The Herald:


David, from Glasgow, asks: What will happen when Boris Johnson rejects a second independence referendum?


An answer from columnist Iain Macwhirter:

Thank you for your question, David.

Scotland may be transfixed by the Salmond-Sturgeon political death match right now, but a much more important question is coming over the horizon: the next phase of the independence crisis.

The Scottish National Party are heading for a landslide victory in the Scottish Parliament elections in May. This will move demands for a repeat referendum to the next level.

The nationalists may not win an outright majority – that is extremely hard in our proportional electoral system – but Nicola Sturgeon doesn't need to win a majority of seats. The Scottish Greens MSPs will support her demand for Indyref2.

So: what happens then? Can Boris Johnson simply ignore the will of the people of Scotland as expressed in this election? Can he claim to be a democrat and ignore a vote in the Scottish Parliament? Will that not be a constitutional crisis? 

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Well, that is certainly how the SNP will describe it. However, there seems to me to be zero possibility that Boris Johnson will grant Indyref2. He will say now is not the time for such a divisive constitutional upheaval, just as the United Kingdom is extricating itself from the EU.

He will point out, as he has done before, that the SNP leadership said in 2014 that a referendum is a “once in a generation” event, and a generation is not up yet. He says the timescale should be “around 40 years” – that is the length of time between the first and the second UK referendums on Europe.

It is a fairly thin argument. Nicola Sturgeon will say that it is not for him to lay down the law on democratic accountability. The people of Scotland have spoken, and in refusing to heed them the Prime Minister will be extinguishing democracy. He will be acting like a “tin-pot dictator”.

But Boris Johnson has been accused of that before, not least during Brexit, and I suspect he will hold his ground. He holds all the constitutional aces. To hold a legally-binding referendum, Westminster needs to give its consent through what is called a Section 30 Order. Under no circumstances would the UK parliament, as presently constituted, vote for one. The PM has an 80 seat majority in the Commons, and even if he did not, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has made clear that he would not support a referendum.

Boris Johnson is only too aware of what happened to his predecessor, David Cameron. He only agreed to the Edinburgh Agreement, negotiated by Alex Salmond, which triggered the 2014 referendum, because he was sure that he would win. In the end he very nearly didn't. He finally came a cropper in the 2016 EU referendum, when Brexit won, and he had to resign.

Boris Johnson will not risk going down in history as the Prime Minister who took the UK out of Europe, and then took Scotland out of the UK. He knows that Nicola Sturgeon will not call a “wildcat” or unauthorised referendum such as the one in Catalonia in 2017.

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She has made that repeatedly clear. She may try to take the UK government to the Supreme Court, claiming the right of self-determination. But judges made clear in the Miller case in 2017 that Holyrood cannot overrule Westminster on constitutional matters.

Some frustrated nationalists may take matters into their own hands and stage a campaign of civil disobedience, but without the backing of the First Minister, this is unlikely to succeed. But perhaps Ms Sturgeon will have dodged a bullet. For, there is actually no guarantee that a referendum on Scottish independence held in the next year or so would win.

Losing two referendums in a row could potentially kill the independence cause stone dead, as was the case in Quebec in the last century. Nationalists are in a long game. They can wait.

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