born in Scotland, excluding the estimated 400,000 residents of Scotland who were born in England? That would rightly be denounced as ethnic nationalism and a transparent attempt to gerrymander the vote but it is the same as what the Conservatives are currently proposing. They hope to make independence more difficult by extending the franchise to a large group of people who are believed to be predominantly opposed to Scottish independence. If there were reasons to believe that Scottish born people resident elsewhere in the UK were largely in favour of independence, the Conservatives would be as interested in ensuring that they had the right to vote as they were in ensuring that all UK citizens resident in the EU had a vote in the Brexit referendum irrespective of how long they had lived outside the UK.
Under the rules in place at the time, British citizens living abroad lost their right to vote after 15 years of residence outside the UK. These are people who have made their lives in their country of residence, have integrated there, and who could be assumed to be less interested in supporting Brexit. The Tories weren’t too bothered then that this group couldn’t vote, but now they want to give the right to vote in a Scottish independence referendum to a person who was born in Scotland but moved to England as a child and has lived there ever since. Their hypocrisy could not be more obvious.
We’ve heard this idea before of course, it pops up every time that someone in the Conservative party realises that their Just Say No campaign against a referendum has as much chance of succeeding as Zammo, PJ and Duncan’s Just Say No song did of persuading teenagers not to roll themselves a spliff in 1986. That went well, considering that for decades the UK has topped the European league tables for the consumption of cannabis and other drugs. We need them in order to numb the psychological impact of having to take Boris Johnson seriously.
This proposal will of course be fiercely resisted by the Scottish Government. It is for Holyrood, not Westminster, to determine the franchise for Scottish elections, and likewise it is for the parliament of an independent Scotland to determine who should be a citizen of Scotland, not the Conservatives at Westminster.
The report also mentions that those Conservatives making this proposal are also suggesting that unelected don’t -call-me-baroness Ruth Davidson be brought into the British Government in order to head the anti-independence campaign. Because foisting a member of the House of Lords on us will totally restore Scottish confidence in the quality of British democracy.
This development does however tell us a number of interesting things. Firstly it tells us that for all their Just Say No rhetoric, the British Government realises that another independence referendum is inevitable. It means that for all the mealy-mouthed equivocations of the likes of Douglas Ross, the Conservatives understand that the Scottish Parliament does indeed have a mandate for another independence referendum, given to it by the electorate of Scotland when voters chose to give MSPs representing parties promising another referendum within the terms of this parliament a substantial majority. They know that there is nothing they can do in Holyrood to prevent another referendum and that wee Dougie and his band of Scottish Tory Naw Bags are a political irrelevance. It tells us that in the political game of referendum chicken, the Tories and the British Government have blinked first.
Secondly it tells us that they are aware that they cannot be certain that the courts would side with them if Holyrood were to press ahead with another referendum despite a refusal from Downing Street to agree, which is precisely what the Scottish Government has said that it’s going to do. This is also the opinion of former Conservative MSP and professor of public law Adam Tomkins who said recently that an independence referendum organised by Holyrood could still be legal even without a section 30 order from the Westminster government. He said that Brexit-related court decisions had “muddied the waters” on a Holyrood-only referendum and that his fellow Conservatives could not simply assume that it would be unlawful.
However perhaps most importantly of all this suggestion tells us that the Conservatives and the British Government have no confidence in their ability to win an independence referendum. They have no plans for the serious and substantial reform of the UK that might be able to persuade Scotland that this country’s needs and concerns could get heard and recognised within the UK. There will be no Vow Mk II, and the so-called “muscular unionism” which is really just English nationalism masquerading as British won’t have any traction in Scotland beyond that staunch minority which would never vote for independence under any circumstances.
The Conservative proposal to extend the franchise on an ethnic basis is born out of panic and a poverty of political ideas. Even if it were successful, a Scotland in which a majority had voted for independence could not be sustainably kept within the UK on the basis of votes of people outwith Scotland. The anger and resentment it would produce would simply create a political and constitutional crisis which would precipitate independence anyway. This is a game of political chicken, and the Tories haven’t just blinked first, they’re blinking S.O.S. in morse code.
NEW MODERATION POLICY
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