In total disregard for the clear No victory two years ago, the SNP-led ‘government’ at Holyrood has this very month published a draft bill on a second separation referendum. The to-and-fro between the SNP and the Conservative Party has begun once again, with petitions and counter-petitions being launched in support or opposition to a second referendum. As we enter once again this all too familiar territory, unionists must unite to make a more comprehensive case than ever against the very unpalatable prospect of another separation vote.
WE WERE TOLD THE MATTER WAS SETTLED
This first argument is the most simple and obvious: we have already voted No to separation, and won our right to remain British. Both sides that participated in the first referendum did so on the understanding that it would be a “once in a generation” event. When the Edinburgh Agreement was signed by Sturgeon, Salmon, Cameron and Michael Moore, they signed up to the stipulation that the vote would “deliver a fair test and decisive expression of the views of people in Scotland and a result that everyone will respect”. Of course, once Sturgeon and Salmond lost, they very quickly changed their minds. Despite the SNP’s shameful antics since their defeat, the electorate were given every reason to believe that a result either way would put the issue to rest, and a No vote would result in Scotland remaining indisputably part of the UK for a long, if indeterminate, number of years.
In other words, back in 2014 we weren’t just asked “should Scotland be independent at this point in time, or should the UK be together at this point in time”. We were asked “should Scotland become independent for the foreseeable future, or should the UK stay together for the foreseeable future”. The resulting No victory was and remains binding note just for 2014, or until 2018, or until the next UK General Election, or until the next Holyrood election, or until the UK Government does something that the SNP takes issue with; it was and remains binding for at least “a generation” if the major figures on either side of the debate are to be believed.
To hold another referendum would be to trample all over the democratic rights and the hard-won UK Union which a majority of Scots voted to retain. It would make a mockery of the first result, and indeed would weaken the legitimacy of the result of any second referendum, regardless of which way it goes. When the losing side can keep holding referendums until they get the ‘right’ result, as the SNP are trying to do, they lose all meaning. This farcical situation must be stopped firmly in its tracks, and SNP talk of a second vote must be immediately and unreservedly slammed down by all unionist politicians. No ifs, no buts, and Brexit isn’t an excuse.
WE ARE A REPRESENTATIVE, PARLIAMENTARY DEMOCRACY
Clement Attlee called referendums “alien to all our traditions”. As a man of his time, he knew how readily fascist governments had used them on the continent in the 1930s to push through highly partisan and populist policies, and trample all over the rights of minorities. By contrast, Britain’s stability owes much to its proud tradition of representative, parliamentary democracy, where our elected representatives make decisions on behalf of the electorate.
Before the age of the ‘neverendum’, when we are constantly threatened with the breakup of our country, we once elected MPs to our British Parliament on clear mandates stated in their party manifestos, and through this process enjoyed levels of stability that we can now only dream of. It was considered a politician’s job to take seek election with a strong stance on the big issues of the day, rather than shift them onto the public; it is after all what we pay them to do!
Now, of course, politicians deflect responsibility though the use of referenda on any issue that is remotely contentious. The ordinary person in Scotland is sick of referendums and could gladly go a lifetime without having another one; politicians by contrast seem to love them. This is because today’s political class is so spineless and self-serving that they want everybody to vote for them; this means they don’t want to alienate anybody on any serious issue, and thus avoid taking a stance on any issue of any importance. Thus everything from EU membership, to UK Union, to our electoral system (does anybody actually remember the referendum on replacing First-Past-the-Post with Alternative Vote?) is put to a referendum.
The SNP at first glance might look to take a stronger stance, but they deflect of course the issue of independence, their very raison d’etre, to a referendum. They do this because they know that in our parliamentary democracy, without a referendum the only way they could win a mandate for independence would be to win a general election on some sort of UDI platform. And they know they could never do this. And so like the rest of the political establishment, they are all too happy to plunge the country into endless, divisive, and ultimately indecisive referendums to achieve their goal in the most roundabout and destructive way.
The entirely unconstitutional referendum revolution has resulted in a tension in our democracy; it pits two mandates against each other: the referendum result against our elected representatives. Consider the fact that we have a clear mandate for Brexit through the EU referendum, yet we have a pro-EU parliament with no intention of honouring Brexit in anything but the most nominal way. The EU referendum was, of course, nothing but a Conservative ploy to kill off UKIP while allowing the Conservatives to win a majority government at the 2015 General Election; had they taken a stance on the EU either way, they would never have done so.
