A guest thread on Scottish independence and electoral reform

A guest thread on Scottish independence and electoral reform

At the risk of sounding like Sion Simon soon there will be an election, in which Scottish nationalists will increase their majority. 

The Scottish Conservative Party are campaigning on the principle that the last referendum should be a ‘once in a generation’ vote and to vote for the SCON Party to “stop indyref2”. If a majority in Scotland do vote for the Tories (or other unionist parties) then that is the end of the matter – feel free to ignore the rest of this piece and talk below the line on another subject.

However assuming that the nationalists (and for these purposes we need to include the Greens and less likely Alba) do win a majority, then how should the Westminster Conservative Party respond? Lines that are being used now like “once in a generation” may sound clear enough, but they are electioneering – a part of democracy is accepting when you have lost the argument in an election. If Scotland rejects the “once in a generation” argument and votes for a new referendum then that is their choice and to deny that will mean that the Union is no longer one based on the principle of consent.

Ultimately in a British democracy it will not be possible to avoid a Scottish referendum forever if the Scots want one. The only real question is whether it is dealt with now or kicked into the long grass and made ‘someone else’s problem’. The Conservatives will face a tough choice: accept the mandate for Scottish referendum and resolve the issue for better or worse – or deny the mandate, stoke a grievance within Scotland and leave this as an issue for the next Labour government to deal with. The latter may be superficially tempting but it would be very counterproductive.

If the Labour Party come into office in 2024 (or later) in a minority government relying upon the SNP still demanding an independence referendum, with the Tories retaining a majority in England, then the new Labour Prime Minister will have little reason to maintain our current electoral system. They will know that if Scotland remains in the UK then there’s little chance of Labour winning a majority anyway, and if Scotland leaves then that makes a Tory majority in the remaining UK more likely, potentially even automatic.  It would be in the Labour Party’s interests, unlike in 1997, to reform the voting system to some form of Proportional Representation for the House of Commons prior to the Independence Referendum and certainly prior to the next election.

In 1948 the Australian Labor Party were widely predicted to lose the next election. Before they did they changed the voting system in the Australian Senate – introducing the Single Transferable Vote system. While electoral reform had long been debated, then Leader of the Opposition Robert Menzies claimed that was done to frustrate his expected government. The following election did indeed see Menzies win the first of nine consecutive Coalition election victories in the House of Representatives – but due to the electoral reforms in the Senate the Labor Party managed to hold onto a Senate majority despite losing the election. Rarely since have either Labor or the Coalition been able to win a majority in the Senate.

If a majority in Scotland democratically vote for a second independence referendum, then it is in the long-term interests of the Conservative Party in England that they are the ones in Downing Street when it occurs. If this happens then they can either ‘save the union’ by winning the referendum, or in the event that the union is dissolved, they can control from an English perspective how that occurs. If Scotland’s decision gets postponed until a Labour PM is in Downing Street reliant upon SNP MPs then expect constitutional and electoral reforms to extend beyond just Scotland itself.

Philip Thompson

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