Monday 5 September 2022

Calculating a majority


The proposal to require a majority of the whole electorate in any future independence referendum is just one example of the tendency for the Tories to announce a policy without thinking through the implications and the practicalities.

In terms of the politics of it, it is a fact that, had such a requirement been implemented for the referendum on leaving the EU, the UK would still be a member. And it’s noteworthy that the people now demanding a 50%+1 majority for Scottish independence are, in many cases, the same people who would be protesting bitterly had a simple majority of those voting not been considered enough on that occasion. That’s just politics, though; they can and will bluster their way through that one. The fact that the proposed rule can award a resounding ‘win’ to a minority of those voting is, equally, just politics; it doesn’t matter because it would be the ‘right’ side winning. Assuming a turnout of around 80% (and it will never be 100%, for a variety of reasons: some people forget to vote, some can’t be bothered, some are away, some are ill, and some even have the temerity to die before polling day), then if 49.9% of the electorate votes yes, only a maximum of 30.1% (allowing for spoiled or invalidated ballots) can vote no. The patent unfairness under which a split of 62:38 of those who vote is considered insufficiently enthusiastic to justify independence, whilst 29% of the electorate voting against is considered to be resounding support for the union is, again, just politics.

No, for a government whose majority is based on English votes, and which is prepared to impose its will on the Scots and face them down, using the full power of the absolute sovereignty of Westminster, none of these political problems matter, and the policy will appeal to the English nationalists on whose votes the Tory Party now depends. It’s more the practical issues of implementing it which it seems to me that they haven’t really thought about.

In the first place, the UK does not have a constitution, which means that the constitution can’t be amended to introduce the new rule. That in turn means that it can only be done by Act of Parliament, and in the arcane world of Westminster, no Act can ever bind any future government. At some future point, a more pragmatic and less dogmatic government, faced with a situation in which it becomes politically impossible to resist the demand for a new referendum could, and probably would, simply delete or amend the requirement. Without a written constitution, accepted by the population at large, loose rhetoric about making Scottish independence impossible, ever, by changing the rules is just that – loose rhetoric.

Secondly, what form would this proposed legislation take? It would be a curious act of parliament which said something along the lines of “if there’s ever going to be a referendum, which there isn’t because we won’t allow it, then the rules for considering a majority to be binding shall be as follows:…”.  Very Ruritanian. Passing a law to define the rules for a hypothetical future referendum is also seriously damaging to the hypotheticality of it.

There’s another problem with enacting such a law as well. I don’t doubt that there would be a clear parliamentary majority in favour of it – and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Labour and the Lib Dems piling in in support of the government, making the parliamentary majority a very healthy one. But at the last election, Scotland elected 48 SNP MPs out of 59 – a total of 81% - and current polling suggests that they may well do even better next time round. Whilst there’s no doubt about the legality of the outcome of the parliamentary vote, using an English majority to over-ride 81% or more of the duly-elected Scottish MPs doesn’t immediately strike me as the most brilliant way of winning Scottish hearts and minds. It plays, instead, to the narrative that Scottish wishes are being ignored – more likely to help the independentistas than the unionists.

And then there’s one other little complication, the one that they regularly forget about – Ireland. The question of a border poll and how the results should be interpreted is, as I understand it, set out in the Good Friday Agreement, and requires the Secretary of State to arrange a border poll “…if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the UK and form part of a united Ireland” (my emphasis). Whilst it’s hard to rule anything out from a Truss government, starting to unilaterally tinker with that international agreement is a matter of a different order of magnitude. That leaves them imposing one rule for Scotland (and Wales) whilst operating to a completely different rule for Northern Ireland. Good luck to the government lawyers on arguing that case when it comes before a court, as it almost certainly will. From the Government’s perspective, they have the power and they make the rules. But wiser heads might well wonder whether somebody shouldn’t take their spades away before they dig much deeper.

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