Ciaran Martin was right at the heart of the British government – he was one of the architects of the 2014 referendum, the UK’s lead official on the constitution, and helped run GCHQ. Now, in an explosive intervention on the eve of the Scottish election, he launches a blistering attack blaming the Tory government for putting the union in jeopardy

IF Scotland votes to break with the UK it will be the fault of Boris Johnson’s policy of “Know Your Place Unionism”, according to the influential UK Government official who was one of the architects of the 2014 independence referendum.

In an exclusive interview, Ciaran Martin, who was also one of the lead figures in British intelligence, serving on the board of GCHQ, said the UK Government was “gaslighting Scotland” by insisting there would be no referendum under any circumstances regardless of a vote at the forthcoming election for a majority of independence-supporting parties, or at subsequent elections for decades to come.

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The UK Government, he says, needs to “show Scotland how its aspirations fit within the Union … otherwise this isn’t a partnership union. It’s ‘Greater England’.”

Martin was constitution director at the British Government’s Cabinet Office, and the lead official who drew up the framework for the 2014 referendum on the UK side.

He was also one of the UK’s key negotiators. Martin spent years at the heart of Government, holding the post of director of security and intelligence at the Cabinet Office.

He was a key figure in British intelligence: after his constitutional role, he went to GCHQ where he founded the National Cyber Security Centre, serving as CEO. Martin stepped back from Government work last year and is now a professor at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government.

Rerun the referendum

Martin favours a rerun of the 2014 referendum if the election produces a mandate for pro-independence parties. “If not this, then what? What’s the legitimate basis on which to resist a second referendum?” Martin asked, adding that in the event of a Yes majority “giving [independence supporters] a clear way to achieve their objectives is essential to a healthy body politic. You cannot make their aspirations unachievable”. The UK Government must “reaffirm its commitment to the union as a partnership”.

Martin says he finds the UK Government’s position “extraordinary”. Despite the SNP and Greens set for a majority, Martin says the UK Government “seem to think they can just turn up in TV studios, facing these polling numbers in Scotland, and say ‘no referendum – maybe come back in a few decades’. And they expect that to be generally accepted as reasonable.

“They’re gaslighting Scotland.”

Know your place, Scotland

MARTIN is highly critical of what he describes as the UK Government’s policy of “Know Your Place Unionism”. He said: “Brexit has been ‘done to Scotland’ rather than ‘involving Scotland’. That’s a psychological blow and that’s where ‘Know Your Place Unionism’ comes in – it’s like saying, ‘Okay, you’ve got the traditions of a nation and all the rest of it, but when it comes to the grown-up stuff, such as relations with the rest of the continent, that’s for the UK as a whole’. The problem is that ‘the UK as a whole’ used to mean ‘including Scotland’.”

He added: “With ‘Know Your Place Unionism’ – this muscular unionism – it’s like saying to Scotland, come on, you’ve a sports team, you’ve your own legal system … but you can’t seriously think you’ve got the genuine right to leave … There’s this very strong sense of … we pay for you, we defend you, we indulge you.” When asked if ‘Know Your Place Unionism’ would be to blame should Scotland vote to leave, Martin said: “Yes. ‘Know Your Place Unionism’ is one of the biggest threats.”

‘Know Your Place Unionism’ should “give way to a more respectful offer of dialogue over the terms of a referendum at some point in the future, if not on the SNP’s timetable. That might prompt some goodwill, and maybe people would say ‘let’s step back from the brink of a constitutional confrontation and at least give these exploratory talk a go’. That’s the sensible way of doing things.”

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‘Brazen contempt’

MARTIN has discussed the impact of Brexit on Scotland with Sir Tom Devine. Scotland’s leading historian told him: “Brexit is totally unprecedented in the history of the Union. I cannot recall any issue of such magnitude since 1707 [the Act of Union] where the manifest will of the Scottish people, as confirmed explicitly by virtually all the nation’s MPs in the UK Parliament, and overwhelmingly by a democratic vote in a UK referendum, was not only rejected, but treated with such brazen contempt by a British Government.” Martin agrees with Devine’s assessment and is critical of drift within the UK Government when it comes to nurturing the union.

He believes key opportunities were missed following 2014 for ground rules to be established on future referenda. “It would have been so much better immediately after 2014 to say ‘we’ve been through this traumatic process of a close vote, clearly the issue isn’t going away, let’s have some discussions about how it should be run again if there’s demand for it’ … The UK as a whole, and Westminster in particular, squandered the opportunity to set out clearer rules”. Martin says “a defeated independence movement would have had little choice but to engage in a process [which recognised] we can’t have this every time you win an election”. He called this the “Canada Route” – where individual states have powers to run referenda but only under strict circumstances.

