What the SNP does next

The party must wake up to the fact that Westminster was always going to be a more crucial battleground than Holyrood in the campaign for Scottish independence

December 14, 2022
The new-old battleground: the House of Commons. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
The new-old battleground: the House of Commons. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

In the absence of a written constitution, British politics operates not so much on the basis of unwritten rules as unspoken truths. Most of those truths are archaic; they might even be undemocratic. Many members of the public would probably find them objectionable. And yet it is often at moments when political leaders are trying to avoid having to say those truths aloud that the constitution can be pushed into uncharted terrain.

When David Cameron met Alex Salmond in 2012 to sign the Edinburgh agreement, which paved the way for an independence referendum a couple of years later, every effort was made to create the appearance that this was two partners meeting on equal terms. Neither party was even certain the signing was constitutionally necessary, because the question of whether the Scottish parliament could unilaterally stage a referendum had not been legally settled. But the event gave both parties what they wanted: for Cameron the agreement showed the pragmatism and “democratic decency” at the heart of the UK constitution; for Salmond it offered the opportunity to achieve Scottish independence in a lawful, peaceful way. There was no need to raise the awkward truth that this was not a meeting of equal partners. There was no need for anyone to be reminded that, on the basis of parliamentary sovereignty, Westminster’s consent to a referendum was entirely in its own gift, and that it could never be coerced into giving this consent if it did not wish to do so. But so long as everything was politically expedient for all involved, all involved kept shtum.

Likewise, prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling this November that confirmed that the Scottish parliament does require Westminster’s consent to hold a vote on independence, nobody in British politics seriously believed that the UK was a “voluntary union”—even if Cameron himself was particularly fond of this phrase. Yet that did not make the Supreme Court’s act of saying it out loud feel any less awkward, or the situation feel any less politically precarious. The SNP surely expected this outcome and, in purely political terms, the party has reaped dividends from it. Since the court’s ruling, four separate polls have shown the weight of public opinion once again tipped in favour of independence. Even more tellingly, 53 per cent of those polled jointly by STV News and Ipsos said they would likely vote for the SNP in any future general election which served as a “de facto referendum”.

This shouldn’t be interpreted as a decisive shift towards independence—we’ve seen these numbers before—but one in favour of a referendum on principle. My hunch is that the recent swing reflects a wider sentiment in Scotland, that Holyrood should be the chamber that decides if and when a referendum happens. They are not comfortable with the awkward constitutional truth that the Scottish government—which some 75 per cent of Scots believe should have the most influence over the way Scotland is run—can be overruled by the British parliament on a whim. Again, this constitutional reality is not “news”; things have always been like this. For a long time, the general popularity of the devolution settlement allowed politicians to pretend that the UK was somehow no longer a unitary state. That period is over now, because too much has been said. The question for the independence movement—and the SNP in particular—is what it does next, and how it converts political gains into real-world results.

In some ways the Supreme Court ruling marks a reversion to type, where the path towards independence is not so obvious. The reality is that, until 2014, there was never any strong precedent for how Scotland could or should achieve independence, or indeed even greater autonomy within the UK. (In 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s former home secretary Leon Brittan suggested that the SNP winning a majority of Scottish seats in a general election would be enough to provide a mandate for negotiations on independence—perhaps because at the time it seemed such a remote possibility.) Once the referendum of 2014 had been and gone, the SNP hoped it had finally established a clear precedent—a clear set of boxes to tick—that made the immutable case for allowing an independence ballot. In other words the party hoped, perhaps naively, that an appeal to norms and the general decency of the “good chaps” in London would be sufficient a second time. Yet Westminster is under no obligation to respect any precedent that stems from a devolved legislature, especially when that legislature exists only at Westminster’s discretion.

The truth is, the general health of Westminster has always been far more important in the campaign for independence than the health of Holyrood, where the SNP’s power is now as good as absolute. With independence a closer prospect than it has ever been, and with a general election in less than two years’ time, it would only be in a situation where the stability of London governance was threatened—such as if the SNP became kingmakers in a hung parliament—that the UK parliament would vote in favour of a motion that would run the very plausible risk of mutilating itself. That might sound like cynical politics. It might also be the only political reality left.

But like everything else about the muddled mess that is British politics, political leaders at Westminster will find a way to make it work. The decision to grant a kingmaking SNP its desired referendum in return for stable government will be actively discredited by whoever takes it. Whether it’s Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer, they will characterise the scenario as akin to a hostage situation, whereby they were given no choice but to succumb to such an unreasonable demand, to appease the barbarians who have raided the castle. But that too will all be part of the make-believe, so that once again nobody has to say the truth out loud: that the political mess in Westminster is always, squarely, of Westminster’s own making.