Open Unionism’s Editor, Henry C Hill, had this piece in the Daily Telegraph today:
As the row over House of Lords reform continues, it is easy to forget that the greatest struggle of David Cameron’s first years in office awaits him, two years and several hundred miles away in Scotland.
He is aware that, if Alex Salmond triumphs over the odds and succeeds in winning an independence referendum, history will remember him as the UK’s last prime minister, as the PM who “lost the Union”.
However, as the largely English leader of a largely English party, he has to consider his every intervention in Scotland very carefully. So recent developments north of the border must be causing him concern.
On Saturday The Herald reported Whitehall sources claiming that, if the Scottish National Party continue to vacillate on what they will ask the Scottish people and when, Westminster might have to step in and run the referendum instead.
This is a risky move. The Herald points out that the Nats will accuse Cameron of trying to “hijack” something they consider the exclusive preserve of Holyrood. But if it became necessary, could Westminster pull it off?
Inside the Anglosphere, there is precedent for a national government intervening in an independence debate in a way that displeased separatists. In 2000 the Canadian government passed the Clarity Act in response to the near miss of the 1995 Quebecois independence referendum, where 49.42 per cent of voters voted to secede on the basis of an obscurely worded question 43 words long.
This bill empowered the Canadian parliament to ensure that any question put to the people of Quebec, and any subsequent result, could be considered unambiguously clear; specified that any independence referendum that asked multiple questions was automatically considered to contravene the act; and granted the Canadian government the legal authority to disregard any referendum that breached the Act.
Admittedly this was a rare show of steel for a federalist movement (as opponents of Quebecois independence are known) as replete with bend-over-backwards compromisers as our own unionism, and many of these joined the nationalists in denouncing it. But the bill has stood the test of time, and at the last general election the once-formidable Bloc Quebecois tumbled from 49 seats to four.
What the Canadian example demonstrates is how important it is that unionists and the national government don’t buy into the nationalists’ inflated perceptions of their own mandate. The SNP will always be “outraged” by any Westminster intervention, but their suggestion that Westminster has no place in Scottish affairs like this will only be true if they achieve separation, not before.
The constitutional future of the UK is a reserved issue. Scots went into the last general election knowing it was a reserved issue, and they returned 53 unionist MPs. Even though most of these were Labour, the simple act of electing a unionist of any stripe implies acceptance of Westminster’s legitimate authority over reserved areas, even when led by another party. If the Labour Party were to support Westminster taking the initiative, the UK government’s mandate would be unanswerable. The SNP can only hold a legally binding referendum at all because Westminster is empowering them to do so.
The SNP would dearly love for all the particulars of this debate, from the timing to the wording to who gets to vote, to be left to them. Such presumption is evident in labelling their campaign the “Yes” campaign before the question – and thus which outcome a “Yes” response might actually support – has been decided.
But there are two interested groups in this debate, not one, and unionists have a duty to fight as hard for our corner as the nationalists do for theirs. If Alex Salmond cannot bring himself to ask Scots for a clear answer to a clear question, then Westminster should ask them for him
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