EVEN the most ardent unionists – as long as they’re thinking with their heads and not their hearts – must realise that simply saying No to a second independence referendum in the face of a clear majority of Yes parties at Holyrood has only disastrous consequences ahead. It threatens not only to delegitimise Westminster, but also to hasten the end of the Union itself rather than somehow save it.

We’re clearly in a constitutional crisis right now – or the "phoney war" stage of one. Boris Johnson may not know it but he’s playing for a pyrrhic victory at best. He may prevent another independence referendum, but he’ll do so at a terrible cost, the price of which is the validity of British democracy.

The background is simple, but the way forward fraught. The SNP now has 64 seats in parliament. With the Greens on eight, that provides a clear pro-Yes majority of MSPs from two parties which made clear that a vote for them was a vote for a second referendum.

Evidently, a vote for the SNP and the Greens wasn’t an uncompromising hardline nationalist vote demanding a referendum tomorrow. It was a sophisticated expression of how most Yes voters envision a future referendum taking place: crucially after Covid is beaten and recovery well under way.

Due to the lack of Scottish voices in the British Government, Michael Gove has become the point-man for Mr Johnson on Scottish affairs. Justifying the implacable No from London – a No which has echoes of the DUP’s insistent cry of "Ulster Says No" to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 – Mr Gove says “a majority of people who voted in the constituencies voted for parties that were opposed to a referendum”.

Michael Gove

Michael Gove

Mr Gove is in trouble here. As an arch-Brexiter, he must remember the 2015 UK election which triggered the referendum on the European Union. David Cameron’s Conservative Party won with 36.9 per cent of the vote. At this Scottish election, the SNP took 47.7% of the constituency vote. Mathematically and morally, Mr Gove’s argument is risible.

Just as the UK voting system meant that in 2015 the nation, like it or loathe it, voted for an EU referendum, so too the Holyrood voting system means that Scotland, like it or loathe it, voted for an independence referendum.

To dispute this is to destroy the Union from the inside out.

Read more: SNP must tell Scotland what independence means

Unsurprisingly, the London media, never impressive on Scottish affairs, is forging a false narrative that without an SNP majority there’s no mandate for a referendum. One hopes this twisting of truth is due to ignorance rather than wilfully misleading reporting.

What matters is the Yes majority in Holyrood. There’s no moral foundation to block a second referendum. To do so assaults democracy. Mr Johnson, though, can delight his base by playing the "Hammer of the Scots", trashing democratic norms once more.

The significance of the Holyrood vote is that it creates a post-Brexit electoral mandate for a second referendum. Scotland’s last election was May 2016. The Brexit vote took place on June 2016. The goalposts changed. Last week’s election was a response to that change.

Denial of an electoral mandate for a second independence referendum in the face of the Holyrood majority of Yes parties is an admission that the Union is over. The Union would no longer be a partnership based on consent, but one based on coercion and control. We have to ask ourselves if belief in British democracy north of the Border would survive such a blow.

There’s a whiff of imperialism in the air. Scotland isn’t a colony. Mr Johnson’s government cannot dictate to Scotland against the democratic will of the nation. It’s for the people of Scotland to decide the future of this country, whether that’s inside or outside the Union. Silencing Scotland will euthanise the Union.

Denial of the right to a referendum in the face of Holyrood’s electoral mathematics rides roughshod over the democratic will of the Scottish people as expressed through the ballot box. To disenfranchise Scotland puts an irremovable question mark over the idea of British democracy itself.

The risk to the integrity of British democracy intensifies if the battle over a second referendum goes to the court. There’s every possibility that the Supreme Court would say that the overarching sovereignty of the UK Parliament gives it the legal – if not moral – authority to overrule demands from Holyrood for a referendum.

If that happens, then not only is the Westminster Parliament seen as dictatorial and inimical to the interests and will of the Scottish people, but the role of the courts would be called into question. This would be wrong – the law is the law – but we saw how judges were vilified and denounced during Brexit. By denying the simple democratic truth that the Yes majority in Holyrood justifies a second referendum, Mr Johnson is putting the courts on a collision course with a vast swathe of Scottish public opinion. That’s a recipe for democratic disaster.

Read more: ‘Boris and Tory government are gaslighting Scots over indyref2’

If unionists care about this 314-year-old partnership really lasting, they need to accept the reality of democracy and agree to a referendum. Intransigence and commanding, rather than listening and understanding, will shatter this already eggshell-fragile Union quicker than any majority in Holyrood.

By assuming the position of colonial master, rather than democratic partner, Mr Johnson might be able to hold off a referendum for perhaps even the duration of this parliament, but by doing so he writes the death warrant of the Union itself. Undecided voters will see the sheer injustice of what’s happening and move inevitably towards Yes.

If unionists believe in the Union – and crucially believe that the Union is a democratic partnership of equals – then they must logically accept the Yes majority at Holyrood as an expression of the will of the Scottish people, agree to a referendum, and then campaign to win that referendum.

If the Union matters then fight for it, don’t kill it. In the face of a mandate for an independence referendum, simply refusing the right to vote doesn’t just look anti-democratic and colonial, it looks downright cowardly, it looks like the unionist side knows they’re beat already, that they know they’d lose a referendum anyway.

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