Boris Johnson's Refusal to Legitimize #indyref2 is Indicative of Larger Problems Within British Democracy

A few days ago, Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom sent a letter to First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, rejecting the latter’s proposal for a second referendum on Scottish Independence. 

Johnson’s reason was that Sturgeon and her ‘predecessor’ Alex Salmond both ‘made a personal promise that the 2014 Independence Referendum was a “once in a generation” vote’, noting that ‘The people of Scotland voted decisively on that promise to keep our United Kingdom together, a result which both the Scottish and UK Governments committed to respect in the Edinburgh Agreement.’  

Once again, British democracy seems precedented on the idea that the population is not allowed to change their minds, despite any change of circumstances that might have occurred after the initial vote. 

The first Referendum for Scottish Independence happened six years ago, two years before the UK narrowly voted to leave the European Union. Scotland as a region voted overwhelmingly in favour of Remain; indeed, Sturgeon recently tweeted that a primary motivation for Scottish independence is to prevent being ‘dragged out of the EU against our will’. 

The Leader of the SNP went on to say that the Conservative government are ‘terrified of Scotland’s right to choose – because they know when given the choice [Scotland] will choose independence’, and that the government is ‘block[ing] democracy’.

#indyref2 might legitimize calls for a second EU Referendum

This, perhaps inevitably, got me thinking about another recent controversial Referendum.

Over the last few years, there have been increasing calls for a second EU Referendum; with ‘Brexit day’ just a couple of weeks away, it makes sense that Johnson will clamp down on allowing the electorate a second choice on the apparently final decision of a Referendum. #indyref2 might legitimise calls for a Second Brexit Referendum, and while the Conservatives seemed to have won a landslide victory in the December 2019 General Election, the results indicate that more people voted for pro-Second Referendum than pro-Leave parties.

Labour may have lost 59 seats, with many pundits claiming that this was because of the Party’s confused and apparently unclear stance on Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Opposition, had promised that if his party won the General Election, he would negotiate a Brexit deal with the EU before putting this to the people in a ‘Final Say’ Referendum, allowing the population to decide whether to leave the EU, fully informed of what this would entail, or Remain. 

Labour suffered a net loss of seats, but won 10,295,912 in total, just over 3 million fewer than the Conservatives, who now have a significant majority in Parliament. 

Power in Parliament is not proportional to real votes won

The SNP and Liberal Democrats were among those parties favouring to Remain in the European Union, winning just under 6 million votes between them. 

The First Past the Post voting system is, like Johnson’s refusal to acknowledge that circumstances have changed considerably since Scotland’s 2014 Referendum, simply a show of democracy, offering the public a government unrepresentative of the real net votes of the populace. Power in Parliament is not proportional to real votes won; Parties win based on how many Constituencies they have a majority in, rendering the millions of votes against individual seats irrelevant. 

calls for Northern English counties to secede and become part of an Independent Scotland

As well as this illusion of representation, Sturgeon was wise to point out that ‘the Westminster union is not one of equals’. Scotland and Wales may have devolved Parliaments, with Northern Ireland’s Assembly re-opening just last week after years of stagnation, but ultimately the United Kingdom has problems with centralisation, other regions often treated as secondary to the South of England. 

Perhaps this is part of the motivation for calls for Northern English counties to secede and become part of an Independent Scotland. A change.org page for the movement noted that ‘The deliberations in Westminster are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the’ region, with Northern ‘cities feel[ing] far greater affinity with their Scottish counterparts … than with the ideologies of the London-centric south.’ Tellingly, the same page notes that after the Brexit referendum, ‘this petition is more relevant than ever.’ 

The petition may not have gained enough signatures to make it to the UK Parliament (Scotland is not yet independent, after all), but with over 50,000 supporters, it is clear that many people living in England are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the decisions of Westminster, favouring Scotland’s more socialist policies. 

Westminster must acknowledge that democracy means the right to change one’s mind

While it is not clear what action the Scottish Government will take (they are preparing their response later this month), Sturgeon acknowledged that ‘It is not politically suitable for any Westminster government to stand in the way of the right of the people of Scotland to decide their own future’. Nor it is suitable for Johnson’s government to take the UK out of the EU without granting people a Final Say vote now that the true material circumstances of Brexit Britain have come to light. 

Westminster must acknowledge that democracy means the right to change one’s mind as well as the right to choose, that a vote cast at one particular moment in time should not determine the future of that electorate forever, especially after significant material changes in circumstances. Six years’ worth of people have reached the Minimum Voting Age in Scotland, all of whom have seen Scotland’s circumstances change after the results of the 2016 Brexit Referendum. Likewise, nobody born this millennium had a say in the Brexit referendum – imminently, the UK will be thrashed out of the European Union by Johson’s government, with no consideration of what the population might think of Brexit now that what ‘Brexit’ means has come to light. Governments cannot continue to use their majorities in Parliament to exercise what they claim to be the ‘will of the people’, silencing the same people they claim, in their illusion of democracy, to represent.

Matteo Everett

Cover Photo: IMG-3727 by Alasdair Mckenzie on Flickr (view licence)

Read here for a report on Spain’s suppression of the Catalan independence Referendum

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