There has been a lot of assertive talk in the last week from SNP politicians stating, as if fact, that the Scottish Government has a mandate to call a second independence referendum.
Figures such as MP Mhairi Black, George Kerevan, deputy leader Keith Brown and others were in the thick of making such claims, while the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, was challenged by Prime Minister Theresa May, who said there is no mandate.
This led the SNP to tweet on 6 March: “Theresa May tried to claim that Scotland has no mandate for a referendum on Scottish independence. FACT: Scotland has a mandate to pursue independence.”
Ignoring the obvious falsehood that the SNP is not Scotland and cannot speak for it, it is important to establish if the Scottish people – whom the SNP says are sovereign – have authorised a second referendum in pursuit of independence. It will, after all, be upon the back of any such mandate that denial of the legal process of a Section 30 order from Westminster will be turned into the mother of all grievances.
The chronology for the SNP claim starts six years ago when, in January 2013, David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership if he were to command a majority following the 2015 general election. As the Conservatives were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the party published in June 2013 a private member’s Bill to emphasise its intentions. It passed its first and second readings in the Commons but was stopped in the House of Lords.
When the 2014 Scottish independence referendum came along the following year, there could be no doubt in anyone’s mind that a referendum to leave the EU could take place and that it would be possible for the UK to vote to leave. Nor could there be any doubt that it would be an issue for the UK to decide as the member state – and so Scottish voters might take a different view from the rest of the UK electorate.
Indeed, so likely was this scenario to become reality that during the independence referendum the Scottish Government warned Scottish voters that remaining in the UK could mean Scotland would leave the EU against their will. It was also clear during that referendum that, were Scots to choose independence, Scotland would leave the EU the same day that it left the UK – which was being suggested by the SNP would take place before the next general election.
By the SNP’s own words, it is beyond challenge that the “circumstances” of the 2014 referendum were that the SNP was willing to take Scotland out of the EU as a price for achieving independence, and that, were Scotland to remain in the UK, it might still leave the EU later, irrespective of how Scots voted. Scots voted to stay with the UK.
Once the Conservatives’ 2015 general election victory arrived, it was announced that the promised referendum would take place in June 2016 and would be a UK-wide decision.
Nicola Sturgeon, by then First Minister, had the opportunity to put at the centre of her May 2016 Holyrood election campaign a promise to hold a second independence referendum. Instead she relegated the idea as a priority, burying it on page 24 with the caveat there would need to be “a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will”.
The Scottish public was by then getting fed-up with Sturgeon’s fixation with holding a second referendum and in May 2016 she lost the SNP’s overall majority. The unionist parties won 52.4 per cent of the constituency vote. Together this meant even her caveat was rejected – she had no moral or legal claim and no public mandate to hold a referendum.
The next month the UK voted to leave the EU, but a majority of Scots preferred that the UK should stay. This has been claimed ever since as a “material change” of circumstances that justifies the SNP Government demanding the authority to call a second independence referendum. Only it is no such thing.
As I have explained above, the possibility of the UK leaving the EU with the majority of Scots opposed was already well known and foreseen; the fact that it materialised was not therefore a change – the circumstance had always been there. Furthermore, the SNP had advocated the very same outcome as the price of Scottish independence two years before (and still does).
The following June, we then had the 2017 general election, by which time Sturgeon had gone on, and on, and on about a second referendum. The result was her party lost 13.1 per cent of votes and 21 MPs. There could be no doubt that with some 62.7 per cent of votes going to unionist parties the Scottish public was in no mood for another referendum – be it about Scotland in the UK or the UK in the EU.
It is said there is a mandate because the Scottish Parliament passed a motion in favour of being able to hold a referendum, but MSPs voting for their own policies does not make it a mandate from the Scottish people.
There is a way round the claims and counter-claims about the existence of a mandate for a second independence referendum. All Sturgeon has to do is go to the country.
She can call time on her minority administration and hold fresh parliamentary elections to show once and for all that the Scottish people will not put up with being “dragged” out of the EU. Every party will need to state, for the avoidance of doubt, if they will subsequently vote in Holyrood to call a referendum.
If Sturgeon is then able to form a new administration, with or without the support of the Greens, she will have an unimpeachable claim that a Section 30 order to hold a legal referendum should be granted. Westminster would find it difficult to deny one in such circumstances.
If Sturgeon is defeated then a new administration could be formed – but without the prospect of a referendum dominating every issue to the detriment of Scotland’s governance.
So, what’s it to be, First Minister? Will you put your faith in your fellow Scots to back you?