NEXT WEEK the Supreme Court will adjudicate on the Scottish Parliament’s right to hold an independence referendum. The case comes almost exactly ten years after the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement, setting out the basis for a referendum on Scottish independence.
Prime Minister David Cameron and the then Scottish Secretary Michael Moore met First Minister Alex Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon at St Andrew House in Edinburgh on October 15 2012 for a ceremonial signing of the document.
A breezily-confident Cameron stood in front of the Edinburgh skyline on that sunny autumn afternoon and told the assembled press that he was showing respect for the Scottish people and their decision to vote for a party with a manifesto commitment to a referendum.
The backdrop was that SNP had won a landslide victory in 2011’s Scottish general election. In response, the Conservative/ Liberal UK government published a consultation on “Scotland's Constitutional Future”. Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg wrote:
"We will not stand in the way of a referendum on independence: the future of Scotland's place within the United Kingdom is for people in Scotland to vote on."
Here are three lessons for today’s situation from that historic event
1 Respecting the “Union of equals” was part of the UK’s case
Asked what he had got in return for giving Salmond control of both the date and who could vote in the poll, Cameron replied: "What we have is what I always wanted, which is one single question, not two questions, not devo max, a very simple single question that has to be put before the end of 2014, so we end the uncertainty.”
Ironically, Salmond and Sturgeon did not want a third question either. But saying they were prepared to accept one was part of their negotiations. Giving in gracefully was part of Cameron’s show of respect. (This however was revealed as sham when the day after the ‘No’ vote in 2014 he emerged from Downing Street to announce that Scottish MPs would henceforth be treated a second class, unable to vote on most domestic issues.*)
Cameron’s view that the United Kingdom is a voluntary union of equals, established by the Treaty of Union of 1707, is in contrast with the “muscular unionism” of the current Conservative government, which regards itself as having the right to rule over the Scottish people and deny a referendum indefinitely.
Many Unionist commentators fear that this approach is unlikely to be a winning strategy in the long term, and could push support for independence even higher than it currently sits. Writing in the Spectator recently, Alex Massie argued:
“The nationalists would love few things better than a British government determined to in some strange sense 'put Scotland in its place'. Nothing could further or more fully demonstrate the SNP’s belief that Scotland and Britain are no longer compatible entities.”
2 The Labour Party tried to hold back the tide for too long
The backdrop to that moment in 2012 had actually been five years of negotiation. After the SNP became the largest party in Holyrood in 2007, the Labour Party misjudged the reaction to blocking a referendum on Scottish independence. Feeling that Scotland was being denied rights that the Labour Party trumpet for countries all around the world only made the calls grow stronger.
In 2008, on BBC Scotland's Politics Show, Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander declared: “Bring it on”. Later, she clarified her position, saying she supported a referendum on Scottish independence if it also had a question on more powers for Holyrood, and if it happened before the end of the year.
Alexander believed a ‘No” vote would damage the SNP and lead to Labour regaining power in Scotland. She was certain that the middle option of more powers would win the ballot. Even in 2008, it was obvious that the trend showed support for independence rising - so there was little point in waiting.
Scotland’s Unionist establishment, including the Conservative and Liberal Democrats, were furious. Alexander was immediately denounced for “misjudgment and political naivety”. Leaks - possibly from within the Labour party machine - led to claims that donations had not been properly declared. Alexander resigned just a month later. Kicking the can down the road by refusing a referendum did not make the issue go away. Instead it laid the way for the landslide victory for the SNP in 2011.
3 The current democratic mandate is stronger than 2011
The SNP went into the May 2011 Scottish election with the top line on the manifesto being a promise to legislate for a referendum on independence. The balance of support was such that they took 53 constituency seats but they still were able to gain 16 additional members on the regional lists. The upshot was that the SNP ended up with an overall majority of 69 out of 129 members in a system that was designed to make that all but impossible.
They had 45% of the vote in the first, constituency voted, and 44% in the second. At that time, the Scottish Green Party was not signed up to a manifesto commitment to a referendum on independence and they got just 2% of the second vote and two seats.
In 2021, the SNP got almost 48% of the first vote and won 62 constituency seats, ten more than in 2011. They had 40% of the second vote and won two of those seats. The Scottish Greens, who had by this time moved to supporting independence, got 8% of the second vote and eight seats, giving the independence movement 70 seats in total.
The democratic basis for a referendum is even stronger than in 2011. The change in material circumstances caused by Brexit, which was imposed on Scotland against its democratic will as expressed in the 2016 referendum is another strong argument for a referendum.
The baseline support for independence is far higher now than it was in 2012. An Ipsos Mori poll that week showed support for independence running at 28%.
The UK government now argues that it does not recognise Holyrood’s right to call a referendum on Scottish independence. That could backfire and increase support for independence.
For both sides, October 15, 2012, was the beginning of a campaign for hearts and minds. The ceremonial signing was not really necessary; they wanted to take the opportunity to set out their positions to the waiting media.
Blocking a referendum after the Scottish people elected a government with an independence-supporting majority would have been likely to backfire.
Agreeing on a democratic arrangement set a precedent that should apply a decade later when the mandate is even stronger. Now the UK government has abandoned this commitment - how will it make a positive case for the Union?
* That policy known as EVEL - English Votes for English Laws - has now been rescinded but it doesn't much matter now - it was a successful attack on Labour in Scotland. SNP MPs don't vote on purely English matters.