TODAY, former UK Prime Minister Sir John Major suggested that the current UK Government should agree not just to one independence referendum but to two – one to agree that Scotland and the UK should negotiate an independence settlement, and a second confirmatory referendum to agree to that settlement once it has been signed off.
It’s typical really. You wait for one indyref and then two come along at once.
On the face of it this could actually seem like a reasonable precaution in the context of the Brexit boorach. There can be no doubt that many people voted for Brexit without fully understanding what it would lead to and, given the opportunity to vote in a second referendum, might vote differently.
However, while I don’t doubt that Sir John Major has suggested this in good faith, I would have little confidence in this UK Government to take it forward in good faith. It seems more likely that they would adopt the most obstreperous position possible in negotiations in order to achieve a No vote.
We have, after all, seen just how obstreperous this government can be in terms of Brexit. They have shown very little shame It remains to be seen whether the fall of Donald Trump will temper their behaviour. It is reported that Boris Johnson is regarded by Democrats as a mini Trump and he was described as a “shape shifting creep” by former Obama press aide and influential podcaster Tommy Vietor. So the UK Government probably has some work to do to get onto good terms with the new American administration.
This may affect how they approach the next stages of Brexit. But, even if they tone down the populism, I am not sure Scots would trust them to negotiate a conditional independence settlement in a wholly fair way.
READ MORE: John Major tells Boris Johnson not to rule out a second independence referendum
Besides, the comparison with Brexit – which underlies Major’s suggestion – does not really hold up. The Brexit referendum campaign was remarkable for its absence of detail. Advocates for leaving the EU argued from a range of positions, some of which were contradictory and many of which implied continuing membership of the Single Market and other European institutions, Funnily enough, nobody argued for a disastrous No-Deal Brexit, though that has come to be seen as the preferred position of UK ministers.
In contrast, in 2014, a very detailed White Paper on independence underpinned a thorough and widespread discussion across the nation about what an independent Scotland could look like. The extremely high level of engagement was reflected in a record turnout. Those who voted both Yes and No understood what they were voting for, albeit there have since been material changes to the circumstances that prevailed in 2014.
Concerns about good faith could, of course, apply to independence negotiations in all situations. It is likely that the UK Government would behave more reasonably if no referendum to ratify the settlement was planned. But there is no guarantee of that.
I have generally taken the view that there should be no need for any external oversight of independence negotiations. Now I am not so sure. These issues may come up at the SNP’s National Assembly in January, which will discuss independence referendum strategy and tactics. I will be interested in hearing views.
One thing is for sure – the Tories are gearing up for a fight. It is difficult to see why they would do this if they have really ruled out a second referendum.
There are very mixed messages around their position. Scottish Secretary Alister Jack conceded last year that an SNP majority in 2021 would provide a mandate for a second referendum, before changing his position to argue, bizarrely, that indyref2 could not be held before a period of up to 40 years has passed. I don’t think even he takes that seriously. Certainly nobody else does.
The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, who has a good insight into the inner workings of the UK Government, suggests in a piece today that there is an internal debate going on in Tory circles, with some favouring a quick referendum next year. While this is not yet the favoured position, there are evidently a range of views within the Conservative establishment about how to respond to an SNP victory in May if that comes about.
The Prime Minister, it is reported, just wants it all to go away. Next May is our opportunity to make sure it doesn’t.