He believes that if there is a Yes majority, the UK Government will stick to its “hardline” position and “outright refuse” another referendum. While Martin favours the UK simply accepting calls for a referendum if there is a Yes majority, he says at the very least that if the UK Government says “no”, it needs to set out what the lawful, democratic path to another vote would be.

It will end in court

HE predicts any standoff between the UK and Scottish governments will end in a legal battle. “I suspect we’re heading for the Supreme Court,” he said. Martin emphasised that the SNP has “been scrupulously lawful”, but warned any unlawful moves – such as a wildcat Catalonian-style referendum or a Unilateral Declaration of Independence – would backfire spectacularly.

“You’ll lose more people if you start acting unlawfully than you’ll gain by shoring up your base,” he added. “You can declare UDI all you want but if the UK – a permanent member of the UN Security Council – doesn’t recognise you then your path to nationhood is very hard indeed.” Securing a Section 30 order from Westminster is “the easy, consensual path”.

However, he warned that due to the sovereignty of the UK Parliament “there are no limits to which Westminster can go to block Scottish independence”.

‘Refusal is unsustainable’

THE British Government has three options when it comes to demands for a referendum, Martin says: “resist, reform and rerun”. Johnson could simply “use the force of law and resist” calls. “Resisting – blocking the vote – isn’t democratically plausible, or sustainable, if they want to maintain the UK roughy as it is … It changes the nature of the union. Britain doesn’t become a non-democratic country, but it does become a different state. This Government bangs on more about the UK as a union of voluntary nations than most governments in the recent past but actually it’s acting least like it.”

He added: “Brexit blew the delicate constitutional settlement out of the water, particularly in the way it was ‘done to Scotland’. No Scots were involved … But south of the Border, no-one cared. In terms of the history of the union, that’s fascinating because here’s one of the most important political developments, redefining the country’s relations with the continent, and the position of the majority party in Scotland doesn’t matter. It’s completely out of sync with the history of the union … The contemporary UK is saying ‘look, the rules of the UK have been altered. England is more in charge. We’ve redesigned the constitution’.”

Constitutional convention

ON the issue of reforming the union by staging a constitutional convention, Martin believes that, post-Brexit, such moves are already too late to be effective. He sees constitutional reform as “impractical for all sorts of reasons – the obvious ones being the size of England, the fact that England will never regionalise into smaller blocs –which in any case would be problematic because it would then become about nations versus regions. Yorkshire and Scotland aren’t the same thing”. Any form of federalism has long been seen as problematic due to the imbalance caused by a large England.

Brexit illustrates the inherent impossibility of federalism, he said. “The union has been a subtle history of restraint, of union management although England was always the senior partner. However, that’s been tossed aside during Brexit, and it was tossed aside in the pursuit of parliamentary sovereignty.”

Any idea of federalism is therefore “unlikely” to gain support in England, “given the abandonment of English restraint, and the rise of English majoritarianism. Scotland is an ancient European nation and its relationship with the rest of the continent was completely redefined by somebody else against its will – that’s never happened before, so it’s a terrible basis on which to make the case for federalism.

“To make it work for England, the UK Government would have to say to the English electorate, ‘we’ve just been through five years of the most contorted political crisis in the name of parliamentary sovereignty, now we’d like to ask you to revoke centuries of English constitutional tradition and abolish parliamentary sovereignty’. I can’t see that happening … I don’t think making sacrifices in the name of saving the union is going to excite the English popular vote.”

From consent to force

ALTHOUGH rerunning the referendum would be “deeply uncomfortable” for the UK Government given close polling, “the democratic mandate is what it is”, he adds.

Martin says the central danger of not rerunning the referendum – if there’s a Yes majority – is that “you’re changing the union from one based on consent to one based on the force of law”.

He said broadly following the rules of the last referendum was best practice. “The process was a pretty good one with high turnout, respectful for the most part, and no complaints about fairness.” Martin cautioned against including “ex-patriot Scots”, warning: “You get into ethno-nationalism.”

Martin also warned against any confirmatory referendum. “The incentive to vote Yes first time for a free hit would be very tempting, but then the temptation is for the UK Government to negotiate extremely brutally. If that has the desired effect that’s a pretty bad situation for a part of the UK to feel that it wants to leave, as it voted to become independent, but because of a punitive approach from London it’s decided with great reluctance to stay. That’s not the basis for a harmonious union.”

