If there’s one lesson from recent referendums, it’s that they really are quite divisive.
That is hardly surprising – take an emotive issue, ask people to give an apparently definitive yes-or-no answer, and it’s likely to arouse strong passions. This was evident in the votes on Scottish independence in 2014 and the UK’s membership of the European Union in 2016.
Clearly, the SNP and others still hold onto the hope that Scotland will one day leave the UK and it’s unrealistic to expect them to drop the idea. However, just as Unionists have to deal with that reality, supporters of independence need to be pragmatic about how they go about persuading others to join their ranks.
As we report today, Keith Brown, the SNP’s depute leader, appeared to suggest that Scotland might hold a second indyref without first securing the agreement of the UK Government.
After the Scottish Conservatives claimed his remarks showed the SNP was planning “an illegal referendum”, Mr Brown stressed this was not what he had meant at all.
Fortunately, Nicola Sturgeon’s stance on this issue is not, in any way, open to misinterpretation. “The legal basis of any future independence referendum should be the same as the referendum in 2014, which is the transfer of power under a section 30 order,” the First Minister said.
So her Government will seek permission from Westminster to hold any second referendum. And even though Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the UK would “of course” refuse to give that permission, Sturgeon’s approach is the right one – for the sake of Scotland, the UK and even the cause of independence.
A disputed referendum would be boycotted by Unionists, rendering the result a foregone conclusion, but an invalid one as a genuine expression of the will of the Scottish people. And it would not lead to independence, but an angry political turmoil that could develop into civil unrest.
The disputed Catalan referendum in 2017 saw 92 per cent of the voters back independence – but the turnout was just 43 per cent as Spanish unionists stayed at home. Catalonia is now further away from independence than it was then.
If Scotland does hold a second referendum, it must do so in an orderly, peaceful way that, in the event of independence, maintains good relations with the rest of the UK, who are and hopefully always will be our closest friends.