Expert insists on indyref3 to avoid repeat of Brexit chaos

Dr Alan Renwick made his submission to Holyrood's Constitution committee
Dr Alan Renwick made his submission to Holyrood's Constitution committee
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Scotland must be ready to stage two referendums on independence in any future bid to leave the UK or face the “acrimony and gridlock” of Brexit, MSPs have been warned.

And such a scenario could enhance the chances of initial victory for the pro-independence camp, according to one of the UK’s leading referendums experts.

The move has the backing of a senior Labour MSP and Jeremy Corbyn ally, who says it is the “right approach”.

Voters should be offered a vote on the second vote on the divorce deal agreed with the UK, unless it mirrors the proposals set out during the campaign, according to Dr Alan Renwick of University College London’s Constitution Unit. He points to the “grave democratic quandary” of the EU referendum fallout, where voters were not allowed to make an “informed choice” about the type of Brexit on offer.

“It would be a folly for Scotland to repeat this mistake,” he warns in a submission to Holyrood’s Constitution committee.

The academic also warns against broad new powers going through Holyrood at the moment which would allow the Scottish Government to call a quickfire referendum, saying they would “violate a core principle” of democratic scrutiny.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is seeking to hold a second vote on leaving the UK late next year. But Westminster, which controls the constitution, has so far refused to grant a Section 30 order which would transfer power to Holyrood for such a vote. In the meantime, the Scottish Government has published the Referendums (Scotland) Bill which would set out the broader rules on referendums in Scotland, including a future vote to leave the UK.

Renwick, who was research director in the recent Independent Commission on Referendums, has warned of a “serious danger” that the Brexit chaos may be repeated.

A second referendum on independence would be a “pre-legislative” vote, meaning Scots could decide on a point of principle to leave the UK without knowing what the final terms of departure would be for a future relationship, for example over areas such as debt.

“The Brexit referendum is a clear case in point,” Renwick warns in a submission to MSPs. “Voters were not (and could not be) offered clarity during the campaign as to what form Brexit might take.”

This has led to a “democratic quandary” where the result of the referendum cannot be implemented without denying voters a say on the final form of Brexit on offer.

“There is no way out of this quandary that does not do great damage to the UK’s democracy,” he adds. “There is a serious danger that, following a Yes vote in such a referendum, Scottish politics would become mired in the same acrimony and gridlock as has consumed UK politics over the past three years.”

If the Scottish Government was to produce a “detailed plan”, such as the White Paper in 2014 which was largely accepted as the basis of the future relationship with the UK, this danger could be avoided.

But if such proposals “are not fulfilled”, resulting in a “material adverse change” in circumstances, the Independent Commission on Referendums says this would trigger a second referendum.

Renwick states: “While recognising that any such move would be politically sensitive, I recommend that the proposals of the Independent Commission on Referendums regarding two-referendum processes be followed.”

The move has the backing of Labour’s Lothians MSP Neil Findlay, who ran Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns in Scotland. The UK party leader recently indicated he would not block a second referendum if it had a mandate at Holyrood.

Findlay said: “I think this the right approach to any future constitutional referendum of this scale should it ever take place. I do not want another referendum, but should there be one then it would be consistent for all those calling for a confirmatory vote on any Brexit deal to account for the need for a similar confirmatory vote on any potential exit by Scotland from the UK.”

Renwick insists a double vote would not skew the result against independence. “In the context of a two-referendum process, a majority for independence would be easier to win at the first vote, as many voters would think it worthwhile to see what deal might be on offer,” he said. “That might build momentum for the second vote too, such that, overall, there is no predictable advantage for either side from adopting this approach.”

The referendums Bill would also allow the Scottish Government to call a referendum speedily through the use of regulations at Holyrood, instead of primary laws. But this would diminish “detailed scrutiny” according to Dr Renwick, who calls for this to be changed: “A referendum can lead to enormous change and a decision to call one should never be treated lightly.”

External Affairs Secretary Fiona Hyslop said: “The Scottish Government wants to ensure people have an informed choice between the UK government’s disastrous Brexit plans and becoming an independent country.

“In the 2016 EU referendum, unlike the 2014 independence referendum, those advocating Brexit offered no clarity on what people were voting for, which is why the issue of EU membership should be put back to the people again.

“The Referendums (Scotland) Bill will provide a framework to allow Scotland to meet international best practice in the rules for any referendum within the competence of the Scottish Parliament. We will seek agreement to a transfer of power at an appropriate point to enable an independence referendum that is beyond legal challenge to be held within the current term of the Scottish Parliament.”