Saturday 27 August 2022

Could the SNP gain independence by winning a General Election?


Nicola Sturgeon’s plan for independence, assuming that it is genuine, involves holding an unofficial independence referendum in October 2023, but this depends on the courts agreeing that she can do so. Even if they do agree, such a referendum would not be like the one we had in 2014. It might be boycotted by the Pro UK side. The SNP’s case involves it being more or less a giant opinion poll and being merely advisory. It’s entirely unclear what would happen if the Yes side won? But we are unlikely to get that far anyway. The courts will probably rule against. This leaves turning the next General Election into a de facto referendum on independence.

There has been a lot of comment saying that it is not possible to unilaterally make a General Election a referendum. No one party can decide what an election is about. There would be no referendum question. There would be no referendum campaign as other parties would be debating UK wide issues rather than Scottish independence. These arguments and others like them are correct. But this all rather misses the point.

It is perfectly possible for a country to secede by means of a General Election. There are lots of examples. The immediate cause of the secession of the Confederate States of America from the Union was the Presidential election of 1860. This was de facto referendum on independence.

Abraham Lincoln won most of the North, John C Breckinridge won most of the South and from this followed the secession of each state of the Confederacy.

Was this legitimate? The Confederate States argued that they had the same right to leave the USA as the original 13 colonies had to declare independence in 1776.  The USA disagreed and fought to prevent secession. The war initially was not about slavery, though that was its long-term cause. The initial war aims of the Union was merely to prevent secession.

So, if the Confederacy could obtain independence by means of an election, so too can Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. The British Government even if it thought the SNP argument was illegitimate would not attempt to prevent Scotland becoming independent by force. It might attempt to prevent it by means of law, but if Scotland declared that such laws no longer applied in Scotland, it would be impossible to enforce them otherwise than by force and that is unimaginable.

Indeed, it is completely unnecessary for the SNP to hold a de facto referendum on independence. A vote in the Scottish Parliament would certainly be sufficient or even if the Scottish Government merely declared that Scotland is now independent. Afterall the USA did not have a referendum prior to saying it had left.

Countries that want to be independent do not require referendums or elections. They merely require a leader or a movement to declare independence and be willing to push the issue to its conclusion. Given that the British Government under no circumstance would force Scotland to stay in the UK, it is perfectly possible for the SNP to gain independence by means of an election or merely by stating that it is independent.

But it is one thing to gain independence after a legitimate referendum like the one we had in 2014. It is something else again to achieve independence unilaterally. This is especially the case when public opinion in Scotland is so evenly split.

When the UK voted to leave the EU, it did so according to EU rules. We triggered Article 50. For this reason, there were negotiations between the UK and the EU. It would not I believe have even been necessary for there to be a referendum. The UK is a sovereign nation state and could have merely informed the EU that it was leaving. But if the UK had not followed EU procedures and had simply told the EU we have left, we could not have expected any sort of deal between the EU and the UK.

Scotland is not a sovereign state, but likewise not following the agreed procedure of leaving the UK, i.e., by means of a legal referendum agreed by the UK Parliament, like we had in 2014, would amount to leaving without a deal.

The UK went to great lengths to avoid a No deal Brexit, but this would have involved us merely leaving a trading organisation of sovereign nation states which we had been a member of for forty years or so. A No deal Scexit would be something else again. It would mean leaving the sovereign state of which we have been a part for the past 300 years immediately and without negotiations.

Scotland lacks the apparatus of a sovereign nation state. It has extensive devolved powers, but much of what is required to run a state, such as customs and excise, income tax and benefits is at present controlled by the British Government. An independent Scotland in a No deal scenario would have to start these things on “day one” who is to say that “day one” would begin the minute the SNP declared victory in its de facto referendum.

Of course, in time there would be negotiations between breakaway Scotland and the former UK, but the former UK would be under no obligation to cooperate or make life easy. The SNP appear to think that winning an unofficial referendum or a de facto referendum/General Election would lead to negotiations and a transition period as they planned in 2014. But that scenario depended on Scotland leaving with consent, rather than unilaterally breaking away.

I have little doubt that if the SNP won 50% of the vote at a General Election with a high turnout that this would lead to independence. In time the international community would come to terms with breakaway Scotland. But it is very difficult to predict how the former UK and the international community would react to the precedent. It is unlikely in the short term that Scotland would be offered membership of the EU or NATO.

But there is something that the SNP has not perhaps thought of. The secession crisis of 1860 and 1861 changed the United States. Prior to 1860 each state generally thought that it had the right to leave. After 1865 it was accepted that the Union was permanent. The question of whether a state had the right to secede had been decided decisively by force of arms.

Similarly, if the SNP pushes secession to the limit by hijacking an election and turning it into a de facto referendum, it ought to realise that this is a battle it can only expect to fight once. It cannot expect to turn every election into a secession crisis.

We have been debating now for about ten years. The SNP lost the referendum in 2014. If it were to lose twice, then this must have a consequence for the unity of the UK.

If the SNP were to win 50% of the vote, then I would expect independence to follow, but if the SNP were to win 49.99% of the vote, then that must count as losing forever. That would be two referendums lost and that would be enough. No country can be threatened with continual secession.

But this I think makes the SNP strategy very risky indeed. It must be explained carefully to Scottish voters that voting for the SNP involves the risk of a No deal Scexit and that this will happen on the day after the election if the SNP happens to win more than 50% of the vote.  The British Government will then agree to immediate secession, without any transition period and without any negotiations. Under these circumstances my guess is that Scots will reject the SNP for a second time.

The way to defeat the SNP decisively is to offer it what it apparently wants, but under circumstances that it does not want. It is using the strength of your opponent to defeat himself.

The UK ought not to hold Scotland against its will as expressed by a clear majority of Scottish voters and the UK ought not to be held together by force as the USA once was, but make absolutely clear that Scotland would be treated by the UK and the world as an unrecognised breakaway state that achieved secession illegitimately and Scottish voters will turn down the offer. And that will be the end of Scottish nationalism.