I’ve just heard an ill-informed BBC 1 interviewer suggest to the FM that using a General Election as a democratic event to test the will of the people of Scotland regarding independence is somehow illegitimate or unworkable. So it seems timely to remind ourselves of what follows.
Like many I suspect, I am aware of what Margaret Thatcher is supposed to have said about the constitutional significance of a majority of independence-supporting MPs from Scotland being elected to the House of Commons. I’ve never seen an authoritative reference to this. Anyone?
The same issue was raised in the Wings Over Scotland (WoS) blog on 6 January 2020: ‘We’ve never been able to actually confirm the oft-cited “quote” from Margaret Thatcher suggesting that the SNP winning a majority of Scottish seats at a UK election would constitute a mandate for independence, …’. However, the blogger helpfully and crucially adds ‘… but here’s a verified more recent one from a then-serving Conservative PM.’
WoS then provides evidence from 1997, specifically from an article in the Sunday Times written by its Scottish Political Correspondent, Joanne Robertson:
Here the ex-Tory Party chairman, Norman Tebbit is proposing a referendum on Scottish independence. The article reveals push-back from John Major’s government. There are several ‘interesting’ things in this article but in the present context the noteworthy section is obviously this:
Before disregarding Mrs Thatcher altogether as a useful source, I recall reading a letter in the National (can’t recall date) which referred to the book, The Downing Street Years. The letter writer directs us to page 624 and ‘midway down paragraph 2’ – if only all references to sources were so precise! It reads:
‘The Tory Party is not, of course, an English party, but a Unionist one. If it sometimes seems English to some Scots, that is because the Union is inevitably dominated by England by reason of its greater population. The Scots, being an historic nation with a proud past, will inevitably resent some expressions of this fact from time to time.
“As a nation, they have an undoubted right to national self-determination; thus far they have exercised that right by joining and remainingin the Union. Should they determine on independence, no English party or politician would stand in their way, however much we might regret their departure.” (my emphasis)
On 3 January 2020, WoS returned to the same topic. It shared an article written by Ian Swanson, then Political Editor of the Edinburgh Evening News. This time essentially the same Tory ‘principle’ expressed by the Major government is being espoused by the former Tory leader in Scotland, David McLetchie in the context of an upcoming UK General Election. Note the relatively recent date, 2010!
Here are three key parts of what McLetchie is reported as saying:
Fast forward to Toryism/Unionism in the 2020s: once held democratic ‘principles’ ditched because they can with impunity – without consequential harm – given a compliant corporate media and BBC. Or so the Tories of 2022 might think!
And let’s not forget the complicity of the other British/English political parties, confirmed very recently by David Lammy MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs. From the Daily Express, 15 June 2022: ‘When asked his party’s position on a second referendum and asked whether they would rule it out, Mr Lammy responded: “Categorically”. “We are a unionist party. We believe in the union, we can rule that out categorically.”
Oh dear! Mrs Thatcher is being proved very wrong – British/English politicians are standing in the way of Scotland exercising its undoubted right to national self-determination!
On 27 June, 2022 the Daily Express ran with this headline: ‘Thatcher would have backed IndyRef2!’ Desperate Sturgeon makes bizarre claim in union bid’. Bizarre? Leaving that aside, the same article ends with this from Professor Ciaran Martin who helped negotiate the terms of the 2014 referendum on behalf of Cameron’s government:
“The UK Government is under no obligation to set out under what circumstances Scotland might become independent.”
“So at the moment, while in principle Scotland can become independent, in practice it can’t, no matter how it votes at elections, or how often it does so.”
Looks as if the Tories, the world’s most ‘successful’ political party in the world’s ‘leading democracy’ that is this precious Union, have been perfectly content to rely on other ‘principles’ when it suited! There is a big difference between legal principles and political tactics.
Acknowledgement and respect to the valued research skills and related output on such matters from Wings over Scotland back in the day!