Sunday 29 August 2021

It is not undemocratic to say No to the SNP


The Conservative Government has a strategy for dealing with the SNP and its continual demand to have a second independence referendum. Michael Gove recently said that the SNP could have such a referendum if the settled will of the Scottish people were in favour it. Alister Jack has just defined what settled will means. He thinks such a poll could take place if opinion polling consistently shows 60% of Scottish voters want a referendum.

No doubt a lot of thought has gone into these statements. Gove and Jack probably think that just saying No would be unpopular in Scotland and might increase support for both the SNP and independence. It might also damage the prospects of the Conservative Party in Scotland. All of these things may be true. But they also show the short-termism that is at the heart of Conservative thinking about Scotland.

The United Kingdom is a country that has existed for more than three hundred years. It has existed for longer than the United States, Germany and Italy and many other European countries. The idea that its existence could be threatened by a few opinion polls when it could survive everything the Luftwaffe could throw at it displays a peculiar idea of the importance of such polls.  We don’t decide great matters of state by opinion polling, we decide them by Government elected by the voters.

The problem with setting a threshold is what do you do if the SNP reaches it. Margaret Thatcher suggested that the SNP could have independence if it ever won a majority of seats in Scotland. At the time, this looked like an impossible goal. The SNP were with the others and Labour dominated Scotland, but a few decades later the SNP won nearly all the Scottish MPs.

It looks unlikely at the moment that support for a second independence referendum will breach 60%, but no one can predict the future and what do you do if ten years from now it does. At that point you either break your promise or you go into a campaign 20% behind with the very real prospect of a three-hundred-year-old country ceasing to exist because of your clever, short-term strategy of trying to limit support for Scottish nationalism.

We mustn’t anger the Scots by saying just once and very clearly No, Never, though we have the perfect right to do so. But this strategy of granting the right in principle to a secession movement to achieve the breakup of the UK politically all but inevitably means that it will succeed in the end.

Fortunes change over the course of centuries. Scotland at the moment could not without great difficulty and sacrifice afford independence. But fifty years ago, it was a totally different story. If Scotland had achieved independence in 1970 and if it had kept the majority of North Sea oil, then not only could we have afforded independence we would if it had been prudently managed have been better off. There would have been disadvantages to independence then too, but it would have been difficult to make an economic case against it.

Who is to say that the future might not bring Scotland into a similar position? Perhaps wind and wave power or some as yet undiscovered resource might make separation look more attractive than it does at present. So just as Margaret Thatcher’s condition looks foolish when the SNP easily breach it, so too might a threshold of 60%.

The Conservative strategy amounts to delaying the inevitable. It concedes that under certain conditions Scotland may vote again on separation. But the same argument would apply after that even if the Pro UK side won. Eventually the SNP would get a third chance and then a fourth. Well, if you give your opponent enough chances, it becomes inevitable that he will win eventually.

Given long enough the conditions that make Scottish independence more attractive will come again at which point polls are likely to show an increase in support. The Conservative Government has conceded the moral case for independence if it should ever appear that there is a sufficiently large majority in favour. The strangeness of this concession is that no other Government in the world thinks in this way.

It may be that the British electorate thinks like Mark Drakeford that “the United Kingdom 'is over' and a new union should be formed to reflect a 'voluntary association of four nations'.” The Conservative Government may be merely reflecting this opinion. But a voluntary association of four nations would not have lasted for ten years let alone three hundred. Drakeford appears to want a confederation, but this didn’t even work for the United States.

If the Welsh are merely in an association with England, which they can choose to leave at any time, why should there be fiscal transfers between England and Wales? If we are not fellow countrymen, sharing the same country, why do we owe each other anything? Only a common identity formed out of a single country justifies fiscal transfers. But without these there could be no monetary union, no sense of mutual solidarity and rapidly no association.

If Drakeford and Sturgeon really believe the UK is a voluntary association of four nations, they should immediately give up the financial support they are receiving from foreigners. To accept the benefits of being a part of a single nation state while denying it is one is mere hypocrisy.

Devolution has weakened the sense that we are a single country and replaced it with the idea that we are four countries more loosely connected even than the EU. It is for this reason that Gove and Jack think it is necessary to set conditions on separation. If we are primarily four countries that happen to form an association, they are right to do so. If this is what most British people feel, then the breakup of that association is already built in.

If on the other hand we are primarily one people, one country, like Germany, France or the USA, then there is no reason to appease secessionists, because none of those places would set out conditions for the breakup of their country. Neither need we. Legally and morally, we have the same right as every other country to defend our territorial integrity.

No one thinks that it is undemocratic for Germany not to allow a referendum on secession. Germany too was once made up of independent nation states, but the unity of Germany is not something that can be broken up by a few opinion polls suggesting that Bavaria or Saxony might wish to leave. If Scotland is not the equivalent of Bavaria, then it is up to secessions to point out the difference legally, historically and morally. It is not enough to say that Scotland is a country, because this is to assume what you are trying to prove.

True statesmen rather than politicians thinking only of opinion polling and support at the next election, would be making the case that the United Kingdom is country just like those which forbid secession. Perhaps the British people don’t want this. Perhaps we are too attracted to being separate countries. But if that is really the case, there is little point setting thresholds, because we would have already conceded the argument. For as Lincoln pointed out in 1863, no such country can long endure.

Either politicians define the UK as permanent or they accept that it is temporary. Either we think Lincoln was right to defend the territorial integrity of the USA or we side with the argument of his opponents.