The United States is not the only Western country having difficulties with its democratic credentials. Under Boris Johnson’s chaotic regime, the UK has its own particular type of democratic deficit, especially concerning Scotland.
In his first interview of the New Year with the respected journalist Andrew Marr on the Beeb on 3rd January, the UK PM, with the usual supercilious smirk that adorns his face every time the constitutional question is raised, told Scots when they would be able to vote to leave the Disunited Kingdom. Marr asked what were the ‘democratic tools’ for the Scots to exercise their right to vote in a second independence referendum after the material change of being ripped out of the EU against their will. Johnson’s answer was that referenda were “not particularly jolly events” and suggested a suitable time was the gap between the first referendum on the EU in 1975 (when it was still the EEC, two and a half years after the UK joined) and Brexit in 2016. 41 years – in the year 2055.
There are a number of reasons why this opposition to a second referendum is anti-democratic. First, two-thirds of the Scots voted to remain in the EU in 2016 but were told during the 2014 independence referendum that the only way they could remain in the EU was by voting against independence. The mostly English vote for Brexit invalidates the 2014 referendum result as the Scots have had their European citizenship taken from them against their will. Second, we have just had the seventeenth, consecutive poll showing a majority (up to 58%) in favour of Scottish independence; and all the polls say that the SNP will win all but two seats in the next Scottish Parliamentary election in May this year, with the current Tory Secretary of State for Scotland losing his seat.
This adds up to a shift in opinion towards independence in Scotland, and belies the Tory mantra that there is no interest in a second referendum in the country. Thirdly, Northern Ireland’s part of the Brexit deal has allowed it to remain in the Single Market of the EU, and the province will also be able to have a referendum on unity with the Republic of Ireland every seven years. Even Gibraltar will be able to be a member of the borderless Schengen Agreement so that there can be free movement across the shared border with Spain. By contrast, Scotland, with its huge majority for staying in the EU, received no special concessions and, in fact, the power of the Scottish Parliament will be reduced by the UK Internal Market Act which gives Westminster power to intervene in Scottish affairs.
So what are the ‘democratic tools’ to obtain another independence referendum? There are some in the independence movement who want the First Minister to hold a Scottish referendum without the permission of Westminster. That would invalidate the result in the eyes of the international community just as has happened in Catalonia which remains in constitutional limbo after its go-it-alone independence referendum. There is a difference. Catalonia is not regarded by the Spanish constitution as a nation but as a region within the Spanish nation state whereas Scotland and England signed a voluntary Treaty of Union in 1707. Even Unionists nowadays refer to the ‘four nations’ of the UK and the Edinburgh Agreement signed by the then First Minister of Scotland and the PM of the UK in 2012 legitimised the referendum result domestically and internationally.
In the past, SNP policy had been that once a majority of MPs had been elected on an independence ticket, the break with Westminster would be negotiated. The world has changed since then. The SNP has consistently won a majority of Scottish seats in Westminster over the years and the SNP currently has the third largest UK bloc of seats.
The most likely scenario is that the SNP will fight this year’s Scottish Parliamentary election on regaining Scotland’s place in the EU as an independent nation. There are enough soft murmures coming from the Commission and individual EU nations to know that Scotland would be accepted this time. There is also enthusiasm in Scotland. Outside an Edinburgh deli, a notice went up saying “Denmark – population of 6 m. (5.8m. actually), oil and renewables, great pension, high living standards, independent and in EU, crap weather. Come on Scotland. Be like Denmark”! The pressure on the Westminster Government to concede a referendum will be immense – and a new US President proud of his Irish antecedents might be helpful too. Don’t worry. We know Morrison’s Australia is not on Scotland’s independence dance list!
Scotland cannot go down the road of illegitimacy but the country can rely on Johnson to perform his Mr U-turn Extraordinaire act which he has undertaken over so many issues, most notably in his recent dealings with the pandemic. He is an elitist who only believes in himself plus there are probably enough of his nationalistic Parliamentary pals who would like the politically red Jocks to go so that they could spend the cash thus saved on England. In a recent article in ‘Die Zeit’, the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole wrote “It is important to remember that the English nationalism that has driven Brexit is not just anti-European. It is anti-Scottish”, Johnson, a contemporary ‘hollow man’, could be tempted to show magnanimity and grant Scotland another independence referendum after such popular support.
After all, in the final Brexit debate which gave four and a half hours to ‘scrutinise’ the 1,200 pages long document, separating the UK from the world’s largest market, the fanatically pro-Brexit Tory MP, Sir Bill Cash, said that Johnson, like his hero Pericles, had “saved our democracy” and compared him to Alexander the Great. With those credentials, we’re on a winner!