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Monday, January 25, 2021

Can Scotland afford to go it alone?

The pledge by Nicola Sturgeon to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence if the SNP wins a majority in the forthcoming Parliamentary elections was predictable. In the light of a changing constitutional landscape and growing disenchantment with what has become a fractured union it is most probably also the right thing to do. 

The question though is whether the UK government could reasonably resist such a request, and if it does whether Scotland should proceed anyway, Catalonian-style.

The Times reports on the views of the Scottish Tory leader, that Unionist politicians should boycott any independence referendum that does not have the agreement of the UK government. He does not give a valid reason why such consent should be withheld.

Constitutional power lies at Westminster but SNP ministers want to press on with a vote even if a Section 30 order, which allows Holyrood to legislate on reserved issues, is not granted. The SNP document says it would be for the UK government to seek to block a referendum it does not agree to through the courts. In my view, and that of others not agreeing to a plebiscite in the first place would be a mistake, and would play into the SNP's hands.

We appear to be entering a game of brinkmanship with massive stakes for the future of the union. Former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown believes the UK is at risk of becoming a failed state., and, as the Independent reports, wants the government to devolve more power to  the regions and replace the House of Lords with a regionally elected chamber. Quite why he didnt do this when he was in charge is unclear.

A properly Federal UK may well be the way forward, but the potential status of England and/or the English regions in such an arrangement is undefined. Until there is consensus on that point,  any attempt at a federal UK will be unbalanced and prove insufficient to counter the very strong views held by the majority of voters in Scotland, and a significant minority in the other nations for a permanent schism.

In my view, if the SNP do win a majority at the next Holyrood elections, the UK Government should grant them their referendum. To do otherwise would undermine the legitimate mandate of the incoming Scottish Government. It would also exacerbate the rift between Scotland and the rest of the UK. How the newly elected First Minister of Scotland reacts to a refusal is also important.

As Welsh Tory Senedd Member, David Melding has already pointed out, for Scotland to go it alone would be self defeating as it would effectively prohibit them from joining the EU as a separate member state, which in itself is one of the key arguments for independence being touted by the SNP. Too many European countries are fearful that giving legitimacy to an ilegal secession would provoke similar movements within their own borders.

How things progress from here is uncertain, but the next move lies with the UK Government. If they are inflexible and resistant to change then the Union may well shatter. But if they listen and embrace reform then they may still be able to keep Britain, if not the UK, together as a single nation state.

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