Thursday 17 September 2020

A Clarity Act


There is I think only one place in the world which in recent times offered a part a vote on secession. That place is Canada. On two occasions in 1980 and 1995 Quebec had the chance to leave Canada. On the second occasion the result was very close indeed. Canadian unity was maintained because of the slimmest of margins in the vote. Around 60,000 voters made the difference. About one percent of the turnout. But why do we never hear about Quebec separatism now?

There is one reason and one reason alone. Canada passed a Clarity Act in 2000 and it destroyed Quebec separatism forever.

Scotland similarly had a referendum on Scotland leaving the UK in 2014. The SNP lost, but they dusted themselves off and began campaigning for a second chance to leave almost immediately. If there were to be a second referendum it would doubtless be closer. Support for both the SNP and separatism has increased. But if the SNP lost a referendum by less than one percent some time in the years ahead, does anyone seriously think they would give up? No. They would immediately start campaigning for one more battle. The only thing that will stop them is a British Clarity Act.

The main lack of clarity in Canada was the referendum question in 1995. The voters of Quebec were asked:

Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?

The problem in Scotland is not so much that we had a vague and ambiguous referendum question though it was absurdly favourable to the SNP. The problem was that we had an SNP White Paper with all sorts of claims about what Scotland would be like after separation from the UK, but there was no consensus about what it really would be like. There was no agreement about the most important issues such as EU and currency in 2014. Both campaigns differed wildly about what life in Scotland would be like. It is this that we need to change.

Jamie Blackett the Deputy Leader of the Alliance for Unity has described eight areas that a UK Clarity Act needs to make clear. I will comment on each of these and add some more.

1. There must be a procedure for when if ever a referendum on secession can be granted to Scotland and what if anything would constitute a mandate for the Scottish Government that would require the British Government to grant one.

The Edinburgh Agreement said that the referendum in 2014 had to be decisive and the result accepted by both sides, but absurdly no one defined how long a gap there needed to be between referendums, nor the procedure by which one would be asked for and obtained. The British Government has already rejected SNP demands for a second referendum. What if anything would make the British Government agree? It cannot merely be that some Scottish journalists talk of pressure on Boris Johnson or that some SNP supporters talk of holding an unofficial/illegal referendum. We need clarity on the obligations of both the British and the Scottish Governments with regard to when if ever secession can be asked for.

2. There needs to be clarity on the franchise. The SNP has been extending the franchise in ways that it hopes will make it more likely that voters will choose for Scotland to leave the UK. It extended the vote to 16-year olds and foreign citizens, but it denies the vote to people who it claims would be Scottish citizens and passport holders. The British Government must clarify who would have the vote in the event of a second referendum on separation so that it doesn’t merely benefit the SNP argument, but includes everyone who would be Scottish if the SNP succeeded. It is vital that Scots living in other parts of the UK have a say on whether they want to have Scottish passports.

3. The referendum question must reflect the fact that Scotland would be leaving the UK and neither side can be given the advantage of campaigning for Yes. To avoid comparison with the EU referendum, the following question might be considered fair.

Should Scotland stay in the UK or separate from the UK?

It should be made clear too that the separation would entail that the UK would cease to exist. The UK is the union of the Kingdom of Great Britain with Northern Ireland. There could be no Kingdom of Great Britain if Scotland left.

4. There needs to be a minimum threshold on turnout. It cannot be that 50.1% of a low turnout can break up a country that has existed for 300 years. The Scottish Parliament requires a supermajority of two thirds for certain protected issues. The UK also has the right to protect itself.

5. Should Scotland be treated as a single entity just because we entered the UK with our present borders? The borders of Scotland are not based on a geographical feature and they have changed widely in the course of our history. Northumbria once extended as far as Edinburgh. More importantly the people of the UK have moved freely for the past three hundred years. There may be parts of Scotland where the majority consider themselves to be British.

