Friday 21 August 2020

Michael Gove should give Scots living elsewhere the vote


Let’s be absolutely honest if there were to be a second independence referendum with the same question as last time and the same franchise, it would be a coin toss. If I were a Scottish independence supporter, I would want a bigger lead in the polls. Even 60% plus wouldn’t guarantee a vote for independence. The intellectual argument is very weak. We vote in General Elections on the basis that we hope that one party or another will make us better off and run the economy more successfully than the others. We vote for other reasons too, but that is the main reason for our choice. Well there is no question whatsoever that Scottish independence would damage the Scottish economy in the short term and probably the long term too. In a campaign every SNP claim about the future of Scotland would be tested to the limit. There is every chance that a majority of Scots would vote against being poorer twice running.

I am against a second referendum because I genuinely thought that if Yes had won in 2014 that would be it. There would be no second chances for my side. We would have had the choice of making the best of losing or else leaving. If we lose once we lose forever. If the SNP lose, they get to fight again. This isn’t fair and it makes losing in the end inevitable.

But being honest again, I am against a second referendum because I think we might lose. Indeed, I think we probably would lose. The SNP have Nicola Sturgeon, who is a first-rate politician. We don’t have anybody of that calibre to go up against her except Michael Gove and he has the disadvantage of being a Conservative and busy elsewhere.

No one sensible bets the future of their country on a coin toss. For this reason, I have consistently argued that the British Government should use an Act of Parliament or it should amend our unwritten constitution, or indeed write a new one to make secession illegal. Failing that it should simply continue to say “No” and make clear that any illegal referendums would not be respected either by the British Government or the international community.  

But I am only writing this, because sufficient “Pro UK” Scottish journalists and establishment figures think that if the SNP and friends win a pro independence majority at next year’s Scottish Parliament elections then they must be granted a second referendum.

So here is what needs to be done under those circumstances.

The first thing that needs to be done is that the British Government takes control of all matters relating to the referendum. Constitutional matters are reserved including referendums on them. It should therefore be up to the British Government to decide the date of the referendum, how long the campaign is, what sort of funding it has, what the question is, and who gets to vote.

The 2016 EU referendum has already set the precedent that a Yes/No question is unfair. It’s also crucial that Scottish voters are asked whether they wish Scotland to cease to be part of the UK and indeed if they wish the UK to cease to exist. The former UK could hardly be called united when it would be disunited. A Leave/Remain question similar to the EU referendum might be fair. But Leave and Remain now have connotations so it might be better to come up with something new.

With its usual ineptitude Scottish Labour and the Lib Dems agreed with the SNP’s decision to extend the franchise to foreigners in Scotland. This gave the SNP the super majority needed to change the franchise in favour of itself. Foreigners are much more likely to vote for independence partly because they resent Britain leaving the EU.

Imagine if there were a very close referendum campaign and it turned out that it needed the votes of foreign citizens to break up a three-hundred-year-old country, while Scots living elsewhere in Britain and the world had no say whatsoever.  No other country in the world would stand for this.

This is clearly unjust. For this reason, non-resident Scots must be given a vote in any future referendum.

But who is a Scot? Well we already know the answer from the SNP. People born in Scotland and those with a Scottish parent or grandparent would be eligible for Scottish citizenship as well as those who have lived in Scotland for ten years or who have a demonstrable connection. The details can be found in Scotland’s Future (2013).

Well if someone would have the right to have a Scottish passport, he clearly ought to have the right to decide if he wants one. For this reason, the British Government should allow all Scots who would have the right to a Scottish Passport to apply to vote in Scottish elections and especially in any future referendum.

The British Government should also make clear that it would not allow dual British/Scottish nationality. It would be unfair for Scots to choose independence knowing that they could access all the services that are available to British citizens. They should therefore be made to choose. Those Scots living in other parts of Britain who wanted to have Scottish passports would have to apply for leave to remain in the former UK. While those Scots living in Scotland who wished to remain British would have to apply for leave to remain in Scotland.

I would prefer that there were no second independence referendum ever, but the best way to prevent it is to make clear to the SNP now that it will not be fought on their terms, but rather on our terms. If they don’t like those terms it should not be difficult to write them a letter reminding them that constitutional matters are reserved.