Expert warns Boris Johnson over Scottish independence referendum refusal
Union would no longer be based on consent but on force of law, says Ciaran Martin
Thousands of Scottish independence supporters march through Glasgow in January 2020. Photograph: Ewan Bootman/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Rejecting a second independence referendum backed by a majority in the Scottish parliament would fundamentally change the nature of the union between England and Scotland, according to the top civil servant in charge of preparing for the 2014 independence vote. Ciaran Martin, who also served as head of Britain’s cybersecurity centre, said the union would no longer be based on consent but on the force of law.
“The formal position of the government of the United Kingdom appears to be that there will be no lawful or democratic route by which to achieve Scottish independence for an unspecified number of decades. This is irrespective of how Scotland votes in May, or at any subsequent election during this unspecified period,” he writes in a paper published on Tuesday.
“Should events transpire – either later this year, or in subsequent years – that make this currently rhetorical position a firm constitutional reality, then the union as we understand it will have changed fundamentally. In effect, it would change the union from one based on consent, to one based on the force of law. That would be the most profound transformation in the internal governance of the United Kingdom since most of Ireland left, almost exactly a century ago.”
Scotland holds parliamentary elections next month and opinion polls point to the election of a clear majority in favour of a second independence referendum. But Boris Johnson has said the 2014 vote should be the last for a generation, suggesting that the gap before the second should be the same as that between Britain’s two referendums on its membership of the European Union – more than 40 years.
Prof Martin argues that it is immaterial in terms of a mandate for a second referendum whether the Scottish National Party (SNP) forms that majority alone or with the Scottish Greens and Alba, a pro-independence party founded last month by former SNP leader Alex Salmond.
“A vote next month, or at any time after, in favour of any majority – however constituted – of MSPs elected on an explicit pro-referendum mandate, in effect puts Scotland’s consent for the union on pause,” his report says.
Prof Martin, who is from Omagh, Co Tyrone, was constitution director at the cabinet office in London from 2011 to 2014 and helped to negotiate the Edinburgh Agreement that agreed the terms of the 2014 referendum. He left government last year and is now a professor at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government.
Speaking ahead of the launch of the paper, Scotland’s foremost historian Tom Devine said there had been “an abrupt change of process” in recent years in how Westminster dealt with Scotland that amounted to a “brazen rejection” of norms that had been in place since the 18th century.
“The process had been between the two nations one of mutual respect, one of restraint by the bigger partner, one of conversation through differences,” he said.
“That kind of respect for Scotland in Whitehall was in place as late as the preparation of the 2014 referendum. What has happened since then and especially since Brexit has been the source of enormous friction, increased friction between the two nations. And of course that, in my view, is very much at the root of the current crisis.”
Prof Martin rejects the idea of a middle way for Scotland between independence and remaining in the UK, arguing that devolution has reached its limit and that there is no appetite in Britain for a federal state that would mean the end of the sovereignty of parliament in Westminster.
“The choice is basically this: Does Scotland want to be a small, independent nation, likely back in the EU but with new barriers to trade and travel with the rest of the UK; or does it wish to remain in the UK, with its own powers over some areas but subordinate to the will of the English majority on others?” he says.