One question has dictated the build-up to this year’s Scottish Parliament elections, now less than two months away, above all others. It has affected – at times implicitly, and at times most overtly – debate over issues ranging from Covid-19 response, to NHS funding, to what exactly Scotland’s future relationship with European Union will entail.
A second referendum on Scottish independence – or indyref2 as it has been dubbed – has been floating around for the best part of seven years now, but has come to a renewed head at a time of pandemic-induced national crisis, with parliament elections looming. Though there remains plenty of time between now and May, polling currently projects a slender majority for the Scottish Nationalist Party. If this does indeed come to fruition, calls for independence will grow from loud, to deafening.
Scotland’s first independence referendum was, according to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a “once in a generation opportunity.” To many Scottish nationalists, however, it was a catastrophic misjudgement that needed rectification; this belief was then bolstered immeasurably after the shock Brexit result in 2016. Yet if Britain has learnt anything since Scots headed to voting booths in 2014, it should be the danger of sweeping, imprecise referendums. Granting Scotland another independence vote, just seven years on from the last one, would set a dangerous precedent. More damaging still: it would undermine the integrity of any future such referendums.
It needs said that much has changed during those seven years. Most crucially, Scotland now finds itself on the outside of the European Union, looking in. This, the result of a Brexit referendum in which Scotland overwhelmingly voted to Remain. Brexit, understandably, exacerbated the already rife anti-Westminster sentiment that has long pervaded Scottish politics. More recently, Westminster and Holyrood have clashed over coronavirus response; the pandemic garnering increased support for independence. This further divergence between North and South means calls for a second referendum are inevitable, for what sovereignty would mean to Scotland in 2021 is different to what it meant in 2014.
But different is vague and unquantifiable – it is not nearly reason enough for a second referendum within a decade. The SNP disagree, of course, and have laid out a ‘roadmap’ towards indyref2, already dismissing opposition concerns, and demanding a Section 30 order – the same mechanism granted to them in 2014, affording them the legal power to pass laws typically reserved for Westminster, such as calling a referendum – should they win a majority in May. For Westminster to refuse such a request, they say, would be immoral and undemocratic.
It seems that completely dismissing a vote which happened less than seven years ago is in fact immoral and undemocratic. Scotland voted No to independence. It did so rather emphatically. It did so in the knowledge that another referendum would not come along immediately after. If the answer had been Yes in 2014, a potential referendum in 2021 to reverse the result would be out of the question. I can only imagine the SNP outrage were the shoe on the other foot.
Whatever the eventual case of indyref2 – whether it be indyref2021 or indyref2050 – the question over Scottish independence is here to stay. Good. It is an important question, and, in the future, Scotland deserves to democratically answer it.
When that time comes, I hope it will be clear what an independent Scotland would mean. I hope politicians will not be able to use turbulent times to make false guarantees. I hope the framework of an exit agreement from the UK, and the question of membership within the EU, could both be tentatively agreed beforehand. I hope we learn from Brexit and from indyref1, because, in truth, I believe we must. So that when Scotland does again vote on independence, the integrity of the decision, whichever way it goes, will last a generation – the minimum amount of time a decision of that magnitude should.