Boris Johnson a ‘recruiting sergeant’ for Scottish independence, says Canavan

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Boris Johnson will act as a “recruiting sergeant” for Scottish independence if he refuses to grant a second referendum, the former chairman of the 2014 Yes campaign has predicted.

Dennis Canavan said the Scottish Government still had work to do to convince a majority of Scots to support breaking away from the UK at a future date, but added that the task was being made easier by UK ministers’ refusal to grant MSPs the legal powers required to stage such a vote.

Dennis Canavan was an MP and then an MSP until his retirement in 2007, although 'he never stood for the SNP. Picture: John Devlin

Dennis Canavan was an MP and then an MSP until his retirement in 2007, although 'he never stood for the SNP. Picture: John Devlin

The result of the 12 December general election has added fresh impetus to the already charged debate on Scotland’s constitutional future in the wake of Brexit, with Holyrood and Westminster now engaged in a tense stand-off over who has the ultimate right to sanction a referendum.

The Prime Minister, who enjoys an 80-strong majority in the Commons, has made it clear he views the 2014 result as definitive and has called for the SNP to respect it.

But that position could backfire and boost the nationalist advance at the polls further, Canavan said in an interview with Scotland on Sunday.

“If Boris Johnson continues to dig his heels in, he would prove to be a recruiting sergeant for the cause of independence and guarantee that the 2021 elections to the Scottish Parliament will produce an even bigger majority of MSPs in favour of indyref2,” he said.

One recent poll put support for independence as high as 50 per cent, but most surveys of public opinion still predict the Yes vote falling short.

Canavan believes the dial will shift as the new UK government beds in and the reality of Brexit becomes apparent.

He added: “At the start of the last referendum campaign, support for independence was less than 30 per cent but that increased to 45 per cent on polling day.

“Not enough to win, but a solid base for building success the next time round.

“Of course, there is still much work to be done to win hearts and minds - particularly among certain demographics, such as senior citizens, Labour and former Labour voters.

“I am confident that we can rise to that challenge so that indyref2 will produce a historic victory for the cause of independence.”

Canavan, 77, was first elected a Labour MP for the West Stirlingshire constituency in 1974, which was later redrawn and renamed Falkirk West. He held the seat at each subsequent election until he stood down in 2000.

By then he was an independent MSP, having quit the party in a row over candidate selection ahead of the first Scottish Parliamentary elections in 1999.

“I was a member of the Westminster parliament during 18 years of Conservative rule from 1979 to 1997 and I fear this Tory government will yet again treat the people of Scotland with utter contempt,” he said.

“Some of the most vulnerable people in society will suffer as a result .

“Over the past 20 years, the Scottish Parliament has been able to offer some protection but there is a limit to the powers of a devolved parliament.

“We need the full powers of an independent parliament to deliver higher standards of social justice in a fairer Scotland which will play a full part in the international community to help build a better world.”

A long-term supporter of devolution, Canavan remained in Holyrood as an independent until his retirement in 2007. He was named chairman of the Yes campaign’s advisory board in 2012, ahead of the independence referendum two years later, which saw the No campaign triumph with 55 per cent of the vote.

He does not buy the argument made by unionists that the SNP lacks a majority to call an indyref2, pointing to the 47 constituencies Nicola Sturgeon’s party won north of the border.

“I was not at all surprised by the scale of the SNP success,” he added.

“The unionist parties spent too much time in negative campaigning, trying to rubbish the case for independence and the perfectly legitimate demand for indyref2.

“Such negative tactics may have delivered a modicum of success in 2017, but this time the electorate saw through it.

“The majority of MSPs support independence and are in favour of indyref2. By any reasonable definition of democracy, that constitutes a Scottish Parliamentary mandate from the people of Scotland to hold another referendum on independence.

“That mandate is reinforced by the SNP winning over 80 per cent of Scottish seats at the recent general election.”

He continued: “Unionists will have to find a new approach by respecting democracy and simply letting the people of Scotland decide their own future.

“It was the late Canon Kenyon Wright who famously asked how we should react if Margaret Thatcher rejected the demand for a Scottish Parliament with the words: ‘We say No and we are the state.’

“The Canon’s prophetic response? ‘Well, we say Yes – and we are the people.’ People power will prevail.

“The Scottish Parliament became a reality despite Margaret Thatcher.

“Similarly Scottish independence will become a reality despite Boris Johnson.”

When it comes to staging a referendum, Canavan believes any future indyref2 must follow the rule book established ahead of the 2014 vote.

“One problem with any unofficial or advisory referendum is that a unionist boycott could destroy the credibility of the result,” he said.

“At this stage, I see no credible alternative to a Section 30 Order but the Scottish Parliament should have the power to hold a referendum on Scottish independence without seeking Westminster’s permission.”