Monday 20 June 2022

Perhaps it would be best to just ignore her


In Britain we all know what a legitimate election looks like. We also know what a legitimate referendum looks like. The problem with the SNP’s latest ruse to achieve independence is that it looks like neither.

It may or may not be legal or even possible to hold an advisory referendum in Scotland asking a question such as “Should the Scottish Government enter into independence negotiations with the UK Government”. But this is all rather beside the point. Such a poll would not remotely resemble what happened in the years leading up to the independence referendum in 2014 and so would lack legitimacy even if it were legal.

The referendum in 2014 was agreed jointly by the UK Government and the Scottish Government and both sides promised to abide by the result. The campaign involved each putting forward their argument with official documents and debates. If the SNP had won everyone expected that Scotland would become independent and that the UK Government would cooperate and do all it could to help that happen. It was for this reason that so many turned out to vote.

But compare and contrast an unofficial referendum taking place next October. There would be no Edinburgh Agreement nor promise that both sides would abide by the result. There would be no official publications from the UK Government explaining its position on the various aspects of the debate. There might not even be an opponent for the SNP to debate.

It is unclear how Scottish Labour, Lib Dems and Conservatives might respond to such a poll. Each would think about party interest and what independence would do to their own party fortunes. If they cannot even work together at elections to further the UK interest, then it may be that they would be unwilling to form a united boycott against the SNP’s poll.

The Pro UK boycott might be complete or only partial. There might be someone standing up against Sturgeon in debates. Pro UK opinion might be divided with some arguing that we should try to win the poll, while others like me arguing that we should ignore it.

But this would merely all add to the confusion and the contrast with 2014 would be all the clearer.

Let’s assume that the SNP wins its poll and claims a mandate to enter into negotiations with the UK Government. But there is an immediate problem. It takes two sides to negotiate, but the SNP’s poll would have been unilateral.

When Napoleon defeated the Russian army at Borodino in 1812 and afterwards captured Moscow, he assumed that Tsar Alexander would enter into peace negotiations. This is how everyone else in Europe responded to defeat on the battlefield. But Alexander merely ignored Napoleon’s envoys and as Moscow got colder and food became scarcer Napoleon was forced to retreat from Moscow. So too might Sturgeon find herself on the Berezina in a snowstorm with no bridge to independence and her army eating the horses because of starvation.

Countries can become independent in a variety of ways, but it depends on public support being strong enough to withstand whatever difficulties are put in its way.

The Scottish Parliament could declare independence tomorrow and if enough Scots agreed and were willing to do what it takes to reach that goal independence would be achieved. It doesn’t matter if next years poll is legitimate or not. It doesn’t even matter if the Pro UK side boycotts it and the media ignore it. If it became clear that the overwhelming majority of Scots wanted independence the UK Government would begin negotiations and would cooperate.

But the SNP are not going to be in that position. It would have to win the majority of the whole electorate if the poll was boycotted. It would need polls suggesting that two thirds of Scots want independence. But it cannot even consistently count on 50%.

Ten to twenty percent of support for independence is soft. If you ask these Scots whether they want independence if it involves ceasing to use the pound or a hard border or even the loss of a few hundred pounds you find them dwindling like Napoleon’s army on the retreat from Moscow.

Sturgeon simply does not have the numbers to force the UK to negotiate. Her poll would have no legitimacy, because the UK Government had not agreed to it. Nor would it have international support, because no one would want to set a precedent. Worst of all Scots would have voted for negotiations with no idea about what we were negotiating.

In 2014 we had a reasonably clear idea what independence would have involved, but what would it involve if the UK Government did not even put forward its view for debate. No one would know. This would fatally undermine the legitimacy of any poll. We would only have the SNP’s view about currency, the border or any of the other issues.

But let’s imagine somehow the SNP achieves its goal of entering into negotiations with the UK Government. Would that mean that independence would be achieved? No. Because the SNP’s poll would not have asked Scots whether we wanted independence. The whole point of the legal ruse is that it does not ask that. But then it must be possible that one result of the negotiations would be that Scotland remained part of the UK.

Let’s say the UK Government decided to see if Scotland really wanted independence by treating it as far as is possible as being independent while actually remaining part of the UK. One way of doing this would be to say to the SNP negotiators that Scotland will immediately cease to receive any money from the UK Treasury. Only taxes and revenue raised in Scotland will stay in Scotland and the Scottish Government will have to live within its means.

The UK Government could then say when you have got used to living within your means, you can come back and we will introduce trade barriers and a hard border. After that you can use the pound unilaterally and then join the Euro.

It may be that the majority of Scots would accept whatever difficulties arose from the negotiations valuing the prize of independence so much that they were willing to eat horses like Napoleon’s army.

It would be necessary for the UK Government to be careful not to enflame Scottish opinion to the extent that it grasped independence out of spite. But carefully managed, gradually showing the consequences of separation might make Scottish opinion turn on the SNP negotiators.

Sturgeon must appease the fanatical wing of Scottish nationalism that is impatient. But these people make up only a small section of the SNP let alone Scottish opinion in general. She hopes to force the UK Government’s hand, but her own hand is weak. She knows that Scotland would struggle without they money we get from the Treasury and we would struggle more if the relationship with the UK were to be severely damaged by independence. We need the cooperation of the UK because the disparity in population between England and Scotland will remain whatever happens.

It is for this reason that unilateralism is not going to succeed. Her unofficial poll is really the equivalent of a unilateral declaration of independence and would have no more legitimacy.

We learned from people like Sturgeon in 2016 that a referendum was merely advisory even if it was legally sanctioned and everyone during the campaign assumed that it was decisive.  We also learned from those like Sturgeon campaigning for a people’s vote, that we could keep on voting for as long as we liked until we got the Remain vote that she wanted. But if that were the case for a legitimate referendum, how much more would it be the case for an illegitimate one where there was no proper debate and no one knew what they were voting for?

Even if the SNP were to win its advisory referendum on beginning negotiations and even if such negotiations were to begin, it would still be the case that the only way Scotland could legally become independent would be for a vote in Westminster to agree to it. But this gives the UK Government all of the cards in the negotiation, because it could merely say to the SNP if you don’t agree we won’t give you independence, which will leave you going down the unilateral route with no recognition from us or anyone else.

At the very least the SNP negotiators would have to agree to a confirmatory people’s referendum on the result of the negotiations. The UK Government could negotiate like Barnier and the EU with the hope that if they made the negotiations nasty enough Scotland would decide to Remain.

If the vast majority of Scots wanted independence and were willing to accept the consequences, then a unilateralist unofficial referendum might succeed. But if there were this vast majority, the UK Government would grant a legitimate referendum. It is because there is not that it says No.

The SNP strategy is to hope that an unofficial referendum so enflames public opinion and massively increases support for separation. The best way to prevent this happening is to ignore it.

An SNP delegation arriving for negotiations would not represent a sovereign state, it would merely represent a part of the UK. It would lack therefore the legitimacy to negotiate anything.  It’s only on the assumption that Scotland is already an independent state that the SNP could claim a mandate to negotiate on behalf of it.

Sturgeon’s negotiators backed by an illegitimate referendum on an issue outside the control of the Scottish Parliament would therefore have nothing to negotiate and so would not even be negotiators.