THE referendum was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation decision so let’s make it one, writes Brian Monteith
We now enter the final days of campaigning for the Scottish Parliament elections and Nicola Sturgeon has decided to up the stakes by saying she will accept only a majority of Scots wanting independence rather than 60 per cent previously mentioned.
It is typical of her strategy of deflecting attention away from her administration’s disappointing record and on to the interminable debate about constitutional process rather than policy outcomes.
We are fast approaching a moment of climax where the possible scenarios around a second referendum will be played out – but have her unionist opponents in Edinburgh and London given any thought to what might happen and how they should be responding?
Consider the most likely of outcomes in this week’s Holyrood elections and the forthcoming referendum on UK membership of the European Union. Bookmakers are the most reliable predictors and they tell us that the SNP will win a second overall majority and that the UK will remain a member of the EU.
What follows next? The apocalyptic threat of creating a constitutional crisis by demanding a second independence referendum because Scotland in all probability will have voted to stay in the EU when the rest of the UK might have voted to leave will have been avoided. There will be a deep sigh of relief in Downing Street on both counts, although it will not be enough for the plotting to unseat the Prime Minister to begin.
Sturgeon will be delighted that she now has her own personal mandate as First Minister but she will also know that she has raised expectations about a second referendum amongst her supporters. The demonisation of decisions coming out of Westminster, irrespective of who makes them or how right they are, will continue as she attempts to raise the demands for that second referendum.
The likelihood of any meaningful change to the way things are done in Scotland or to modernising our public services will be slim. Anything that risks undermining support for the SNP or independence will need to be reined back. The probability of our health and education services continuing to underperform must be high, for the simple reason that the hard decisions necessary to improve them will be avoided. Instead what we will have is a constant stream of triggers being suggested that might set off a second referendum.
The result is that Scotland will continue to be in a state of flux characterised by the division within families and communities over the independence question. Instead of adhering to the Edinburgh Agreement whereby they would respect the outcome of the referendum, Sturgeon and Salmond will continue to seek to overturn the convincing majority that defeated them. Instead of honouring their word that the referendum was a “once in a lifetime” and again that it was a “once in a generation” opportunity – a promise so sincere that they gave it twice – they will campaign to find ways to have another referendum at the earliest opportunity.
Be under no illusions that this political game is highly damaging to Scotland and our people. We can see from the results of repetitive constitutional referenda in Quebec that the once successful financial centre of Montreal was laid waste as its finance industry melted away to Toronto and beyond. The same is already happening in Scotland as businesses discretely move back-office operations across the Border. Decisions to relocate operations by our financial services companies may have been avoided if talk of a second referendum had been put to bed, but the reverse has happened. The threat of further instability is issued with every speech the SNP makes about the EU.
Alex Salmond (and thousands of his and Sturgeon’s supporters) tells us that independence is inevitable which must therefore mean that a second referendum is inevitable. The only question left is when?
In such an atmosphere it is therefore not unusual to find talk in business circles of investment decisions being taken to avoid Scotland and be placed elsewhere in the UK. It is not so much that decisions are reversed or investments cancelled, it is worse than that – Scotland is simply ruled out from the start. In such circumstances the damage that Sturgeon’s repeated talk of a second independence referendum is doing to the Scottish economy cannot be quantified.
There is of course a solution to dealing with this scenario, but it is not one that I think any of the unionist leaders have realised is at their disposal. They could always call Nicola Sturgeon’s bluff.
The First Minister has no legal authority to call a referendum so she will need to find a political pretext to demand she gets one. So why wait until she thinks the time is right for her to demand a second referendum? Once the EU referendum is out of the way and our membership is confirmed it is time to call the First Minister out for destabilising not just the UK but Scotland too. She and Alex Salmond made their own vow – to accept the outcome of the 2014 referendum – and they have broken it, and continue to break it with every speech they make.
If they will not accept the “once in a lifetime” decision of the Scottish people then the Prime Minister should ask us to take the decision over again and this time with the clause that it cannot be revisited for 25 years. We do not need a two-year campaign, for the important issue at hand is that Scotland must quickly come to terms with its decision once and for all and be at peace with itself. A referendum could be held in October and that would be the end of it.
Following the result, if the SNP win negotiations could begin immediately to change Scotland’s status but if the SNP lost then all talk of independence would be put to bed and the real job of governing Scotland would have to begin.
And the other scenario? Where Scotland votes to stay in the EU but the rest of the UK takes us out? Why not call Sturgeon’s bluff here too?
I would like to see the First Minister explain why she would turn down powers over fishing, farming and the environment only to build a trade barrier between our largest market – the United Kingdom – and pleading to rejoin the EU with the worst government deficit in Europe.
• Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain