Earlier this week, the Times reported that Angus Robertson, the Scottish Government’s cabinet member for the constitution, wants to use the precedent set by the Belfast Agreement as justification for a second referendum on Scottish independence.
He argues that the Government should permit such a vote this year because it has been seven years since 2014, and that is the minimum time between border polls set out in the 1998 treaty. He further argues that the Scottish people have demonstrated what the paper terms “a clear mandate for independence” by giving such strong support to the SNP.
Suffice to say, this case is specious.
For starters, the seven-year period is the minimum allowed under the Belfast Agreement. Whilst there is an expectation amongst many nationalists that should the first ever be held, any subsequent will follow at seven-year intervals, there is no entitlement to a regular re-run of what would be an extraordinary high-stakes and divisive event.
Next, even the Agreement affords the Government huge leeway when it comes to authorising such a poll. The terms are not just that a majority of voters show support for holding a referendum, but that there is sustained support which suggests the separatists will win it. The criteria of this are not spelled out in detail, giving the Secretary of State huge discretion.
Scotland qualifies on neither count. There has been no evidence of sustained majority support for independence, nor even an imminent re-run of the vote. Efforts to dragoon the entire SNP vote behind separation fall foul of the assurances Nationalist leaders offered wavering voters ahead of the Scottish elections. Not that the terms of a flawed peace deal, negotiated with terrorists in extraordinary circumstances, apply to Scotland at all.
(As for Robertson’s comment about the United Kingdom being a “voluntary union”, in constitutional terms this simply isn’t the case. The decision to grant a referendum on leaving rests entirely with the central government.)
Last week, I wrote about now the Nationalists’ tactics and rhetoric show that they clearly feel the clock is ticking. They haven’t worked out a way to force a referendum onto a UK Government prepared to actually stand up to them, and their movement is under increasing strain on several different fault lines. Arguments such as Robertson’s, and their new tactic of hosing Scotland with pro-independence “junk mail”, seem to be more about keeping disaffected activists believing they have momentum than actually securing a vote.
For their part, the Government would be well-advised to steer clear of the whole thing and not give the argument the oxygen of publicity. Given that their intention is not to grant a referendum, there is no upside to engaging in a public debate about the mechanics of delivering one. (This is also why the Scottish Secretary should stop putting numbers on the level of support he thinks independence needs in the polls to justify another vote, it’s all downside.)