Supreme Court referendum ruling: Independence issue must be resolved democratically and peacefully (but not in the way Nicola Sturgeon suggests) – Scotsman comment

The Supreme Court’s decision that the Scottish Government cannot hold another independence referendum will be greeted with relief by unionists and dismay by nationalists.

Nicola Sturgeon cannot unilaterally decide what the next UK general election is about (Picture: Peter Summers/Getty Images)
Nicola Sturgeon cannot unilaterally decide what the next UK general election is about (Picture: Peter Summers/Getty Images)

However, surely both camps can agree that – with the issue deferred until the next general election, likely to be held towards the end of 2024 – Holyrood’s attention should now be focussed on the many pressing issues facing the country, such as the cost-of-living crisis, the state of the NHS, and, ahead of the first full teachers’ strike in almost 40 years, problems in our schools.

For years, the SNP in power have been doing a rather poor job of convincing potential swing voters that life in an independent Scotland would be better, not worse, based on their track record. How can a government that struggles to build two ferries persuade people that it should be trusted to build a nation? That is just one of several questions about real life in Scotland today which Sturgeon and her ministers should, in their own interests as well as the country’s, set about trying to answer with considerably greater effort.

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The Supreme Court’s decision demolished the idea that votes in the Scottish Parliament elections can be used as a de facto referendum on calling an independence referendum, establishing this is outwith the powers given to Holyrood. The bizarre argument made by the Scottish Government in court that it would have no effect on the Union clashed loudly with its public proclamations to the contrary.

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The ruling is a blow to the SNP, but one they have little option but to respect. Amid the howls of nationalist outrage from some, more sensible heads on both sides should now look for ways to resolve this seemingly interminable issue.

Sturgeon’s plan to use the next general election as a de facto referendum on independence has a degree of merit, given the Supreme Court’s confirmation that the matter is for Westminster. However, this is outweighed by the fact that no political party has the right to unilaterally decide what any election is about. If this was, for some inexplicable reason, accepted, then other parties would doubtless join in with competing single-issue elections of their own.

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So, even if pro-independence parties secure 50.1 per cent of the vote, this cannot be used as a basis to negotiate or attempt to force through independence and, furthermore, no Westminster government would accept it as such. However, it would be misguided for unionists to proclaim the matter to be settled once and for all and simply ignore nationalism, Liz Truss-style, in the hope that it goes away.

Comments from a number of leading SNP politicians about democracy being at stake contain a worrying subtext about what the more hot-headed independence supporters might do if this stance were to be adopted. There is no merit in Catalonian-style strife.

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Instead if – despite the cost-of-living crisis, climate change, the Ukraine War – more than half of the Scottish electorate back nationalist parties standing on the single issue of independence, then the Westminster government would be wise to take this seriously by entering into negotiations about a second referendum.

However, they should only do so with at least two preconditions. First, that holding such a vote would preclude another being held for a significant period, 20 or 30 years, so that this was accepted by all to be a “once-in-a-generation vote”.

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And second, that a ‘super majority' – perhaps of 60 per cent, less than the level of support for EU membership in Scotland – would be required. This should be necessary when making any fundamental changes to constitutional laws, given they form the ground rules for society, and there is no greater change than creating a new country.

But whatever our future holds, it must be decided peacefully, in accordance with the rule of law, and with genuine respect for democracy.

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