Assertion is a powerful force in politics. If something is said often enough, there is a strong chance of it becoming accepted as established fact.
By the time someone points out that it is no such thing, the moment may have passed. The assiduous asserters will have occupied the high political ground while belated purveyors of actuality are fighting to be heard.
For that reason alone, Sir Michael Fallon performed a useful service by pointing out that holding a second Scottish referendum requires the agreement of the United Kingdom government and that such acquiescence is not a foregone conclusion.
For the past 28 months, the opposite assertion has been relentlessly promoted – that the electorate would be asked to revise its opinion sooner rather than later, on a date best suited to the Nationalist interest.
Since the UK-wide vote to leave the EU, the volume and regularity of this assertion have intensified. Every day brings a fresh piece of manoeuvring, all based on the premise that Scotland’s future is the property of Nicola Sturgeon, with an unbridled right to hold another referendum on the date best suited to her cause.
The politics of this matter are distinct from the legalities and, on a purely factual basis, Fallon’s corrective is long overdue. There are many rights and interests at stake here, and it will be the UK Government’s legal and constitutional duty to take account of them all.
The UK Government’s role in agreeing to referendums is not the product of inadvertence. It was a well-debated retained power under the original devolution settlement. The division of responsibilities has been regularly revisited in the past 17 years and there has been no change in that respect.
In part, this is due to sensible recognition that secession by one nation of the United Kingdom does not affect that nation alone. While the right to secede has never been disputed if that is the clear will of a majority, the right to hold referendums every few years until that outcome is achieved is a significantly different matter.
The response to Fallon’s comments was predictable and confirmed the inevitable hazards of any block being put in the way of the assertion that it is up to the Nationalists to decide when to hold another referendum. Ms Sturgeon tweeted about the “incredible arrogance” of the Tories, and so on and so forth.
But where does the “incredible arrogance” actually lie? Scotland is being led a merry dance on the possibility of a second referendum less than three years after the last one gave a clear conclusion. The fact we were promised that the result would be respected for “a generation” was quickly abandoned. That seems to me pretty arrogant.
A phoney case for a second referendum has been constructed around the outcome of the Brexit vote. However, there is no evidence that the Scottish electorate shares that view of Brexit as a transformational event in the independence context. Pretending otherwise is surely both arrogant and devious.
Polling specifically suggests that there is a large majority opposed to holding another referendum while the Brexit negotiations proceed. Ignoring that view is certainly arrogant and also deeply inimical to Scotland’s interests. The alternative is that the two processes would run concurrently – a Scottish referendum campaign in full swing while the UK government is negotiating to leave the EU.
That would mean every aspect of Brexit negotiations being used as pawns in the ongoing referendum campaign. The overwhelming interest of the Nationalists would lie in persuading the electorate that the UK Government was incapable of delivering for the Scottish interest. Every success for Scotland would be a failure for the SNP.
It is pretty much what we can expect anyway but the existence of a referendum campaign would create a whole new dimension. Can anyone imagine Nicola Sturgeon telling Scotland’s fishermen or farmers, students or business leaders: “Actually, the Brexit negotiations are turning out pretty well, but we want you to vote for independence anyway”?
No democratic government in the world would voluntarily shackle itself with an internal secessionist referendum while externally carrying on the most important diplomatic negotiations in its modern history. The idea that the UK government has an absolute obligation to accept such an arrangement is wildly unreasonable – and most Scots are capable of recognising that.
That is the common sense argument around which a consensus should be built, with the constitutional and legal position as court of last resort. “The UK Government will support the great majority of the Scottish people who do not want another independence referendum while the Brexit negotiations are proceeding” is a much better place to be than feeding the grievance-mongers by telling Scotland it can’t have something, even if it doesn’t want it.
What Michael Fallon actually said is consistent with that reasoning. He specifically referred to 2020 as the earliest point at which a referendum should be entertained – i.e. after Brexit negotiations have concluded. Polling suggests this is also the position favoured by more than 70 per cent of Scottish voters. The “incredible arrogance” would lie in disregarding them.
If almost half of Scottish electors continue to support the SNP, a second independence referendum is likely. I doubt if anyone disputes that but the idea of being frogmarched into one, less than three years after the last result, should be resisted as outrageous. On the one hand we would have the uncertainty of Brexit negotiations; on the other, a new set of “alternative facts” to replace the bound volume of them also known as the 2014 White Paper.
Apparently, it’s no longer essential to be in the EU, because (whisper it) that is actually a wee bit unpopular. It is no longer necessary to keep the pound because the focus groups say that setting up a separate currency might be marginally more saleable. In the great phrase of Richard Nixon’s press secretary: “All previous statements are inoperative”.
The idea that Scotland could soon be plunged into 18 months of referendum campaigning on the basis of another half-baked concoction of calculations while Brexit negotiations are ongoing and our public services crumbling represents the real “incredible arrogance”. The assertion that the process is unstoppable needs to be challenged, on all levels.