Last week I asked Boris Johnson whether he would regard winning next year’s Scottish election as a mandate for the union. It was a genuine enough question. After all, we can be fairly sure the union is going to feature in the election campaign, maybe even dominate it. And I was careful to ask about a victory for the unionist parties not just the Conservatives, as even their leader accepts that’s not plausible.
I didn’t get an answer. Instead, I got a lot of bluster about how that question was put in 2014 and because some in the Yes campaign suggested it was a once in a generation decision, I should be quiet.
This answer basically says that one democratic event six years ago trumps any future ones. This argument will feature prominently in the months ahead, so it bears some examination.
Firstly, I don’t deny that many involved in the referendum campaign used the phrase once in a generation. They include the former and current leaders of the SNP. But to be accurate none of them said it must be a once in a generation decision: they suggested it might be. In so doing they were issuing a warning to those who supported independence that they might not get the chance again for a long time.
The Yes campaign itself made no such stipulation. And there was nothing on the ballot paper that stated how long the decision was to be valid for.
But the bigger point is that it doesn’t really matter who said what in 2013/14. Whether there is a future referendum on how Scotland is governed should be a matter for the people who live here and no-one else. Period.
That in turn invites the question as to how we might gauge the opinion of the Scottish electorate. Well, that’s sort of why we have elections.
If, at an election, various parties present various views on whether there should be a referendum and the people elect a parliament with a majority who say there should, then that should be that.
Now, there are many in my party who say that is exactly what happened in 2016 when the SNP and Greens won a majority to have another referendum. But that mandate was conditional. It was to be enacted if the circumstances prevailing at the time of the original vote in 2014 had changed.
To my mind they have indeed changed, to the extent of changing completely the proposition that was voted on last time. However, I accept that the question of whether things have changed enough is a matter of judgement rather than fact.
Which is why in 2021 we can clarify matters beyond doubt. I predict that the SNP manifesto will ask people to vote to have another referendum without any qualification. To say simply and clearly whether they want to consider again how we are governed in the future.
If people vote for that proposition and elect a pro referendum majority then it would be illegitimate and undemocratic for any UK government, Tory or otherwise, to deny that expression. If they did, they would be keeping Scotland in the UK against the wishes of the people who live here. There’s a word for that and it’s not union.
Written for Edinburgh Evening News - 9th October 2020