The idea that the UK is a 'voluntary union of nations' is a dangerous myth
If the combined forces of the separatists secure a majority at next month’s Scottish Parliament elections, which seems almost certain, it will fall to the Prime Minister to hold the line against their demands for a second referendum.
But is it legitimate for him to do so? Is it not anti-democratic for Westminster to defy Holyrood’s wishes on this question?
There are those in the British establishment who seem to think so. Professor Ciaran Martin, the lead civil servant on the UK side during the negotiation of the ‘Edinburgh Agreement’, wrote recently that: “If there is a pro-referendum majority (and this is absolutely not the same thing as an SNP majority), there is no good reason to resist one.”
He’s wrong about that. I have previously explained how the most basic functions of the Union — redistributing cash and sharing major public investments — become very difficult to justify if one party can opt out of ‘pooling and sharing’ the moment they’re asked to pay into the pot.
But his argument raises a more interesting question about what sort of state the United Kingdom is.
Martin claims that the Government refusing a referendum “changes the Union we know, based on consent, to one that survives only through force of law” — a claim echoed by others such as the historian Robert Saunders.
But this claim is not true. Article 1 of the Treaty of Union announces that England and Scotland would be merged “hereof, and for ever after”. No exit mechanism was put in place either then or in 1801, when Ireland acceded.
Whilst a portion of Ireland has since seceded, and the Government acquiesced to the SNP testing the question in Scotland in 2014, it is a big and unjustifiable leap to go from this to the idea that the UK is merely “a voluntary union of nations” whose integrity rests on provincial elections.
As others have pointed out, it is actually a weirdly exceptionalist position. Other modern democracies, from Germany and Spain to the United States, place strong constitutional restrictions on secession bids — if they don’t prohibit them altogether. Unionists should not get memed into accepting a false conception of the British state as a sort of confederation, with less legitimate claim to its territorial integrity than its peers.
It is true that the UK has grandfathered in many divisions, in areas such as law and sport, which make it unusual. But that simply makes it even more important that its constitutional superstructure picks up the extra strain of holding the country together. You can’t pair weakness in one area with weakness in others, not if you want the UK to survive.
By standing firm on the promise of ‘once in a generation’, the Government will honour the decisive 2014 vote, protect the moral case for the Union, and defend the legitimacy of the UK as the British national state. It has no mandate, by contrast, to transform this country into the threadbare confederation envisioned by Martin.