This election saw not only Boris Johnson return to Parliament with a large majority, but also Nicola Sturgeon doing the same in Scotland. Reminiscent of the 2015 result, the Conservatives, lacking a prior majority, defied expectations in something of a landslide, while the SNP shot up to take the vast majority of Scottish seats. Whilst Sturgeon and her party campaigned on a number of issues, the central one was another referendum on Scottish independence. She requested that the prime minister agree to hold one, but he has formally rejected this proposal.
It could certainly seem that this move is undemocratic and even unfair. The promise of a referendum was a vital part of the SNP’s campaign, and they did win 48 of the 59 seats in Scotland. There is no doubt that they have a significant number of voters backing them. If we think back to the referendum held on membership of the EU, the Tories went through with it because it was a vital part of their campaign in 2015. They should be able to understand the importance of fulfilling a promise made before an election like this. The EU referendum was also held to keep the demands of UKIP at bay. So, there is already a precedent for the Conservatives to hold referendums to appease smaller parties. What basis does Johnson have for rejecting another Scottish referendum then?
So, there is already a precedent for the Conservatives to hold referendums to appease smaller parties
Though this was one of the SNP’s more prominent campaign promises, it is not necessarily the main reason people voted for them. In our two-party system, they have replaced Labour as the de facto left-wing party in Scotland. Anyone sympathetic to social democracy or who simply wanted to out the Tories felt that voting the SNP was their best bet. With fears of a hung parliament, some may have even felt that the best way to ensure Labour got into government was to vote SNP. We must also remember that in 2015 when the SNP won all but 3 of the seats in Scotland, it was only a year since the Scottish people had voted against independence. For some, the party might even be just a protest vote. Sturgeon herself acknowledged the role of other factors in this election, saying in an interview with Andrew Marr that she ‘didn’t presume everyone who voted SNP was prepared to back independence’.
The most recent opinion polling would appear to corroborate this. Split between the options of ‘Yes’ to independence, ‘No’ and ‘unsure’, the three polls taken in the weeks before the election all had the ‘No’ vote in the lead. This is a pretty clear indication that there are many SNP voters who do not back independence. The question we should ask then is one we have heard recently regarding Europe: if one side is so confident in its position, why not put it to the test in a referendum? But can we really justify spending millions of pounds when there is not enough to suggest people have significantly changed their minds? It is true that opinion polling on such a divisive issue is always bound to be close, but until the ‘Yes’ vote even begins to lead slightly, we should not really be having this conversation.
The question we should ask then is one we have heard recently regarding Europe: if one side is so confident in its position, why not put it to the test in a referendum?
There is the added issue of election fatigue. Since 2014, the Scottish people have had a major, nationwide vote every year bar 2018. I don’t think anyone is in a rush to get back to the polling stations. And even putting aside boredom with politics, we could talk instead about political overload. Five votes in six years is a lot. Our elections and referendums were not designed to be held on an annual basis. We should let people digest the most recent result before demanding that they think about the next one.
This hits another very important issue too: when is the right time to hold another referendum on the same thing? We have established that it should not be every year, though I doubt the SNP would have many problems with that. Major figures in every party agreed at the time that we should wait at least a generation before holding another Scottish referendum. It is fair to say that Brexit may have changed this situation quite a bit. But with Brexit such an issue, should we not wait at least until after we actually leave and have a final decision then?
Our elections and referendums were not designed to be held on an annual basis
Boris’ rejection of another referendum also seems like a good strategic move to me. The end goal of the SNP is always going to be independence, and they will use whatever means they can to try and achieve this. Giving in to their demands this early in his government would only result in them demanding more and more until they finally do achieve independence. It is more than coincidence that the Conservatives are the chief opponents of the SNP both in Scotland, and now in government. Often forgotten is that their full name is the Conservative and Unionist Party. Inasmuch as Sturgeon was elected to break up the Union, Johnson was elected to keep it together.