Richard Parry discusses considerations facing Theresa May as decision time approaches on a second independence referendum.
Theresa May’s speech in Glasgow on 3 March developed a line of argument that opened up a new perspective on devolution and the Conservative Party’s role in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland:
“For too long the attitude in Whitehall has been to ‘devolve and forget’… we are all diminished when any part of the UK is held back, and we all share in the success when we prosper. In Government that principle is called ‘collective responsibility’. We need to build a new ‘collective responsibility’ across the United Kingdom, which unites all layers of government, to work positively together to improve the lives of everyone in our country. As the Government serving the whole United Kingdom, formed in a Parliament drawn from the whole United Kingdom, the UK Government exercises a responsibility on behalf of the whole UK that transcends party politics and encompasses all aspects of our national life.’
As with the notorious ‘if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’ phrase at the 2016 Conservative conference, May and her speechwriters may not have realized the line they were advancing. Devolution depends upon the UK level renouncing any superordinate claim to impose their own policies which, by definition, would be seeking ‘to improve the lives of everyone’. The history of UK central-local relations is littered with attempts to constrain decisions in areas where the UK majority is a local minority. With the Scottish Conservatives currently the largest of these minorities and Ruth Davidson winning leadership credibility at UK level, May was tempted into a crowd-pleasing line that sums up a continuing UK dilemma about what devolution actually is.
Related to this is a surprising diffidence about outlining a UK position on IndyRef2. Basically four are available. In 2012 it was facilitated on the basis that all Holyrood parties supported it as a test of opinion (and so the Referendum Act was not per se an attempt to repeal the Act of Union); this does not apply in 2017. A second approach would be to issue a Section 30 order at the request of the Scottish Government (presumably backed up by a resolution of the Scottish Parliament whose debate would defuse the politics of the issue). This is what the SNP say they expect but it would amount to a permanent referendum-holding power. A third variant is to offer some kind of legal security only after a potentially illegal Referendum Bill is passed (under Section 33 of the Scotland Act 1998 the UK then has a four week opportunity to refer it to the Supreme Court as being outside legislative competence, giving a window for negotiation). Possibly the date would come into play for the UK, but this time to delay rather than accelerate the poll.
A final possibly is the ‘Spanish’ strategy of resisting a referendum by any political or legal means available. Some of the more hot-blooded Tories in Glasgow seemed to want this but no ground is being prepared for it. This may reflect lack of confidence about whether the Supreme Court would actually throw out a referendum bill; there is a surprising level of untested assumption that an advisory referendum on a reserved matter is illegal without UK sanction. It might reflect fear of alienating Scots. Or it might include some of the 2012 temptation that a clear No vote is a glittering prize for unionists. It’s probably a mixture of all of these. One thing is becoming clear: Theresa May is providing every reason why, on the SNP’s stated criteria, IndyRef2 should proceed and much difficulty for Nicola Sturgeon should she not wish to do so before Brexit.