The UK government risks undermining the “legitimacy” of the union if it continues to block a second independence referendum in all circumstances, a leading think tank has said.
The Institute for Government warns if there is a “clear majority” for a second vote on leaving the UK, it would be “counterproductive” for Boris Johnson to continue to reject the transfer of power which would allow a second referendum to be held.
SNP deputy leader Keith Brown welcomed the report, but pro-Union leaders said there is no majority support for another vote on leaving the UK.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this week demanded that a referendum is held next year, but the call was again rejected by the UK government .
The IFG report entitled No Deal Brexit and the Union states: “It is not clear how long this position can be sustained particularly if support for independence increases in the event of no deal. And repeated refusals to grant a section 30 order could be viewed as “the UK government obstructing the Scottish Parliament and denying the Scottish people the right to determine their own future”.
It adds: “A continued refusal by the UK government to devolve the power to hold an independence referendum would become harder to justify if nationalist parties perform well at the next UK general election and Scottish Parliamentary elections.”
Ms Sturgeon has already said the right to a second referendum will be at the heart of the next general UK election, expected to be held in the coming months.
“If the UK government continues to deny a vote in all circumstances, this could further undermine the legitimacy of the union and make for ever-more dysfunctional intergovernmental relations,” the report said.
“For both practical and principled reasons, the UK government should ultimately accept that Scotland has the right to secede from the union should a majority of its citizens so desire.”
Mr Brown seized on the report’s findings. “It sends a stern warning to Westminster that continuing to refuse a referendum will completely undermine the legitimacy of an already crumbling union,” he said. “And what right does anybody have to deny the people of Scotland that right to choose our own future? It is a completely unsustainable position, already coming apart at the seams. Any form of Brexit will hammer Scotland, as we are dragged out of Europe against our will. Westminster’s assault on democracy is untenable, and Scotland will have a choice.”
But Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, insisted most Scots do not want a second referendum, with the SNP timescale.
“We voted to remain in the UK in 2014 and we meant it. We were promised the result of that divisive contest would be respected and it would stand for a ‘generation’.
“The very last thing that Scotland needs now, amid the Brexit turmoil, is more division, more uncertainty, and more economic harm with a second Scexit referendum. When it comes to our financial services industry, leaving the UK that would be devastating for the sector, which exports £9 billion to the rest of the UK every year.
“The polls are clear – barely a quarter of people in Scotland support another referendum within the SNP’s time frame. It’s time for Nicola Sturgeon and Keith Brown to listen to the majority of people in Scotland, not just the nationalist minority.”
The Institute for Government report also suggested that potential trade and economic barriers could make the case for Scottish independence more difficult in the event of a hard Brexit.
“The reason is that if the UK leaves the EU single market and customs union, and Scotland leaves the UK in order to rejoin the EU, then this could lead to new barriers to trade and other economic activity between Scotland and England,” it said.
On whether a referendum could be held without Westminster approval, the report said unionist parties would be likely to boycott the poll in such circumstances.
“A referendum held in this manner would be unlikely to command widespread legitimacy,” it said. “It’s clear that the Scottish Government, and other prominent supporters of independence, do not want to go down the path of an unauthorised referendum.”