The UK government’s lead negotiator on Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum on Tuesday warned against refusing to allow a second such vote if Scots want one, saying to do so would fundamentally change the union from “one based on consent, to one based on the force of law”.
A report by Ciaran Martin, a former head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre — part of GCHQ — and the UK Cabinet Office’s constitution director from 2011-2014, may increase pressure on Boris Johnson to rethink his pledge to block a second referendum.
The prime minister has ruled out another vote even if a pro-independence majority is elected to the Scottish parliament on May 6.
Martin, now a professor at Oxford university’s Blavatnik School of Government, said former prime minister David Cameron had concluded that a referendum was unavoidable after the pro-independence Scottish National party won a majority at the parliament at Holyrood in 2011.
“There is no rational basis on which to depart from Mr Cameron’s view in 2021, should it be the wish of the Scottish people that a referendum is held,” he said.
Johnson suggested in January that Westminster would not approve a second independence referendum for four decades or more, an approach that Martin said would be telling Scottish nationalists there was no lawful path to achieve their objectives.
“A century of union by consent would effectively come to an end: the union would become an entity sustained by law alone,” he said.
The SNP seized on the report by Martin, saying there was no democratic basis to block an independence referendum if the people of Scotland voted for one.
“The union must always be based on consent, and to try instead to base it . . . on the ‘force of law’ would be doomed to failure,” said Keith Brown, SNP deputy leader.
Some in Johnson’s Conservative party have suggested he should approve a second referendum only with conditions that would make a vote for independence less likely, such as requiring a larger majority to pass.
But Martin said any such moves would be wildly contentious and there should be a “high threshold” for any changes to the 2014 model, which used the Scottish parliament’s franchise and was a simple majority vote.
In the Financial Times last month, John Major, former Conservative prime minister, cautioned his successor against a blunt refusal to revisit the independence question. “Scotland cannot be kept forever in an arrangement if her people wish to end it,” Major wrote.
However, Martin rejected Major’s suggestion that there should be a second referendum to confirm any vote for independence, saying it would incentivise the UK to make the terms of separation so unpleasant that it would pave the way for decades of “sullen Scottish discontent within the union”.
The UK government declined to comment in detail on Martin’s report, saying people in Scotland wanted to see London and the devolved administration working together “now, more than ever”.
“The push for a divisive referendum is simply irresponsible,” the UK government said. “It is a distraction, when we need to focus on continuing to tackle the pandemic and rebuilding our economy.”