The Scotland Bill will be put to a vote in the UK Parliament today, with over 200 amendments being tabled to the Bill, which follows the report by the Smith Commission after the Scottish independence referendum.
In recent days the Scottish Nationalist Party – headed by former First Minister Alex Salmond MP, and the SNP’s Westminster leader in the House of Commons Angus Robertson MP – have pushed for an amendment which would allow the Scottish Government to hold an independence referendum without consent from the UK Government.
In 2012, Alex Salmond and David Cameron signed the Edinburgh Agreement, stating the Scottish Government would hold a referendum before the end of 2014, but allowed the Scottish Government to set the specific date. This amendment would change that, with Scotland’s Government being able to hold a second referendum on its own terms.
The idea has a number of strengths, but also some drawbacks.
Firstly, it does allow for the Scottish Government to hold a referendum on its own terms, without being tied to the UK Government. As was seen in 2014, the UK Government maintained significant hold over the terms of the referendum, and so could still have an influence on the outcome.
Secondly, the actual ability to set the time of a referendum allows for some significant opportunities. For instance, the SNP have repeatedly stated that “material changes” could “trigger” a second independence referendum.
These “material changes” have been somewhat ambiguous, but Nicola Sturgeon has said such a situation would be if – following an in-out EU referendum – the UK voted to secede from the European Union, but Scotland voted to stay as part of it.
Another example has been proposed by Alex Salmond, who said a vote to renew Trident nuclear missiles by the UK Government next year could also trigger a referendum.
Secondly, a significant mandate from the Scottish electorate could allow the Scottish Government to hold indyref 2.0. The SNP has stated if they were elected with a majority in May 2016 in the Scottish Parliamentary elections, and independence featured as part of its manifesto, they could argue they have received a mandate from the Scottish people to hold a second referendum.
On this, Pete Wishart MP said to the Daily Record: “This is a power that should rest with the Scottish people and if they decided the conditions were right that would be a matter for Scotland and the elected representatives of the Scottish people, not Westminster. That call should be made by Scotland.”
Such a mandate might even be in the form of a referendum on a referendum: “should Scotland have a second referendum? Yes or no?” Therefore, a majority either way would settle the question, and either permit or prevent Scotland having another referendum.
With the power to hold a referendum at a time and under terms of its own, the Scottish Government could immediately react to such shifts in “material circumstances”, or in public opinion.
Nevertheless, there are some significant threats to the idea.
In Catalonia, the regional Government has today voted to make its social security system separate from that of Spain’s, in its on-going battle for independence. Under the Spanish constitution, however, secession is illegal, meaning the Spanish Government will likely take Catalonia’s to the Supreme Court.
The UK has no such constitution, and so secession is not technically “unconstitutional.” However, many will see the Scottish Government’s ability to hold a referendum without consent from the UK Government to be an unfair situation, considering the over 300-year-tie between the two countries.
Secondly, supposing an independence bid by the Scottish Government were successful, the negotiations following may be stunted due to the circumstances. As was the case last year, the UK Government may be reluctant to make contingency plans in the event of a “yes” vote, and may even call the vote illegitimate.
This has happened on a number of occasions in Spain, and has seen growing tensions between Catalonia and Spain’s central Government. However, from the nationalist’s perspective, this may be seen as largely positive because it has resulted in support for secession doubling between 2009 and 2015.
However, this is not an entirely healthy relationship to have between two parts of a country, and so the threats posed by the proposed amendment have more moral and ethical dilemmas posed than legal.
Finally, 2014’s referendum saw a number of threats being posed by UK businesses, who said they would vacate Scotland should they vote for independence. With the power to hold a referendum when they like, this might raise uncertainty in Scottish-based businesses, who could say the SNP would abuse this power.
Of course, uncertainty is detrimental to business, and so this power could result in damage being done to the UK stock market generally.
Thus, the amendment has a number of strong points: foremost it allows for immediate reactionary powers on the part of the Scottish Government, should changes occur which alter Scotland’s position, such as a vote to leave the EU.
However, the possible abuse of this proposed power, alongside possible bad-blood between the UK and Scotland could result in those who voted “no” last year only having their opinions reaffirmed. It would be hoped, though, that the whole “b****y
ex-girlfirend” scenario would not ensue between the two states.
Generally, the proposal is good. How can the freedom to do something be bad? This depends on your view of the SNP, of course, and if you trust they will not abuse this power, there is little one can say against having the ability to hold a referendum under appropriate conditions.
Why refuse something the electorate actually wants?
What happens after that is a whole other matter, and that blog has been written many-a-time.