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The uncomfortable power of precedent

Illustration: Mark Devlin

In a recent speech to the Irish Dáil (parliament), Heather Humphreys, TD of the Fine Gael party, reproached Sinn Fein, saying that with Sinn Fein “it is always a case of do as we say and not do as we do“. The masterful speech echoes in the current debate on nationalism within Scotland, for with the SNP it is also always a case of “do as we say and not as we do” and that is most obviously visible in their demands for a second independence referendum. 

Nationalists don’t want us to act as they do because their actions portray the rank hypocrisy of their position and their manipulation of reality to suit their perpetual fostering of grievance and agitation in a time when solidarity and unity is more vital than ever. 

Let us look at some examples of the SNP’s contradictory actions and how they influence the debate on a second referendum, if one ever even happens. 

#1 Scotland being pulled out of the EU is grounds for a second independence referendum 

I’m not going to cover how this vote was UK wide, even though that is a fundamental distinction that is wilfully ignored by separatists. Instead, if we are to follow the reasoning of this argument, it stands that in any hypothetical future vote, any region of Scotland that votes to remain in the UK has a right to demand that its wishes be honoured, as expressed in the referendum, and for it to remain part of the UK. 

For example, ignoring the wishes of The Borders or Shetland and Orkney would demonstrate a profound democratic deficit and would be against the settled will of the people of those regions. This would, of course, result in the partition of Scotland, with the vast majority of Scotland’s geographic landmass most likely choosing to remain in the UK. 

The SNP cannot argue against this position without contradicting their own demands. Not only do we have the precedent of the SNP’s own statements, but we also have a constitutional precedent in the form of Northern Ireland. Secessionism would lead to the partition of Scotland. 

#2 Brexit requires a confirmatory referendum

Boris Johnson was not the only one to drive around in a bus with slogans emblazed on the side. The SNP’s rejection of Theresa May’s much softer Brexit is why we find ourselves in the present situation, and it shows that, despite the SNP’s opposition to Brexit, they wish it to be as disastrous as possible, to further their political objectives. 

However, applied to the constitutional question, former PM, John Major, has argued for a double referendum, with people voting first on the principal and then on the arrangement, with either vote having the power to veto secession. The SNP should be all in favour of this, after all, they campaigned continuously for a second Brexit referendum. 

However, as with Brexit, they fear that once the real complexities and cold reality of breaking a 47-year union, let alone a 300-year-old one, would result in people vetoing the vote yet again. However, if they are to remain true to their slogans and policies, they must allow such a vote, should Westminster or anyone else decide upon it. 

#3 Ignoring the demands of Holyrood concerning the release of material for the Alex Salmond inquiry

Not only has this inquiry threatened an all-out civil war in the party, horrifically damaged the lives of all the women involved in the complaints, become a total farce, and ridden roughshod over Holyrood as a democratic organisation, it sets a precedent for any future referendum bills. 

For if the SNP feel that they are free to reject the demands of a majority of the elected representatives of the people of Scotland, what stops anyone else doing so? The Prime Minister, whoever that may be in the future, can turn around and point to this moment and declare that the SNP themselves have ruined all credibility in Holyrood.

Again, we see that in this constitutional grievance wrangling, at a time of unprecedented hardship for millions of people, with the SNP it is always a case of do as we say and not do as we do. 

The SNP should be well warned of the precedents they have set. They should abandon the tired old arguments that have been yelled across virtual and physical barricades for a decade, and should instead, fulfil the promise of devolution: to better the lives of us all, combat poverty, increase access to education, and represent all of Scotland — not only those who they agree with

If a referendum ever happens again, it will not be like 2014: the questions and answers will be different. Nationalists can only fool some of the people all of the time. Their legacy, if they ever achieve their goal, will be more partition, poverty, division and betrayal.


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Written by Angus Robinson

I am a lecturer at a UK university. My research is focused on Central Asia where I study warfare and culture. Most of my work includes the study of nationalism and as I see the same poison take hold here I want to do all I can to counter it.

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