Tuesday 4 May 2021

The SNP won't have a mandate for independence


Nicola Sturgeon does not have an independence plan. The last one produced in 2018 is completely out of date and she hasn’t got another one. The SNP hope to produce another before a future independence referendum if and when it happens. But she will argue that the election to the Scottish Parliament will give her a mandate for holding it even though she does not herself know what independence would involve.

But if Nicola Sturgeon does not know what the plan is for independence, how can the Scottish voters know either? Sturgeon either refuses or is unable to answer various questions about independence. The practical questions such as EU membership, currency, border and Scotland’s share of the national debt are unanswered. But this means that every single voter who choses the SNP does not know what he is voting for. Logically the Scottish electorate cannot give informed consent to a referendum on Scottish independence, because it has not been informed about it. But without informed consent there can be no question of a mandate for a policy.

An election is about setting out before the electorate not just a wish list, but a detailed policy, which is then tested by debate. But there has been no debate about the SNP’s plan for independence because it doesn’t have one. For instance, the SNP plan when it arrives might say that an independent Scotland would join the Euro. If Scottish voters now knew this, they might reject the idea of an independence referendum. This means that the SNP cannot claim a mandate for a policy that might be rejected if only the voters knew about it. The SNP cannot therefore claim a mandate at all.

Let’s imagine that the SNP comes up with a new plan. It is not possible to imagine that Nicola Sturgeon would publicly state, I’m sorry fellow Scottish nationalists, but given our new plan I have decided that for the moment independence is a bad idea. Likewise, many SNP voters want independence come what may, no matter what it involves.  

But the SNP has put forward various policies in its manifesto which will depend on various economic circumstances not least that Scotland will continue to receive funding from the Treasury. If it turned out that a future SNP independence plan would involve no free bicycles, but instead spending cuts, it would have deceived the Scottish electorate by attempting to bribe it with free bicycles for the sake of obtaining an independence referendum that would involve walking rather than riding a bike. If SNP manifesto promises are contingent on Scotland remaining a part of the UK, it cannot logically use them to justify an independence referendum which would mean it would break them. Deceit gives you a mandate for nothing whatsoever.

The Scottish Conservatives have rather foolishly been arguing that we need to vote Conservative in order to prevent the SNP having a mandate for independence. The problem with this argument is that the Scottish Conservatives would be obliged to say that the SNP have obtained a mandate under certain circumstances. Mr Ross may calculate that his party will gain a few seats if only Pro UK people believe that voting Conservative will prevent an SNP mandate, but what if it doesn’t work? He would be left with the position either of saying to Boris Johnson, you must grant a referendum, or saying he didn’t really mean it. But this would merely make him look both foolish and insincere.  And for what? The SNP are likely to form the next Scottish Government either by itself or in coalition. It will make very little difference if there are two or three more Conservative MSPs. But the Conservative electoral strategy will have undermined the UK Government’s argument that now is not the time for a second referendum.

What does Mr Ross think would give the SNP a mandate? It cannot be that he thinks a pro independence majority at Holyrood would justify it, because that is almost certainly going to happen and under no reasonable circumstance could the Conservatives prevent it. If instead he thinks that the SNP should have a mandate if it wins an overall majority of seats, it is hard to see the difference. Why should a bill that requires the help of the Greens or Alba be ignored while one that requires only SNP MSP votes be so decisive that it gives the SNP a mandate? The Greens and Alba also have made manifesto commitments to hold an independence referendum. Does Mr Ross think some MSPs are more equal than others, or that coalitions don’t have mandates to do anything? Worse Mr Ross has no idea if the SNP will gain an overall majority of seats. So, he is betting the future of the UK in order to gain two or three extra Conservative seats. Mr Ross selleth his birthright for a mess of votes and the salaries of his friends.

It cannot be that the UK is risked every time there is an election. No country can long endure under those circumstance. But what then would give the SNP a mandate to hold an independence referendum? This is to look at the matter in the wrong way. The Scottish Parliament can only decide devolved matters. It cannot therefore have a policy about a reserved matter such as independence. There can therefore no more be a mandate for an independence referendum than there can be a referendum for annexing the Faeroe Islands. Such issues are simply outside the competence of the devolved parliament the Scottish electorate voted for in 1997 and 2014. We chose at these times to reject having a parliament that could decide issues of foreign policy and the constitution.

Does this mean that there is no democratic route to independence for the SNP? It would be possible to argue that this is the case and that there is no democratic right to secession. I would argue for this view. The referendum in 2014 was simply a mistake. It fuelled Scottish nationalism. Moreover, David Cameron who had neither a Conservative majority nor a manifesto commitment to granting a Scottish independence referendum, had no right to risk the breakup of the UK which we had fought to maintain for three centuries because Alex Salmond happened to win an overall majority in a Scottish Parliament election. No other European country would take such a risk, nor would the United States nor would Japan. He should have simply told Alex Salmond, the UK is one nation, indivisible, if you want independence you will have to win a revolution. Good luck.

But many Scots and many people in Britain generally do not share this view. They think that there ought to be a democratic route for Scotland to secede. But that route cannot be that the SNP wins an election to the Scottish Parliament either on its own or in conjunction with other parties. The reason for this is a Scottish Parliament election can only grant a mandate on devolved issues, because we voted for a devolved parliament in 1997 and 2014. This is the answer to Nicola Sturgeon’s question about having a second go. It is logical and irrefutable.

But many Scots and British people in general will say this is undemocratic. We alone think our country can be broken up by a vote. But what then might constitute a democratic mandate for secession. Firstly, there would have to be clarity not merely about the SNP’s plan for independence, but also the British Government’s response. Secondly it would have to be obvious that the overwhelming majority of Scots both want independence and want a second independence referendum. Opinion in Scotland about independence is erratic and fluctuates wildly. It cannot be that a three-hundred-year-old country is broken up because of a temporary change in opinion about how Nicola Sturgeon has performed during the pandemic or whether you will get a free bicycle.

For those who favour a democratic route to independence, it might be argued that a sustained and constant measure of opinion showing at least two thirds of Scots wanting independence would justify a second independence referendum. Let polls and Scottish elections show that for a generation and you can have another go. But you cannot reasonably claim a mandate for a referendum when some polls show support for independence to be in the low forties and most Scots don’t want a referendum anytime soon.

Some Scottish nationalists intend to respond to a denial from Boris Johnson by going down the unofficial or illegal route. The response to this ought to be to instantly cut all Treasury funding to Scotland. This is especially the case when people like Alex Salmond say they don’t intend to accept Scotland’s share of the national debt. Why should the UK Government get itself into debt by giving money to people who don’t intend to pay it back?

Mr Ross should have argued that the SNP would not have a mandate for an independence referendum even if it won all of the seats at Holyrood. In fact, the only way the SNP could gain a mandate for independence would be if it were able to form a Government at Westminster on a manifesto commitment to independence. Only Westminster can grant permission. All else is a mess of thinking.  

The task is to make achieving independence as hard as possible for the SNP. Ideally it should be impossible. The folly is that the Scottish Conservatives while pretending to be Pro UK are actually undermining the argument. Don’t make the future of the UK depend on a Scottish Parliament election when your party polls in the low twenties. It may be in the interest of the Scottish Conservatives, but it is not in the interest of the UK.