Tories deny a referendum because they know they’d lose

For 45 years, I’ve been involved in the debate about how Scotland is governed.

The first few decades as a Labour campaigner for devolution. Latterly, as an SNP MP, arguing that the country should conclude its journey to self-government by becoming an independent nation.

In all that time, there was one thing never in dispute: the decisions about how Scotland is governed should be for the people who live here to make. Never – until Wednesday last week.

The Supreme Court ruled the Scottish Government could not deliver the central pledge on which it was elected last year – to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. The decision was disappointing, but not surprising.

It leaves a gaping hole in the British constitution, raising deeply uncomfortable questions about the very basis of the United Kingdom. How can we be a “voluntary” union of nations if there is no way of leaving?

At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, I asked Rishi Sunak to bring forward changes to the Scotland Act to allow people here to be able to exercise their choice on whether to stay in the Union or not.

Until that happens, we are, in effect, captives in a political structure that we cannot leave and cannot change.

Those Better Together exhortations of “lead don’t leave (the UK)” from a decade ago now ring very hollow.

Of course, the Prime Minister won’t do this. The Tory strategy is just to keep on denying the people of Scotland a route to independence in the hope they will grow weary and go away.

But they won’t go away. If anything, being told you cannot have something only makes you want it more.

So, how should those who support independence respond? It is still the case that by far the best way to resolve the question of should Scotland be an independent country is through a lawful referendum.

We should keep demanding the UK respects the mandate of the Scottish electorate and agrees to one.

They did that in 2012, so why not now when an even bigger majority for a referendum exists in the Scottish Parliament?

The answer is that in 2012, they didn’t believe for a moment they could lose. Today, they fear just that.

So better to prevent a vote from taking place than risk losing it. Cynical, duplicitous, and anti-democratic.

With Westminster blocking a referendum, we need to look at other means by which the Scottish people can express their view.

Democratic events that cannot be blocked – such as a scheduled election – can be used to allow people a say on this most important of issues. This is far from straightforward and presents several challenges that we will need to confront.

We may only be able to get an expression of a principle, leaving the detail for later. We should certainly see the next election as a step in the journey rather than concluding the debate.

And all of this will require reflective, thoughtful discussion between all the parties and individuals who support Scotland becoming a normal self-governing country.

But we can work it out. We must. The alternative is to give up, and the prize of Scottish independence is too great for that.