The case for indy

WHILE many of his comments will encourage the Yes movement, Martin is also highly critical of the case for independence. “There was something surreal about the independence campaign last time saying nothing would change when that’s the whole purpose,” he said. “The idea that you could leave a country, and not just keep its currency but have a formal currency union against the will of the other party, I think most people instinctively understood that was nonsense.”

Martin added that “the unionist case also has plenty to answer”. Claims that Scotland would be permanently economically unviable were “implausible” – though he said there were “obvious fiscal challenges”. He also felt it “bizarre” that Better Together claimed an independent Scotland would struggle to find its “place in the world”. Martin said: “If an elected sovereign independent Scottish Government wanted to be in Nato, I find it very hard to see Nato turning it down.” However, he said there would have to be agreement about Faslane and Trident.

In terms of EU re-entry, Martin said that as long as there’s “recognition by the UK Government of a Scottish state” even Spain would be unlikely to veto although he added: “I’m not saying that means Spain definitely won’t veto.

“I’d invite voters to be pretty sceptical of either side making confident predictions of the actions of third parties,” Martin said pointedly.

The UK Government could also try to wait it out, hoping Scotland follows the path of Quebec and “the steam just goes out of independence”. Martin said it wasn’t historically impossible, pointing to Scottish rebellions in the 1700s giving way to “roaring political and economic success” and Scotland settled in the union by 1800. Nevertheless, Martin says what surprises him is “the absence of planning for the sustainment of the union. The absence of self-reflection at a UK level after such a close vote in 2014 is really quite extraordinary”.

Scots voices lost

MARTIN warns that the lack of Scots at the heart of the British Government is damaging the future of the UK. He pointed to figures stretching back to the 1700s such as the Duke of Argyll and Henry Dundas, Winston Churchill’s Scottish secretary Tom Johnston and Willie Ross under Harold Wilson, as well as the many Scots in the Thatcher, Major and Blair governments, as politicians who represented Scotland within the union.

“It was management of the union,” Martin points out. “The sheer lack of Scottish voices means union politics have broken down. Apart from the odd ex-pat Scot in the Conservative party there are no Scottish voices around the table. That’s completely unprecedented, and nobody with a sense of history, a sense of the nature of how the union survived and prospered over 300 years, would have countenanced such a scenario.”

He warned that in any future referendum, the UK negotiation team would appear an “entirely English operation” – even should Michael Gove, an English-based Scot, take a lead –unlike 2014, when figures like Danny Alexander and Alistair Darling were central. “All that’s gone.”

The shift began with David Cameron emphasising “English votes for English laws”, and was indicative of an “abandonment of restraint” when it came to Scotland. Even many Scottish unionists, Martin says, “are pretty shaken by the way Brexit ‘has been done to’ Scotland rather than involving Scotland.”

British intelligence

AS a former leading GCHQ figure, Martin perhaps unusually chose to respond on the record to claims of spying by some in the Yes movement.

“I am completely dismissive of every one of the so-called cybernat conspiracy theories about British intelligence and Scottish politics … Such activity would be wildly illegal. It’s not the sort of thing anyone I know joined up to do.”

Martin said he would not give his own opinion on whether he’d like to see Yes or No win, but added: “What I believe in is the union is one of consent and that’s fundamental. That’s why I believe if there’s a majority elected on a clear platform for a referendum in the Scottish Parliament then there should be one.”

Until the last few years, the history of the union had moved from “one enforced by law to one of consent. That seemed to be completed. Most people have understood for several decades that the union is now a voluntary partnership.

“That’s why I find the UK Government’s position so extraordinary”.

The history books

MARTIN believes we’re now at a “pivotal” moment in history, with three possible outcomes:

1. “A victory, however unlikely, for ‘Know Your Place Unionism’ and the end of the union as a serious partnership. That would involve facing down a referendum … This would be written in the history books as the high watermark of Scottish nationalism but ultimately the triumph of post-Brexit, Greater England Britishness.”

2. “A return to consent-based partnership unionism, either following a unionist victory in a referendum or a politically savvy refusal of one … with a fundamental change in tone from Westminster and a reversion to the union of the past … a union with a bit of compromise.”

3. “The other option for the history books is that it’s seen as the decisive period when independence became inevitable … in spite of all the bluster, Downing Street relents, either immediately or after a disastrous pause which solidifies independence support, holds a referendum and loses, and the union is over.”