Angus Robertson, the SNP’s leader in the House of Commons, has announced that if the UK is to have a referendum on its membership of the EU then there should be a ‘double majority’ rule in place. This means that if the UK as a whole votes to leave the EU then England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland must all individually vote to leave as well.
Writing in the Guardian he claims that if David Cameron does not do this then “his independence referendum vow that Scotland is to have an equal voice will be in tatters”. However, this ‘double majority’ rule is a bad idea both in principle and practice.
In the Scottish independence referendum last year, Scotland clearly voted to stay part of the United Kingdom. By voting to remain in the UK the Scottish people consented that Westminster would have the power over issues like foreign affairs and defence. As much as the SNP dislike it, we remain one country, and, in issues that affect the whole of the UK, we vote as one country.
This SNP ‘double majority’ rule sets a dangerous and undemocratic precedent. Would the SNP propose that the UK could only go to war if a majority of Scottish MPs consented? That is the logical conclusion to the SNP’s reasoning.
Why should Scotland be able to veto leaving the EU when London cannot? London has a far bigger population than Scotland, arguably has more to lose from leaving the EU, and even has its own assembly. In fact, why not any large area or region in the UK, like Manchester or Birmingham? The answer is because it’s undemocratic. Referendums work by asking the whole country its opinion, no parts of a country’s opinion are more important than others.
This is also a principle that the SNP themselves rejected in the Scottish independence referendum last year. During 2014 there was talk that the Shetland Islands would not accept a ‘Yes’ vote, and would effectively overrule the vote by either remaining part of the UK or becoming their own crown dependency (like the Isle of Man). This was rejected by the ‘Yes’ campaign then, and so it is rank hypocrisy from the SNP to now expect Scotland to be given the same special treatment during the EU referendum that they refused to give the Shetlands in the independence referendum.
But not only is the ‘double majority’ rule bad in principle, it could lead to some absurd outcomes in practice. For example the people of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland could overwhelmingly vote to leave the EU and yet Wales, with a population of 3 million, could narrowly vote to stay in, meaning we would be forced to remain in the EU. Effectively a few thousand voters could overrule tens of millions.
In all likelihood the SNP know this ‘double majority’ proposal isn’t practical or democratic, but they rather cynically see it as a good opportunity to create division between Scotland and the rest of the UK. In the unlikely outcome that the UK votes to leave the EU but Scotland does not, the SNP will want to use this as an excuse to hold another independence referendum. But in the meantime when the Conservative government rejects the SNP proposal (as they inevitably will), the SNP can use this as evidence of Westminster ruling Scotland without consent and not treating Scotland with respect. It also means the SNP can change the narrative away from a debate about Britain’s place in Europe, back to Scotland’s place within the UK.
The SNP also proposed changing the rules of the referendum to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, as well as EU citizens living in the UK. Neither of these happen in general elections, and will clearly benefit the campaign to stay in the EU. The SNP should stop trying to gerrymander the EU referendum, and instead make a positive case for staying in Europe.