13 May 2021
The Scottish Referendum
Get on with it.
By John Watson
Vox populi, vox dei; the people have indeed spoken and in different places they have said different things. In Hartlepool they have given the Government a vote of confidence, perhaps taking the view that it should have a fair chance to develop the programme from which it has been deflected by Covid. In the marches of Wales they have refreshed the old covenant with Labour. And in Scotland the tide runs for the separatist parties although when you take the result with the opinion polls the message is strangely ambivalent.
A majority for the combined forces of the Scottish National Party and its friends the Greens! Surely that gives them a mandate to call for a referendum. Yet if you look at recent polls things are more confused. Yes, the triumph of the separatist parties was predicted, but at the same time a small majority of Scots say that they would vote “no” in an independence referendum. What on earth should one make of that? Is it merely that they cannot make up their minds or does it represent a desire to have the best of both worlds, a Scottish government which can use its mandate to support continual whingeing and chiselling without the risk of going for the full monty?
Whatever the answer to this may be, it seems clear that the referendum is going to have to be refought and from Westminster’s perspective the sooner that happens the better. There are two reasons for that. The first, and this assumes that the Government would prefer the Union to survive, is that the prospect of a “no” vote is likely to decrease with time. Postponing the referendum makes it look as though England is afraid of it and surrenders the initiative to the Scottish Government, allowing them to bang on endlessly about democracy being denied. To press ahead with it on the other hand would exploit the Scots’ current hesitancy and ram home the message that it is going to cost them £10 billion a year unless the EU decides to absorb them and take over the subsidy, something unlikely to impress its poorer members as they struggle to patch together their economies post pandemic.
The second is that we have all had about enough of this debate. When the British decided to leave the EU we embarked on an adventure which carries considerable risks and involves re-orientating the country to serve new markets. No one knows how successful it will be but the process is going to be a difficult one and tricky tightropes will have to be walked. The last thing we need is to have constant blackmailing pressure whining down across the Scots border distorting the judgements which need to be made. Either they need to be in, which is fine. Or they need to be out, which many of us would regret but which we could live with. One or the other.
Following last week’s elections there will be plenty of Scottish politicians calling for an early referendum. That may or may not include Mrs Sturgeon but whether it does or not Mr Johnson should respond by offering them dates. By doing so he would take a personal risk. It is often said that no one would want to be the prime minister who “lost” Scotland and that is probably true but politics is about taking risks and to depart having forced the issue on this topic would at least be honourable and courageous.
Calling a referendum is not, of course, just a matter of placing a bet. Preparatory work has to be done to ensure that the voters have a proper choice. For example Mr Johnson would need to consider whether further devolution should follow from a “no” decision. Clearly Westminster would need to reserve foreign and military matters as well as overall control of sterling, no doubt there are other areas too and these would need to be clearly outlined to the electorate. To properly delineate the “yes” option there would need to be proposals for how debt was to be split in the event of separation. One could not expect chaps rushing round in the heather to bear the same level of debt as bankers in the City of London so the split would presumably have to reflect GDP, both countries remaining on the hook to satisfy creditors and an agreement between them truing things up behind the scenes. If Johnson offers the referendum he can dictate many of these details. If it is forced out of him he will be continually on the back foot and will end up giving more than he should.
In the end politics is about control and momentum. Boris Johnson must know perfectly well that sooner or later this second referendum is to come. If he wishes, as he should, to control the process and to keep the wind behind him, he needs to offer it soon, in which case the answer from the Scottish people is likely to be “no”.