Why should areas where the majority wished to remain British be “dragged out of” the UK against our will. If the SNP are able to justify separation because Scotland did not vote to Leave the EU or Scotland did not vote for a Conservative Government, then it would be equally valid for parts of Scotland that did not vote to separate to be allowed to stay. The British Government could define under what circumstances this would happen. If the SNP has the right to break up the UK, then voters also clearly have the right to break up Scotland. Why should Scotland be indivisible if the UK is not?

6. What, if any, proportion of the UK national debt would Scotland take with it on leaving the UK. The British Government needs to make clear how the assets and debts of the UK would be divided if divorce should happen. It needs also to make clear what consequences would follow if Scotland refused to accept its share of the debt. For instance, such a refusal could be considered a default, which would further lead to the former UK refusing to cooperate with Scotland. For this reason, too the British Parliament could refuse to revoke the Act of Union 1707.

7. What would be the trade relation between Scotland and the former UK. Would this involve a border that regulated this trade? We have learned that the invisible border between Ireland and Northern Ireland has become a complex issue due to Brexit. We need to know what if anything would happen to the Scottish/English border.

8. The law with regard to referendums must be such as to prevent the present neverendum, where if the Pro Separation side wins, it wins for ever, but if the Pro UK side wins its win is merely temporary and the SNP simply continues to campaign for separation. The British Government must clarify whether we follow the USA and Germany in forbidding secession and if not, how it can be obtained and under what circumstances. This requires us to clarify what is the UK qua nation state. How do the parts relate to each other and the whole? Many SNP supporters deny even that UK is a country. There is an ambiguity about the UK we are countries within a country that is almost unique in the world. We need clarity on what we are before we can decide what we are not.

9. The British Government must make clear who would be responsible for paying the state pension of Scots after Scotland separated from the UK. If the British Government would refuse to take on this liability it must state this clearly. If Scots chose to remain British would their pension continue to be paid, or indeed if they decided to leave Scotland and live in the former UK?

10. We require clarity on how the British Government would react to Scotland using the pound unofficially and what if anything it would do in response. How would this affect relations between the former UK and Scotland.

11. What would happen to citizenship. Would the British Government allow Scottish/British dual nationality, or would it decide that it would be disadvantageous to the former UK to allow Scots to both separate and retain all their rights as British citizens? If so, how would it prevent dual Scottish/British nationality? What would be the status of Scots living outside Scotland in the former UK? Would they be required to choose their citizenship?

12. Would the British Government wish to continue cooperating with Scotland on matters such as defence and broadcasting or would Scotland be expected to set up everything that is now British without any cooperation from the former UK?

13. What would happen during the transition period between Scotland voting to separate and achieving separation. Would the British Government immediately cease any fiscal transfers between the UK and Scotland? How would this affect public spending in Scotland and taxation?

14. Would there be any mechanism by which the Scottish electorate could change its mind after voting for separation and achieving it? Would UK elections continue during this period and could Scots use such an election to campaign for UK unity. Alternatively, would a confirmatory referendum be required for Scotland to actually leave as Nicola Sturgeon argued should be required of Britain before actually leaving the EU.

15. Would Scotland immediately be able to join the EU if it ceased to be part of the UK. The British Government should endeavour to obtain a firm decision from the EU which would set out the real criteria that Scotland would have to meet if it chose to join the EU.


Neither those us who support Scotland staying in the UK nor those who support it separating have any real idea of what separation would involve. The debate in Scotland has become sterile because we lack the shared facts with which to discuss in a reasoned way. A British Clarity Act making all of these issues clear would be a service to both sides of the debate. It is for this reason that I wholly support the Alliance for Unity’s attempt to obtain this much needed clarity.

A Clarity Act would also make all talk of a second referendum redundant just as it did a third referendum in Quebec. If the Scottish electorate knew what would really happen if Scotland voted for separation, they would cease to support it. Separatists in both Quebec and Scotland can only gain electoral success when voters don’t know what they are voting for. The SNP argument has always depended on ambiguity and wishful thinking. Take that away with a Clarity Act and they will no longer have an argument.