Boris Johnson has rejected Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a new independence referendum by insisting that the 2014 vote was a “one-generation” event. Why do people keep using this phrase and what does it mean?
Why is this coming now?
The debate on a second independence referendum has echoed much of the debate on the first, because both parties see it as a useful precedent.
Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants the UK government to agree on a transfer of powers to hold a vote, because that was the “gold standard” process used in 2014.
Boris Johnson does not want another referendum, and is using some of Sturgeon’s own words from the original campaign as justification to say no.
The letter from the prime minister rejecting Mrs. Sturgeon’s request told him that “you and your predecessor made a personal promise that the 2014 independence referendum was a” once in a generation “vote. The people of Scotland voted decisively on that promise to keep our United Kingdom together. ” “
This line has been echoed every time he is asked about the matter, but the SNP insists that times have changed and the party has an “indisputable” mandate for a new referendum.
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Who said that?
In the foreword by Alex Salmond to the future of Scotland, the white paper on independence before the 2014 referendum, the then prime minister said the vote would be a “rare and precious moment in the history of Scotland, a unique opportunity in the generation to chart a better path. “
The document itself said that “there was no agreement for another referendum on independence,” and that “only a majority vote in favor of Yes would give the certainty that Scotland will be independent.”
Mr. Salmond and his team used the phrase several times in interviews, including one with Andrew Marr where he said that “in my opinion, this is a unique opportunity in a generation, maybe even once in a lifetime.”
His deputy, Sturgeon, used that phrase “life” during Holyrood’s final debate before the referendum, as did three other SNP MSPs, before passing a motion that also called the vote the “opportunity of his life.”
Independence supporters argue that Salmond was expressing his own point of view: he told Marr that “it is only my opinion” and that the position of his government cannot link that of his successors.
The SNP also notes the report of the Smith Commission on additional powers for Holyrood, published two months after the referendum, which stated that “nothing in this report prevents Scotland from becoming an independent country in the future if the Scottish people so choose. “.
How long is a generation anyway?
If you are an aphid of the rhopalosiphum prunifolia family, a generation is apparently 4.7 days.
For humans, an essay for the International Genetic Genealogy Society seems to have reduced the duration of the average generation to somewhere in the range of 29 to 34 years.
But how long does a political Generation?
This becomes a bit like speculating about the length of a piece of string. Scotland Office Minister Douglas Ross adopted the dispersion approach by saying it should be “30, 40 or 50 years” in an interview with the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland program on Wednesday.
His boss, Alister Jack, the Scottish secretary, had previously said that a vote should not take place during Sturgeon’s life, which would be another 23 years based on the average life expectancy for women of his age.
Is there any historical example that can help?
There were 18 years between the two referendums on the Scottish return, in 1979 and 1997. Mr. Salmond cited this gap in that Andrew Marr interview, saying “that’s what I mean by a political generation.”
Meanwhile, there were 41 years between referendums on EU membership in 1975 and 2016, a period set by interim Scottish conservative leader Jackson Carlaw.
But changing to another constitutional environment, the Good Friday Agreement stipulates that seven years should pass between the border surveys on Irish reunification.
That figure is established in the legislation. Obviously, the context of political history in Northern Ireland is quite different from that of Scotland, but the agreement that contains that seven-year provision was supported both by parliamentarians and, obviously, in a referendum.
Is it just a change of sentence?
The SNP argues that it was never their intention to close the door to future votes, why would they? – and that the phrase was more a way of expressing how crucially important they thought the 2014 referendum was.
They say it was not a “personal promise,” as the prime minister says, but the kind of rhetoric that politicians use every day.
Context can be key.
For example, Johnson said the December general election was a “critical, once in a generation” vote, but no one really expected it to be the last Westminster poll in decades.
Conservatives say that the levels of expectation are different for referendums: they are designed to solve binary questions and occur much less frequently. The last thing we want, they say, is a “neverendum.”
Although on this last point, there has been no shortage of referendums since the conservatives came to power in 2010: in the electoral system, in the independence of Scotland, in the increase of powers for the Welsh Assembly and in Brexit.
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Do things change over time?
The main argument used by the SNP for a new referendum is that things have changed substantially since 2014. The party says that the United Kingdom that was discussed at the time, which the Scots voted to remain a part, no longer exists.
The Brexit vote is the key driver of this, given 62% support for Staying in Scotland, and it was the No campaign who insisted in 2014 that “Scotland enjoys being a member of the EU due to our membership in the United Kingdom” .
The conservative refutation of this would be that the United Kingdom as a whole voted to leave the EU; This was a change ordered by the people and, therefore, does not justify another change by itself.
Of course, there have also been a lot of votes since the referendum.
In another interview in 2014, Mr. Salmond said that “the only circumstances in which he could have another referendum would be if he obtained an additional mandate in a subsequent general election.”
The SNP has won the lead in every election north of the border since then, and recently won 45% of the Scottish vote in the general election, a larger proportion than Johnson’s conservative winners across the United Kingdom.
If that kind of form is maintained, particularly in Holyrood’s elections in 2021, the prime minister may need to find a new phrase.