Resist, reform or re-run: short- and long-term reflections on Scotland and independence referendums

Research and practitioners' insights
Abstract

The issue of independence or maintaining the three-century-old Union continues to dominate the politics of Scotland and is likely to be one of the defining post-COVID-19, post-Brexit topics for the whole of the UK. Polling shows the constitutional question is the most important consideration in the Scottish parliamentary election in May 2021. Regardless of the outcome of the election, the issue will not go away.

In this paper Ciaran Martin, Professor of Practice in the Management of Public Organisations at the Blavatnik School of Government, delves into the constitutional issues related to a Scottish independence referendum, drawing on direct personal experience from the 2014 referendum and the negotiations preceding it.

The author argues that there could be a potential clash between the mandate of the Scottish electorate on the one hand, and the laws of the United Kingdom as a whole on the other, over the question of whether to hold a further referendum (in 2014 Scottish people voted to remain in the United Kingdom by a margin of 55 to 45 per cent).

This potential clash of laws and votes is not the only hotly debated topic. Other questions abound over the rules of any future referendum, what prospectus should be put forward by the pro-independence and pro-Union sides about what happens if their argument triumphs, and what reforms are possible that might increase support for Scotland remaining in the Union above the precarious levels shown in recent surveys.

Ciaran was Constitution Director in the Cabinet Office from 2011-14. In that role, he was appointed by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the then Scotland Secretary, Michael Moore, as the lead civil servant negotiating the rules for what became the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland with the Scottish Government. When the Edinburgh Agreement was signed on 15 October 2012, providing for that referendum, Ciaran was one of six people at the table alongside Mr Cameron and Mr Moore, and opposite then First Minister Alex Salmond, then Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and his civil service opposite from the Scottish Government, Ken Thomson.

The paper includes a foreword by Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s leading historian and Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh. 

Watch the launch lecture with Ciaran Martin, Sir Tom Devine and Ngaire Woods.