Public demand for independence not legal wrangles will decide future of the Union, top academic says
Public demand for independence not wrangles over the legality of holding a referendum will ultimately decide whether Scotland and Wales leave the UK, a top academic of constitutional politics has said.
In a report for UK in a Changing Europe, Nicola McEwen of Edinburgh University said that the UK Government could continue to put off the issue as long as there is no obvious majority for constitutional change.
The Scottish Government has applied to the Supreme Court for the ability to hold an advisory referendum, a decision that could also set a legal precedent for Wales.
But even if the application is refused the UK Government would only be able to hold out if the public did not demand the break up of the UK, Prof. Nicola McEwen said.
“In Wales, the Government set up an independent commission to explore options for a fundamental reform of the UK’s constitutional governance and strengthen Welsh democracy,” she said.
“But the biggest threat to the Union comes from the Scottish Government’s plans to hold a referendum on Scottish independence in October 2023.”
She added: “Ultimately, the future of the Union will be determined by politics, not law. If there is no legal pathway to an independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon declared that she would regard the next UK general election as a de facto referendum.
“Such a scenario might suit the Conservatives in the short-term, as the party most likely to benefit electorally from opposition to independence within Scotland.
“And so long as Scotland remains divided on independence, there is neither a legal nor a political imperative to respond to any claims of an SNP mandate.
“But such prolonged constitutional limbo could have a debilitating effect on politics and the Union in the longer term and do little to restore intergovernmental relationships already damaged by Brexit.”
The report also notes that an incoming Prime Minister may want to take on a different approach to working with the devolved nations of the UK.
“Brexit tensions have been compounded by a more assertive approach to the Union. Boris Johnson’s so-called ‘muscular unionism’ was aimed at strengthening
the UK government’s role and visibility in devolved territories,” the report says.
“Together, these developments have led to a significant erosion in trust between the UK and devolved governments. In research interviews I have been conducting in preparation for a book, it is not unusual for officials from devolved governments to describe relations with the UK government as the worst they have ever been.”
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