Analysis: Pete Wishart is right – the danger of a #PeoplesVote to Scottish democracy is real

Ben Wray

The SNP’s longest serving MP has expressed his reservations about a second vote on the EU.

IN RECENT weeks, the SNP has agreed that it would back moves towards a so called ‘People’s Vote’ – a second vote on leaving the EU ¡ in a bid to head-off Brexit.

It would be fair to say that many independence supporters have expressed misgivings about such a move, given the political character of the forces pushing it.

They have been joined by the SNP’s longest serving MP Pete Wishart, who raised his worries in the National today [31 October]. Though parliamentary group leader Ian Blackford has maintained the party remains “remarkably united” behind the idea of the People’s Vote, Wishart is expressing widespread concerns.

Democratic deficit

The most common objection to the idea of a second vote on Brexit is that it is no answer to the enormous democratic deficit exposed and reinforced by the referendum in 2016.

Scotland’s vote to remain in the European union by 62 per cent to 38 per cent was of course effectively vetoed by the vote to Leave in other parts of the UK. Wishart, and many other independence voters are right to assert that there is no reason to assume Scotland’s vote won’t simply be ignored again.

In truth the EU referendum of 2016 demonstrated a plethora of democratic dysfunctions in the British state, and the Brexit vote as much reflected internal political differences as it did any view on the European Union. It would be difficult even to measure the views of Scots on the European institution until the UK constitutional questions were settled.

Indeed, since the Brexit vote itself, support for the union appears to have largely disintegrated. Not just on the left, but also on the right leaving the Tory centrists desperately pleading their rightwing colleagues not to dismantle the union through hard Brexit.

There is no obvious way in which either outcome of a People’s Vote, Leave or Remain, would solve any of these more fundamental questions. Leaving the EU could wrench the union apart, but trying to force the UK back together by overturning the 2016 vote will likely deepen resentments.

But the dangers posed to Scottish democracy by a People’s Vote are more severe still.

‘Confirmatory’ vote

Wishart is correct to assert that this would indeed be a second vote on the same fundamental question as was posed in 2016. The initial pretence that this would in fact be a completely separate vote on the Brexit deal has been abandoned by advocates of a People’s Vote who now assert it must include the option of remaining in the EU.

Wishart is also right to say that this would establish the precedent for any future vote on Scottish independence.

We have no need to guess about this. It is an idea already being discussed in a mood of some glee by unionists. As Wishart notes, leading figures in the People’s Vote movement itself, including Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable, have already said that a second vote would need to be held on any vote for independence.

But not on any vote to remain in the UK union. And that’s the point of a People’s Vote – a second vote is only deemed necessary when the initial vote goes against the British establishment.

The British state against democracy

The British state and establishment – the network of interests and institutions, some elected and some not – got a terrible fright on the morning of the Brexit vote.

Prime Minister David Cameron had gambled on the Alternative Vote referendum in 2011 and won handsomely. He gambled again on Scottish independence in 2014 and though the vote ran closer than he would have liked, he still won.

Emboldened, he gambled a third time in 2016 both in a bid to see off Ukip and end the internal debate within the British ruling class about EU membership which has rolled on for decades.

He lost badly, and so did the British state. Since then, referenda have come in for massive criticism from the media, politicians and state managers. Public intellectuals have accused them of being anti-democratic. Business interests complain they create instability.

The 2014 referendum belongs to a by-gone era of British political life. Crucially not just politicians but also the elements of the permanent unelected British state have had enough of the gambles. The civil service, the Bank of England, the legal establishment and much else besides are not likely to play a straight bat either before or after any independence vote.

Destabilisation campaign

Even once Scotland has secured a vote on independence (no easy feat, with the UK Government showing little evidence it would be willing to countenance another Edinburgh Agreement), and even with an independence vote won under pressure from an ever more ferocious ‘Project Fear’ operation, Scotland would then face years of transition from the UK to independent statehood.

This transition would be unlikely to last fewer than three years. Under the precedent set by a People’s Vote, attempts to overturn the vote with a second consultative one would begin almost straight away. This campaign could be run from inside Scotland, based upon the safe presumption that near half of the Scottish population would have voted No. 

It could draw considerable resources from the wealthy and powerful across the UK, just as the People’s Vote can. It could depend on the support from the institutions of the British state. The markets would rebel against the break up of such an important node in the global economy.

The answer to these realities from the SNP leadership have so far been blithe.

Speaking to CommonSpace (see video above) at the SNP’s National Conference in September, Scottish constitutional relations minister Michael Russell said that the demand for Scottish independence was made on a sound basis unlike Brexit, and that independence supporters could go into “extraordinary detail” on a future Scotland-UK deal during the transition period. His words were mirrored in Nicola Sturgeon’s conference speech.

But this is irrelevant to the issue. The British state and establishment don’t oppose Brexit because it is farcical (though it is and that doesn’t endear), they are opposed to it because it is against their interests. And so too would Scottish independence be.

It is hard to dismiss concerns that a People’s Vote would reinforce the most anti-democratic tendencies of the British state.