Ever since the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 the prospect of north Britain breaking away from its southern neighbours has loomed large in Westminster politics. This is despite the fact that a healthy majority of 55.3% voted for Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom.
There are several causes for this. At the top is the fact the Scottish National Party (SNP) has used its control of the Holyrood administration to continue campaigning for independence despite rejection in a direct vote. Many have also leveraged the disparity between English and Scottish votes respectively for and against Brexit to justify a re-run.
Sceptics of referendums will claim that the re-run risk is inherent in these votes. Status quo campaigners must continue to win to get their way, while change campaigners can pursue a ‘neverendum’ indefinitely and only need one win. (The assumption, perhaps dubious, is that changes like independence are irreversible.)
Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon declared last week that she wants a second independence referendum “early” in the next Holyrood parliament, assuming that her party wins the election, which the polling indicates is likely. While a 2021 independence referendum would be ambitious, 2022 seems a likelier request.
“Request” is the operative word though. Holyrood cannot grant itself a second referendum, which would need to be signed off by the government in Westminster. Boris Johnson has repeatedly said he would not do so. Sturgeon has previously indicated she would not hold an unofficial vote, although she may mount a legal challenge against Johnson.
The case for another vote is that conditions have materially changed since the previous one because Britain is on its way out of the European Union. On a democratic level the polls in Scotland show that more people want independence than not (although generally not a majority when neutrals are included).
Partisans will continue to litigate whether the SNP promised the referendum would be ‘once in a generation’ or whether it was a rhetorical flourish. But whatever the party said, having a mandatory break for referendum re-runs would be a reasonable caveat against repeated attempts to force change.
The question is therefore what a reasonable break would be. Alister Jack, Scottish secretary in Westminster, suggested that a once in a generation vote could be at intervals of 25 or 40 years. Ultimately it’s a judgement call.
The counter to this is that public opinion might radically change within a shorter period, or something big like Brexit might change voters’ minds. My suspicion is that considering the matter decided for ‘a generation’ would mitigate against this prospect, but it would still be possible.
Perhaps a fix for this would be that any referendum held before the mandatory break must obtain a supermajority rather than a simple majority. Campaigners would therefore have to decide between an earlier vote that was harder to win or a later one that was easier.