Scots pro-Remain vote is no justification for another independence referendum, writes Brian Monteith
Why has Scotland voted convincingly to remain in the European Union when the United Kingdom as a whole has voted to leave? What do the possible reasons tell us, and in the febrile mood being created by the First Minister, what do they suggest would happen were there to be a second independence referendum?
Before discussing these questions there are a few facts that need to be affirmed, for they set the context that Scotland, the UK and the EU are operating under. The first is that the United Kingdom is the member state of the European Union, through treaty, and that Scotland is not a member.
The second is that David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership if he were to command a majority in the 2015 general election as far back as January 2013 – 18 months before the Scottish independence referendum. The Conservatives published a Referendum Bill in June 2013, as a private member’s bill, as they were in coalition at the time. It passed its first and second readings in the House of Commons but was stopped in the House of Lords.
It was patently clear before the 2014 Scottish referendum that there could be an EU membership referendum and that this would be an issue for the UK to decide, as the member state, and that Scotland could have no separate position. When the Conservatives’ general election victory arrived it was duly announced that the promised referendum would take place and that it would be a UK-wide decision.
While the new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called for the UK’s individual nations to have a veto over any Brexit this was repudiated, based on the legal status of the UK’s membership and the UK-wide referendum organised by the UK parliament. The First Minister then had the opportunity to put a promise of a second independence referendum in her party manifesto, but the third fact is that she did not, her wording was she would seek in certain circumstances the right to hold a referendum.
Seeking a right is not the same as possessing a legal right. Even with such equivocation and ambiguity Nicola Sturgeon then failed to retain the overall majority she had inherited, meaning that she had no mandate even for her watered-down commitment. The First Minister has no legal or moral claim to hold a second independence referendum, irrespective of the outcome last Thursday.
The final facts that should be noted are that Scotland’s public finances have a deficit of £14.9bn and its current share of the EU membership fee is £1.6bn – a total of £16.5bn per annum would need to be found. Meanwhile 64 per cent (£48.5bn) of Scotland’s exports go to the UK while only 15.2 per cent (£11.6bn) go to the EU putting jobs at huge risk. A border would be needed with England, we would have to adopt the Euro despite our debt issues. That’s if the EU (and especially Spain) would accept an application.
It is in this context that I return to providing answers to my questions. Why did Scotland vote to stay in both the UK and the EU while England and Wales chose to leave the EU, and what does it tell us?
It is my contention that the majority of voters, when asked if Scotland should stay in the UK weighed up the pros and cons and took an essentially contractual decision that, on balance there was more to be gained from being in the UK than from leaving. In particular the economic arguments about jobs and prosperity through our trade with the rest of the UK, the risk of our public finances relying so heavily on oil tax revenues and the SNP confusion over what currency would be used made the economic case conclusive for Unionists.
There were many like me who wanted to remain British, but had the economic case been weaker then I have no doubts that I would have been in the minority and Scotland would have become an independent sovereign state.
In other words Scots were not prepared to endure financial hardship and pain just to be able to put on the blue woad and cry “Freedom!”
When it came to the EU referendum I believe the Scottish electorate again made a similar contractual choice, believing the benefits of remaining in the EU to outweigh the benefits of controlling farming and fishing at Holyrood and being able to hire and fire the politicians that make our laws and regulations, rather than sub-contract 60 per cent of those to an unelected and unaccountable elite in Brussels. The result was more conclusive for the simple reasons there was no political leadership willing to put the case for Brexit and the campaign was shorter due to the earlier focus on the Holyrood elections.
By comparison I believe the decisions in England and Wales were different because the contractual costs and benefits of Brexit were far less important to voters there. If it is true that the remain campaign won the economic argument – with all the warnings of jobs losses, recessions, catastrophic falls in household income, price rises, tax rises – then why did areas like Sunderland, Sheffield and Birmingham vote to leave the EU?
The answer that immigration was a greater concern is not good enough. Many first second and third generation immigrants in these areas voiced support for Brexit – and it is also the case that immigration was a concern in Scotland as polling and public meetings both routinely showed.
No, what I found had developed in the course of the debate was the growth in popular feeling that only be regaining full sovereignty to make the UK’s own laws again would we be able to hold our lawmakers to account and bring about the changes we might like to see.
In other words, in a great irony of our times, the English and Welsh voters were willing to risk financial hardship and pain just to be able to cry “Freedom!”
If our First Minister is able to find a way to deliver a second referendum legally, the Scottish electorate will be confronted with the stark choice: are the contractual benefits of remaining in the UK worth sacrificing to gain Scottish sovereignty? Will they endure the obvious pain to make that gain?
Looking at their behavior in the last two referenda why would they?