The truth is we will never really leave the EU until we elect a parliament with the will to do it, and until our politicians stop deflecting responsibility for the issue onto referendums, we will never be able to do that. Likewise, our UK Union will never achieve security until we have a UK Government which is prepared to state categorically that it will not allow Scotland’s place in the UK to be put to a referendum again, and that itself wins a parliamentary mandate on maintaining the Union.
Overall, the referendum experience has been one of confusion and chaos, and has been particularly torrid for Scottish unionists who seem to have their expressed will constantly ignored. It is time to return to our British traditions of representative, parliamentary democracy, and end the referendum nightmare.
ANOTHER REFERENDUM WOULD BE A PAINFUL EXPERIENCE
The first referendum was painful and divisive in a way that no general election has ever been in living memory, and there is a reason for this: referendums are a particularly populist and polarising form of democracy. Not only are they against our particular British traditions of parliamentary democracy, they are universally bad to boot.
The Scottish political class like to make a big deal about how the first referendum represented a flourishing of grassroots democracy, bold ideas and political engagement. Perhaps that is how it felt in their little bubble at Holyrood, but for the ordinary Scot it was a far less pleasant experience. The SNP might try to market their “civic nationalism” as being somehow uniquely tolerant and accepting, but the flag-waving nationalist mobs, the vandalising of Better Together signs, the boycotts of pro-Union businesses, the attacks launched against Jim Murphy and pro-Union volunteers on the streets, and the rise of the Cybernat phenomenon all tell a very different story. These are scenes that no unionist wants to see repeated.
The very nature of referendums causes this polarisation. Instead of the wealth of opinion and nuance found in party manifestos at a general election, very complex issues are reduced to two stark and often inadequate choices on a ballot paper. This at once forces people into two diametrically opposed camps, while at the same time sustaining the otherwise rather unsustainable alliance that has fuelled the rise of the SNP: that of traditional ethnic nationalists and republican socialists, united by little else other than their hatred for the very idea of Britain.
It is only through our representative, parliamentary democracy that we can find either accommodation or resolution (in today’s Scotland, the ship has sailed for the former so it will have to be the latter); the very nature of referendums tends against both of these things.
ANOTHER ‘NO’ VOTE WOULD BE AT BEST A PYRRHIC VICTORY
The base case scenario for a second referendum is that there is another No victory. With a strong unionist leadership, such a victory might at least gain the Union some respite, although even then separatism would remain a serious threat for some time. However, unfortunately the unionist side of the political class remain fixated on appeasing the SNP, whether by refusing to block their demands for a second referendum, handing over more and more powers to Holyrood, or by launching a (rather counter-productive) tactical voting campaign to stay in the EU. In all cases, the attitude seems to be that we have to do our utmost to appease nationalists and avoid angering them. What a sorry state to be in!
Wrong-headed as this is, it clearly hasn’t changed. No sooner had unionism won a clear victory in the 2014 referendum, than the leaders of mainstream unionism went about engineering the biggest single transfer of powers to Holyrood in its history, implemented by the UK Conservative Government this very year. All mainstream unionist parties remain fully signed-up signatories of the disastrous devolution process. Right now there’s only a paper wall separating Scotland from outright home rule; you can be sure that wall will be torn down as the unionist establishment desperately try to appease nationalists with the promise of home rule in the event of a second referendum, just like they did with the so-called “Vow” in 2014.
So, if you think that a second referendum might be a good way to kill off nationalism (just like a Scottish parliament, more devolution and the first referendum were supposed to kill off nationalism), be aware that even if you do escape the spectre of independence another time round, you will get home rule in its place.
Ultimately, the best thing we can hope for is no second referendum at all, and it is to that end that we must divert our energies. A second vote would be a slap in the face to the 55% of the electorate that voted for their country to remain together just two years ago. It would go totally against all our traditions of representative, parliamentary democracy that once provided us with such stability and prosperity. It would be divisive, polarising and for all that, ultimately indecisive (unless the nationalists win it, then you can be sure they will get their way). And finally, even if we did win it, we’d be sold out with home rule anyway as a direct consequence of the referendum process.
The time is now for unionists to unite totally and uncompromisingly against a second referendum; there is no room for complacency.