Why Boris should refuse Sturgeon a referendum

Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, May 10, 2021.

After all that, they missed by one seat. The SNP’s victory in the Scottish Parliament election was handsome, yet it is undoubtedly soured by their falling short of an overall majority — and by such an agonisingly narrow margin. In a cruel case of the butterfly effect, the SNP’s all-out war on Jackie Baillie brought Tories out to back her in Dumbarton, which brought her the votes to hold the seat, which brought the guillotine down on the Nationalists’ chances of a majority.

The impact of tactical voting was uneven but very real. In Aberdeenshire West, where the SNP was confident of overturning Alexander Burnett’s 900-vote majority, a big dip in the Lib Dem vote saw Burnett not only hold on but more than triple his majority. Conservative voters returned the favour in Willie Rennie’s North East Fife seat, where the Tory vote plummeted by 11 per cent and, coincidence of coincidences, Rennie’s went up by 11 per cent.

The SNP talk about democracy as though they hold the patent on the idea, but this was democracy in action. Unionists and those simply sick to the back teeth of hearing about independence set out to deny Nicola Sturgeon the majority she yearned for, that her vanity demanded and that her political circumstances required.

Unfortunately, the chances of that being the end of the matter are tinier than Alba’s share of the vote. In fairness to Sturgeon, she won and won clearly, gaining one seat overall on 2016; taking East Lothian, Ayr and Edinburgh Central; and marginally increasing her first-past-the-post vote. She is only the second female leader of the devolution era to win two elections, after the DUP’s Arlene Foster. That is a signal achievement and an indication of social progress.

What the First Minister did not achieve was a mandate for a second independence referendum, either solo or with the Scottish Greens. Regular readers will know that I do not believe it is possible to acquire such a mandate at a Holyrood poll. My email inbox attests that I am not alone in that view. Constitutional referendums are a reserved power and what took place last Thursday was a devolved election.

The SNP manifesto also stated the party’s ‘firm and unequivocal opposition to nuclear weapons — both in principle and to their location in Scotland’, and the Greens’ policy platform said much the same. No one would credibly claim that an SNP-Green coalition government, if one is indeed formed, had a mandate to direct the Vanguards to set sail down the Firth of Clyde.

No one’s words damn the SNP’s post-election prattling as thoroughly as those of its leader. At her November 2020 party conference, Sturgeon declared: ‘As an independent country, we can be decision-makers, partners, bridge-builders. And we have a right, if a majority of us want it, to choose that future.’ Eleven of the last 15 opinion polls have shown majority support for the Union.

In March, Opinium asked voters about a second referendum. The most common response (33 per cent) was that there shouldn’t be one, followed by 32 per cent who wanted one in the next two years, 15 per cent who backed one ‘at some point in the future, but not in the next five years’ and 14 per cent who opted for the next two to five years. There is no way to slice those numbers to arrive at a majority for the SNP’s position of indyref2 within the first half of the new parliament.

Having failed to reach the all-important 65 seats, the Nationalists have pivoted to talk about a ‘pro-independence majority’, but there was no doubt during the campaign that a specifically SNP majority was their goal. In April, Sturgeon said: ‘A simple majority for a referendum is all that is needed and all that is ever required for a democratic mandate to exist, so a simple majority is what we are aiming for, even though achieving it is very difficult given the electoral system.’

That is the First Minister’s test, no one else’s. She failed it.

Surely, however, no one could quarrel with the assertion that the SNP won 1,291,204 constituency and 1,094,374 list votes for independence. Again, we need consult none other than Nicola Sturgeon. During the final TV hustings of the campaign, the BBC’s Glenn Campbell relayed to the Nationalist leader a conversation with a voter who favoured another five years of the SNP government but not a second referendum. ‘What are they meant to do if they want you but they don’t want independence?’ Campbell enquired. ‘They should vote for me,’ Sturgeon shot back.

Behold Schrödinger’s Nat: the elector who is for and against independence at the same time.

What should the Prime Minister make of this cavalcade of claptrap? No doubt about it, he will need a strategy for the medium-to-long term, but the first step is to say No. He need not — and really ought not to — get into the thickets of the debate about mandates and majorities. He speaks as the Prime Minister of a government with an 80-seat majority in the parliament with the legal authority over the constitution.

He can say No on those grounds alone, though it might be politic to make a nod to the pandemic. Scotland is gradually emerging from a crisis that claimed more than 10,000 lives north of the border and will soon have to jump-start the economy and get shutters up and people back to work. This would be an opportune time to remind everyone of what the Union has done for Scotland in the last 12 months alone. Almost £10 billion in additional cash, more than 900,000 Scots kept off the dole queue and a beneficiary of one of the world’s vaccination success stories.

The Union has been more than pulling its weight in the pooling and sharing stakes.
The SNP and its satellites in civil society, academia and media will huff and puff. Candidly, they would find an excuse to huff and puff anyway. The Prime Minister should not allow himself to be frightened by talk of sovereign wills and democratic imperatives. Westminster is sovereign and the only imperative is that the SNP gets on with governing in the interests of the whole of Scotland, not just its increasingly fundamentalist base.

Of course, Sturgeon won’t stop pushing until Westminster settles this matter once and for all, either by allowing another referendum or legislating to put the matter beyond all doubt. This particular can has been kicked almost as far as it will go. That, however, is a constitutional argument and as a matter of politics the Prime Minister is in a strong position — perhaps stronger than he thinks. His own party has performed better than anyone expected (including yours truly), albeit it did so by keeping him on the other side of the Tweed. The Tory flame is undimmed and the Unionist cause livelier than ever. Nationalism is about destruction and while destruction has a certain appeal, working together to build things up will always be more rewarding in the long-run.

Boris Johnson has already demonstrated his commitment to building up Scotland through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which is circumventing the sanctum of sanctimony at the foot of the Royal Mile and spending directly where it matters in local communities. This is the kind of positive action that is worthy of a government, and a welcome contrast to the grievance-rousers and wound-pokers who line the benches at Holyrood. There is no moral force to an argument that says a government trying to build something from the constitutional hodge-podge of Britain in 2021 must give way to wreckers bent on tearing it all down. Least of all wreckers who cannot meet the indicia of victory they set for themselves.

The Prime Minister has invited Nicola Sturgeon to work together. It is up to her if she accepts his offer in the spirit in which it was intended or if she seeks fresh avenues for dividing people in the hopes that some day, eventually, the numbers will fall in her favour. If the First Minister does agree to sit down with the Prime Minister, he should congratulate her on retaining the trust of Scotland’s voters, then he should ask her how she intends to live up to it. Another five years of setting Scot against Scot when what we need is common purpose is not the way to go about it. That is why Boris should say No: because Scotland deserves better than a First Minister whose only interest in the country is whether it can deliver her political ambitions.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk. Feature image © UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0.

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