Boris Johnson has formally refused First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon’s request for a second referendum on Scottish Independence to be held this year. The response is no surprise, but it does mark another inconclusively decisive move in the sparring between the SNP and Westminster about the future of the union. Whilst unremarkable in its predictability, Johnson’s reply is important for its contribution to the broader debate surrounding Britain’s constitutional principles, as those on each side of the campaign for a second referendum try to promote the democratic necessity of their cause.
Johnson has attempted to drown out demands for an IndyRef2 by reiterating the pledge made by Sturgeon in 2014, that a referendum would be a “once in a generation” vote. At its core his argument claims that it would therefore be “undemocratic” to hold a second referendum, as it would defy the results of the first. However, the democratic constitution of the UK is, by its un-codified designation, subject to change and – put simply – has a built in mechanism to just ‘go with the flow’. Politics over the last two decades have swerved from seemingly stable streams, to increasingly tumultuous rapids, where ancient privileges and powers have been in upheaval.
Indeed, it was only a few short months ago that Johnson found himself squirming in the deep end, when the UK Supreme Court made one of the most important constitutional law decisions for generations, by ruling against the government’s prorogation of parliament. In this case, traditional ideas of parliamentary sovereignty were reaffirmed, but it has also been the case that constitutional principles have shifted in order to accommodate changing political conditions. For instance, the devolution of power to a Scottish Parliament in 1999 represented a major constitutional change, demonstrating how existing features of the state were remodelled in response to contemporary political realities.
The drawn-out nature of the arguments for Scottish devolution in the late 90s, seems set to replicate at the start of the new 20s, with what should be the start of slow movement towards a referendum. One of the key arguments for devolution was the portrayal of a democratic deficit, as the Scottish public were led by successive Tory governments despite the minority of support they have north of the border. This is mirrored by the current rise in power of the SNP, who won 48 of the 56 Scottish seats available in Westminster in the 2019 general election. Sturgeon has been quick to suggest that this represents a growing mandate for a second referendum – which is a leading policy of the SNP – suggesting that the democratic consensus in Scotland is once more highly at odds with that in Westminster.
For now though, Johnson’s response will prevent a referendum in the next year, and we’ll have to wait for the 2021 Holyrood elections to see if the SNP win a considerable enough majority to further campaign, with what would be a more recognisable mandate from the people, in favour of a second referendum. What is for certain though, is that our democratic principles are not set in stone, but are instead able to accommodate these shifting tides. It remains necessary to ensure that positive developments are not immediately shunned in the name of uncertain principles.
Image: Ninian Reid via Flickr