Henry McLeish: There is no case for an early independence referendum

Written by Henry McLeish on 22 September 2016 in Comment

The Brexit campaign shows a referendum producing a small and insignificant majority, relative to the scale of the issue and population size, could have disastrous consequences

Henry McLeish - credit: David Anderson

Brexit has certainly energised the debate about the constitutional future of Scotland. Paradoxically, though, it may be influencing hearts and minds in ways that were never envisaged when Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain, in what is now regarded as a tragedy for democracy and a victory for a narrow English nationalism and right-wing extremism.

Theresa May’s ill-informed remarks about no four-nation veto, no new referendum and no serious scrutiny or parliamentary votes on Brexit, have only served to deepen the political differences between Scotland and England and heighten the frustration of Scots about the influence of hard-right Conservative MPs and the lunatic leadership of UKIP.

The referendum was consultative, so why on earth should we trust the PM, her Cabinet or the Conservative Party to achieve outcomes that are remotely in the national interest, never mind Scotland’s interests. Excluding the prospect of meaningful public scrutiny and political oversight represents a trashing of democracy and if nothing else, confirms the need for a written constitution to save the people from politicians!  


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Amidst the aftermath of Brexit, the SNP government is entering a very difficult and unsettling period. Approaching 10 years in office, grappling with the challenges of taxation, facing major challenges in health and education, having to deal with major cuts in finance and starting to see their fragile coalition of voters fraying at the edges, the SNP may start to struggle at Holyrood if the opposition parties can bring a semblance of cohesion to their disparate activities.

On the political front, the SNP is in a much more precarious position. Post-Brexit, serious opinion polls have shown little change in support for independence. There is no clear majority for leaving the Union and certainly not the overwhelming majority the First Minister has said she needs before pushing for a new referendum.

What is apparent, is public concern about how divisive and damaging referenda can be. When does a majority become large enough to warrant major constitutional change? When is a matter settled beyond reasonable doubt and further dispute? Indeed, many people are now questioning the relevance and wisdom of such votes and the manner in which they can be exploited for entirely different ends from the question on the ballot paper. The new report from the Electoral Commission spells out some of these difficult questions. This is having an impact in Scotland post-Brexit.

The First Minister will not push for a new referendum until she can win. This may be an obvious point, but it is a critical one. Her party may be pressing for change but people are not convinced.

Regardless, this shouldn’t be the sole preserve of the SNP. The rest of Scotland has to join the independence debate not, necessarily as supporters but in order to give balance, clarity and constructive criticism to an idea that is divisive and where big questions need further discussion.

The Brexit campaign has shown that a referendum producing a small and insignificant majority, relative to the scale of the issue and population size, could have disastrous consequences. Scotland should learn lessons. To be independent in the full constitutional, sovereign and political sense requires a much greater degree of consensus and a greater understanding of likely consequences. Rushing to a second referendum vote makes little sense unless a greater proportion of Scots are convinced that they are clear about what is best for Scotland.

This is a much bigger debate than independence. Slim majorities, as Brexit has shown, can undermine national solidarity, cohesion and stability, and the bitter legacy that befalls the defeated and the discontented can be enduringly destructive. Interdependence in Europe is a much bigger idea, influenced by the need to deal with outstanding concerns that have not been given adequate consideration. But now other solutions for Scotland’s future should be on the table. Independence has not yet been tested against any other serious constitutional option. The next referendum should have an alternative to either independence or Westminster unionism.  

In recent years opinion polls, elections and the referendum of 2014 reveal a 50/50 nation. There is no consensus on Scotland’s future; no settled mood of its people. The case exists for a more in-depth debate which may help to build consensus.

Can a radically different constitutional structure for the UK be created where four-nation politics, home rule or a form of federalism provide a popular alternative to independence? This also raises the question of whether Westminster is capable of conceiving or delivering such an alternative. The answer to this question may ultimately decide whether Scotland leaves the Union.    

The clamour for an early referendum to take advantage of the post-EU chaos should be resisted. Caution is required. Delaying a further vote until after 2020 would be a mature response to a breathtakingly irresponsible Brexit.

Allowing the SNP and its supporters to make a more convincing and inclusive case makes sense, as does creating space for the unionist parties to provide an alternative: any change must be anchored in the hearts and minds of Scots, if not, a new vote may not settle anything.

Some will argue the SNP should strike now, a win only requires a one-vote margin and this is what democracy means. Surely constitutional questions demand more serious consideration. The future of Scotland shouldn’t be an accident. Voting ‘for’ something is important.

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