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  • Noah Keate

The SNP have no mandate for a second independence referendum

Insanity, as Einstein once said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. When political discourse is in such decline, it would hardly be kind to label Nicola Sturgeon, the first Minister of Scotland, as insane. But she is certainly persistent, having repeatedly requested a Section 30 Order that would allow Scotland to hold another independence referendum. This was rejected by the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, saying he wanted to ‘bring the whole of the United Kingdom together’ while another referendum would ‘continue the political stagnation’ that has faced Scotland.

And he was absolutely right to do so. However many times Nicola Sturgeon may ask, the SNP have no mandate to hold another independence referendum. Their main argument since 2016 has been based around Brexit, saying that Scotland was being taken out of the EU against its will. In the EU referendum, 62% of Scots voted to remain. Well, we voted as one country, as one UK. There were many areas of the UK that voted to stay in, like London, Northern Ireland and my home city of Cambridge. That doesn’t mean these areas can become independent simply because they dislike the result.

Indeed, this argument forgets that a third of SNP voters backed departure. To be supportive of an independent Scotland and advocating leaving the EU were not mutually exclusive. Sturgeon has repeatedly used Brexit as a mandate for a second vote. But let us not forget the public knew Brexit could happen when they voted on Scottish independence in September 2014. David Cameron, the then Prime Minister, announced in January 2013 that he would hold an EU referendum if his party won the 2015 election. People therefore went into polling booths in 2014 with the knowledge that the Conservatives could win the 2015 UK election and an EU referendum would then take place.

That Brexit will be happening in less than a fortnight reduces the case for Scottish independence. Inevitably, the UK’s future trade agreement with the EU will involve less economic and trade access than that we received as a full EU member. Why then, would Scotland want to become independent? Economic and trade barriers would surely increase with both the EU and the UK? There is no guarantee that an independent Scotland would even be allowed to re-enter the EU, as any present member could veto its ascension. Certainly Spain would see the independence of Scotland as setting a precedent that could be followed by Catalonia. Brexit therefore is not a legitimate ground to hold a general election.

Thankfully, the SNP have many arguments they like to use to justify the apparent need for another referendum. One is Scotland repeatedly being given Tory governments it doesn’t vote for. There has always been voting disparity in terms of party strength across regions and nations of the UK. In every constituency, there will be individuals who didn’t vote for the party that eventually formed the government. Scottish representation is still at its second highest since 1997, with the Conservatives holding six seats in Scotland, down from 13 at the 2017 election. But they remain the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament and the face of unionism.

It matters not what party would be in government, for the SNP would still want another referendum. In an alternative universe, had Labour been able to form an administration with the reliance of the SNP, the party would have still wanted another vote. Even when they held the keys to power and could then potentially been in an informal coalition governing the UK, Nicola Sturgeon still wouldn't have been satisfied and instead wanted independence. A Jeremy Corbyn premiership wouldn’t have been enough. It demonstrates that the SNP have no specific problem with the Conservatives but any party at all in the UK Parliament.

I have written before about treating opinion polls with some scepticism. It is tricky to know what is correct. While the 2019 opinion polls showing a broad Conservative lead turned out to be correct - if anything underestimating their level of success - the answers people give on the phone compared to their final vote in the ballot box can be incredibly varied. However, there is still some relevance in looking at public opinion, especially how it has changed. Since the 2014 referendum, the ‘No’ vote wishing to keep the UK together has maintained a consistent lead, continually beating the ‘Yes’ vote. While the scale of its lead has varied, it is undeniable that opinion polls still show Scots want to keep the UK together. Even after the EU referendum and multiple general elections, the ‘Yes' support has failed to properly break through. Therefore the SNP cannot use public sentiment as a justification for a second referendum.


It is so easy to forget that referendums are a fairly new part of the British democratic system. While some nations like Switzerland comfortably engage in direct democracy all the time, it is unusual for the UK to hold such a process when we are so used to representative democracy. With elections, it is clear that a mandate lasts five years before another election is held. The length of time any given referendum mandate has is far more ambiguous. It is therefore only possible to go by what each side said before voting took place. Each side agreed that the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was a once in a generation decision. The outcome would stand for a generation. The precise length of a generation varies but it is certainly not six years. The SNP therefore are being undemocratic in their request.

Scotland has faced a whole number of electoral processes over the last six years. Two referendums, three general elections, the Scottish Parliament elections, the European elections and plenty of local elections. It is easy to see why voters might be tired of the repeated political process. Yet I imagine the SNP would secretly be quite pleased at the amount of time campaigning, indeed, the amount of time that a second referendum would offer them. Because it would help to distract from their domestic record after 12 years in office. As Andrew Neil said in his election interview with Nicola Sturgeon, only two of Scotland’s eight waiting time targets are being met, with Scottish hospitals not meeting their A&E or cancer targets. In educational terms, the abolition of tuition fees has been regressive for Scottish students with fewer places allocated to them. It is therefore no wonder that the SNP wish to spend so much time campaigning, as it helps to distract from their damning domestic record in government.

Political parties are entitled to hold any belief. The SNP will always want Scottish independence and they have every right to believe that. They don’t have a right to impose this position through continually desiring another referendum on the Scottish people. Indeed, I imagine many SNP voters wouldn't support independence or another referendum but simply believe the party are effective at speaking for them in Westminster. On Brexit, Scotland would be weaker outside the UK and EU, with their future destination being unclear. There is no need or desire to separate two unions just as the UK is departing one. The SNP already have extensive devolved powers in office thanks to the repeated transfer of influence from Westminster. Now that the Prime Minister has rejected a second referendum, political commentators are repeatedly questioning what should Nicola Sturgeon should do. She and the SNP should put their energy in what they were elected to do: govern Scotland.

Image: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament

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