Tommy Sheppard | MP for Edinburgh East

Scottish independence: Boris Johnson cannot maintain the Union by coercion rather than consent

Last weekend the SNP recommitted itself to pursuing another referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent self-governing country. The party pledged that, if it gets a majority at the coming Scottish general election, it will ensure people get that choice.

The feigned outrage from unionist opponents was a joy to behold. Why are they surprised? Perhaps they’ve forgotten the SNP believes in independence?  Of course, the stakes get higher as the election approaches – now just three months away.

The principal line of attack is that this is a distraction from the fight against Covid. This is more than a little disingenuous. That line might have some cut-through if the Scottish government had been found wanting over the last year. But it has not. On every measure, but particularly transparency and consistency, Nicola Sturgeon has outperformed the UK premier. Her focus on Covid meant shelving plans on changing how we are governed to a later day. Not so Boris Johnson, who forced through Brexit on ridiculous timescales as everyone was consumed by the pandemic.

But things can only be shelved for so long. The election is to appoint a parliament and government for five years, not five months. Obviously, things other than Covid must be discussed.

I don’t think we should actually have a referendum until the pandemic subsides and a degree of normal social interaction resumes. We need a major social discussion amongst everyone about the options that face Scotland in the years ahead. I, for one, would find that hard to do on a screen. I need to look people in the eye when I listen to their hopes and fears.

How we recover from Covid and how we are governed are not unconnected. It’s not a matter of prioritising one over the other. Quite the contrary, they are very interlinked. Rebuilding a resilient manufacturing economy. Resetting our society through fair systems of reward and contribution. Taking effective action on climate change. Working alongside our European neighbours. All of these require the political capacity that comes with independence.

Twenty consecutive opinion polls have recorded majority support for independence. Most also agree that people here should be given that choice. Many would argue the SNP government already has a mandate on this. It does. But it is conditional. This May the party seeks a fresh and immediate mandate without condition or qualification.

So, what happens if it gets it?  Until now the response of the Tory government has been “you’ll have had your referendum”. Repeating their mantra of “once in a generation”, denying most of us another say in our lifetimes.

But the people who should decide on a referendum are the people who live here. They will get the opportunity to make that choice soon. If people elect a clear majority of members to the new Scottish parliament - voting by proportional representation – who are committed to having another referendum, then that is what should happen. If it does not, then the union is being maintained by coercion rather than by consent.

I would hope that Johnson would respect the decision of the Scottish electorate. But if not, he should now know that an SNP Scottish government will pursue every legal means to allow people to have that choice. If necessary, we’ll see him in court.


Written for Edinburgh Evening News - 29th January 2021


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