FOR DECADES now the agenda in Scottish politics has been skewed around our country’s constitutional question – should we continue to be a part of the United Kingdom? Finally, it was put before the people and settled in a hard fought referendum just under three years ago.
Despite being famously tagged as a “once in a generation” decision, the SNP chose instead a different path, at any opportunity trying to manoeuvre itself into a scenario where it could argue the case for another vote on separation.
As the results of the EU referendum became clear, Nicola Sturgeon, during a press conference in Bute House, showed the first glints of such an argument. Whilst the SNP will argue on democratic grounds for a second vote, such a call is at odds with the democratically expressed will of the people in 2014.
Ultimately, the SNP’s case for a second referendum is nothing more than a smokescreen for its abject failures after over ten years in government. The basis for the First Minister’s argument is that as 62 per cent of Scottish voters opted to Remain in the EU whilst 38 per cent decided voted to leave, there has been a material change in Scotland’s circumstances coupled with the democratic mandate of Scotland’s vote in the referendum – presenting grounds for another independence vote.
At first glance this may seem significant, but if we break the numbers down we get a different story.
Turnout for the EU Referendum was 67.2% compared to 84.59% for indyref, that’s a differential of 758,381 (or around 18% of the total electorate). So nearly an extra fifth of Scottish voters turned out to vote in indyref. That gives the result legitimacy (not to mention the result being legally binding as per the Edinburgh Agreement which the SNP signed).
On the issue of the lower turnout, 62% of 67.2% is not as overwhelming as Nicola Sturgeon has described it. Significantly less than half of all eligible Scottish voters actually voted to remain.
Electoral Commission figures shows the total Scottish electorate is 4,099,532. So the Better Together campaign in 2014 not only won the independence referendum, but scored 49% of the total electorate compared to Scottish Remains’ 40% in 2016.
Is there a mandate for independence? In short; no. Remember the SNP didn’t explicitly request a mandate for a referendum in its manifesto. Even if you argue that a “material change in circumstances” has occurred, Nicola Sturgeon did not get her majority in last year’s Holyrood election, falling short by two seats.
The nationalist vote (the SNP and the Greens) totalled 47.1% in last May’s election. In comparison, the Unionist parties achieved 52.4% of the vote. If anything, the expressed will of the Scottish people was heading further down the 'No thanks' road.
Momentum is shifting back in a continual pro-UK direction. The Scottish Conservatives more than doubled their number of MSPs and overtook Labour as the second largest party, becoming the official opposition in Holyrood, largely thanks to Ruth Davidson and her formidable “strong opposition” message in the Scottish Parliament elections.
Perhaps the recent SNP push for a second referendum is rooted less in its belief that circumstances have changed for Scotland and more from the fear that the pro-unionist momentum may end its rule in future elections.
A parliamentary democracy is the foundation of our democratic structures, be it in Westminster or one of the devolved administrations. It ensures that people across our islands and collective nations have a voice in shaping our united country.
But, as with any form of governance, it has its drawbacks; sometimes to secure a legitimate mandate on an important question it is right to put the question directly to the people. Typically, these concern constitutional issues or the arrangements for how we are governed.
The simple fact that the referenda process breaks down the nation into two categories leaves little doubt of the outcomes: yes, or no, remain or leave. The absoluteness of referenda leaves little room for interpretation of the will of the people and generally polarises opinion. Nonetheless, governments always know this when they propose and hold them.
The indyref in 2014 could have gone the other way. Would those who might have lost that battle be demanding on a daily basis we re-run the vote? Would the winning side ever concede to holding one? There is an odd imbalance in politics right now which seems to state that a moral high ground is achieved if you perceive yourself to be on the right side, not the winning side.
Referenda are the ultimate test of authority, and therefore also the biggest risk a politician can take. If any leaders are to take that gamble they must also accept they might be on the losing end – we saw that on two occasions in 2016 with David Cameron and Matteo Renzi.
If the SNP continues to undermine the results of the independence and EU referenda, why should anybody take the results of any future referendum seriously? Imagine if one were to dismiss the results of a General Election? The public wouldn’t stand for it, so why the double standards on the part of the nationalists?
The next few weeks will be very telling and all eyes will be on the SNP’s Spring conference. Nicola Sturgeon should be aware that if she and the SNP continue to ignore the clear results in national votes then sooner or later, the electorate will begin to ignore them in return. The legitimacy of core features of our democratic process and mechanisms cannot be ignored in an opportunistic manner. Nonetheless, expect the independence rhetoric to continue.
Jamie Greene is a Scottish Conservative MSP for West Scotland and party spokesman for technology, connectivity, the digital economy and broadcasting.