James Forsyth

Can the UK government navigate the SNP’s calls for a second referendum?

Can the UK government navigate the SNP's calls for a second referendum?
Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Text settings

The Unionist tactical voting in Scotland makes it tempting to see the country as split down the middle between pro-independence and anti-independence voters. But this is not quite right. There is a good argument that the Scottish electorate is actually split three ways between Unionists, Nationalists and those who aren’t fully decided on the constitutional question.

It is this third group who will determine the result of any second referendum. So, the UK government has to have them in mind when thinking about how to handle the inevitable request for a Section 30 order and a second referendum.

The first thing to say is that the UK government should ensure Nicola Sturgeon is making the running on this. Headlines such as ‘PM: No new Scottish referendum’ are not helpful. Second, when a request for a Section 30 order does come, the best response is that now - with the whole of the UK recovering from the pandemic - is not the time: it’s the argument that undecided voters find most persuasive. This case has been strengthened by the Holyrood election result. If voters thought that a second independence referendum was the priority, then they could have given the SNP an overwhelming majority. They did not.

There is still a pro-independence majority at Holyrood because of the Greens—though, it is worth noting that their voters are split on the question. This pro-independence majority will likely legislate for a second referendum, even if a Section 30 order is refused and despite the constitution being reserved to Westminster. Nicola Sturgeon is already challenging Boris Johnson to go to the Supreme Court to stop a second referendum that the Scottish parliament has voted for. It is quite clear the dynamic she is trying to create here. But there’s no need for the UK government to do what Sturgeon wants them to do. They should let one of the many private citizens in Scotland who would be prepared to challenge the bill in the Court of Session take the lead, and deny Sturgeon the headlines she wants. 

If a second referendum does survive a legal challenge on the basis that it would have no direct effect (as I say in the magazine this week, the Supreme Court’s reasoning in the Miller case does open up this possibility), then Unionist voters should simply boycott it and mock the absurdity of spending time and money on a referendum which is only happening because it would supposedly have no effect.

Listen to Stephen Daisley, Katy Balls and James Forsyth discuss what comes next for Scottish independence: