It seems that the war of words over Scottish independence is heating up. A week ago, the SNP revealed a "roadmap to a referendum" on Scottish independence, setting out how they intend to take forward their plans for another vote. It says a "legal referendum" will be held after the pandemic if there is a pro-independence majority at Holyrood following May's election. In other words, if the SNP win a majority of the seats. There is of course the small matter of their actual ability to hold a ‘legal referendum’, or even what the term means. Let us assume it means a referendum which would give independence to Scotland if there were sufficient ‘yes’ votes. If so, then, most lawyers consider that the Westminster government would have to give its consent under Section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998 before the Scottish government could put the arrangements in place. Obviously, the Conservative and Unionist Party, currently led by Boris, is not very keen to see the break-up of the UK. The clue is in the name. And of course after the last referendum in 2014, everyone agreed that result would be binding for ‘a generation’. A rather indeterminate term, which seems to be only 7 years in Scotland. They age quickly there. However, even if there were to be a willingness at some time to allow this, there would be endless discussions as to how the vote would be held, the majority which would need to be achieved and the wording of the question, all to be agreed by the Election Commission.
At the moment, however, the Court of Session in Scotland is hearing a case where the ‘pursuers’, private individuals, are seeking to establish that the Scottish government could go ahead, using government money, without Westminster's approval. I suspect it will not succeed. Whichever way it goes, though, there will almost certainly be an appeal, ultimately to the Supreme Court, where I would expect the same outcome. But if the SNP do in fact win enough seats in May, then they will probably themselves go to court and, in the meantime, press their ‘democratic and moral’ case for the approval needed. The government will resist and so what will the SNP do then? Well, they could hold a referendum anyway, but without any money from the state to fund it. It’s not very likely that many people would vote in those circumstances and the government could simply ignore the result. Fortunately for the SNP, our law of sedition is somewhat different to that in Spain. There, the holding of an unauthorised referendum on independence resulted in those responsible being put in prison. Here, the crime of sedition was abolished in 2009. So then, I can see that stalemate will result.
However, fortunately for we spectators, battle has commenced – at least in the letters columns of the Times. It started with a letter from the (English) author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Berničres :
Friday, 29 January 2021
Sir, Given the threat of a new “illegal” referendum, it seems clear to me that it’s about time that the populations of Wales and England should have the opportunity to have a say in what we want our relationship with Scotland and Northern Ireland to be. We have no vested interest in clinging on to either of them. There used to be very strong reasons for the Northern Irish wanting to remain British but these have all gone. The Republic is no longer a corrupt and backward theocracy run by gangsters. It would initially be sensible for an Irish federation to be established, retaining Stormont, while Dublin assumes control of defence and foreign policy.
The attachment to Scotland is mostly a sentimental one, a kind of familial love, but it seems to me that the constant complaining and smug grandstanding of the Nationalists, and the barely concealed Anglophobia of too many Scots, have so alienated us that we would be glad to see the back of them. It is impossible to continue to love those who no longer love us. The scrapping of the Barnett formula would leave us about 3 per cent better off, and the two main problems would be theirs rather than ours. These are the fact that they would have to leave the sterling zone while not being in the eurozone, and that there would have to be some kind of border or tariff arrangement between us. Scotland is not well run by comparison with England, if the statistics are to be believed, and the rest of us would stand to benefit from a brain drain further down the line.
Louis de Berničres
This was followed the next day by a letter from an eminent Scottish academic:
Saturday January 30 2021, 12.01am, The Times
Sir, Despite it being replete with error, Louis de Berničres’ provocative letter (Jan 29) serves to illustrate the angry face of English nationalism, the growing ethnic hostility to the “parasitic” Scots, which it reflects, and the profound impact that this kind of thinking could have on the future of the Union of our two peoples. It is the kind of rabble-rousing nonsense that can only add fuel to the fire of post-Brexit Scottish grievance. Sadly, academic research has confirmed that the bitterly prejudiced opinions that are expressed have become much more common in recent years.
De Berničres’ xenophobic rant also demonstrates that he is unaware of the SNP’s commitment to “civic nationalism”, which inter alia specifically condemns any form of Anglophobia within its ranks. His brand of nationalism, as revealed, is much more sinister and dangerous. He also seems wholly unaware of the complexity of opinion on the Union north of the border. Recent polls confirm that almost half of the Scottish electorate does not favour independence while a further 5 to 10 per cent are in the “undecided” category. Ethnic stereotyping is unacceptable, even more so when it is founded on ignorance and myth.
Professor Sir Thomas M Devine
Sir William Fraser professor emeritus of Scottish history and palaeography, Edinburgh University
My reaction on reading this was that Professor Devine must be in favour of the continuance of the Union and so I checked as to what he had said in the past. It was revealing. And so although I don’t really care very much about the whole question, I felt inspired to write to the editor of the Times a brief version of my own thoughts:
Monday, 1 February 2021
Sir, In an interview with Professor Sir Thomas Devine published in the Guardian on 17 August 2014, he is quoted as saying that he had changed his mind and decided to vote for independence. I wonder why, therefore, he now finds Louis de Berničres’ suggestion that the time has come for the Scots actually to go their separate way to be unaccetable? Has he changed his mind again?
In the interview, Sir Tom said that he had been persuaded to vote ‘yes’ by what he believed: “...has been a flowering of the Scottish economy in a more confident political and cultural landscape.” "The Scottish parliament has demonstrated competent government and it represents a Scottish people who are wedded to a social democratic agenda and the kind of political values which sustained and were embedded in the welfare state of the late 1940s and 1950s.” (my italics). And yet in his letter to the Times, he says: “Ethnic stereotyping is unacceptable”. So then whilst pontificating as to ones fellow citizens’ attachment to a social democratic agenda would normally be to engage in ethnic stereotyping, obviously that is only in the absence of the comprehensive insight into their minds which appears to be the unique gift of history professors.
Now, If the SNP represent Scots as a whole, as they claim to do every time they speak, and if a majority of those expressing an opinion to pollsters say that they want independence, then maybe it’s time for a change. As someone born in Wales, but having lived most of my life in England, I can say that I have no great feeling of attachment to Scotland and would not want to stand in their way if they wished to strike out on their own. On the other hand, I would not wish Scotland to secede if they or their representatives would just occasionally admit that they have some benefit from being part of the Union. I doubt my letter will be published in the main paper, but a rather longer version of my views in the on-line correspondence section, published on 30 January, has so far received 14 ‘likes’ - and one person doubting my parentage. Quite a good ratio really!
1 February 2021