The EU referendum and the Scottish Government's mandate
Scotland's place in Europe was a major issue during the 2014 referendum campaign. The Scottish Government's policy was that an independent Scotland should continue as a member of the EU. The Scottish Government argued that one of the benefits of independence was a stronger guarantee of continued participation in the European Union-
The advantage of independence is that the people of Scotland will have the sole and final say. We will not be taken out of the EU against our wishes as may turn out to be the case if we are not independent.
By contrast, those against independence argued that there was no threat to Scotland's place in Europe from a vote to stay in the United Kingdom, and that it was a vote for independence that represented the threat to Scotland's continuing EU membership. The UK Government argued in support of Scotland staying part of the UK so that "Scotland benefits from the UK's status within the EU and terms of membership".
Following a commitment in the 2015 Conservative party manifesto to hold a referendum on EU membership, and the formation of a Conservative UK Government following that general election, the UK Parliament legislated for a referendum to be held.
At the time, the Conservative party had only one MP from Scotland, and 53 of the 59 MPs representing Scottish constituencies voted against the legislation. A proposal to give effect to commitments made during the independence referendum, by requiring majorities in all of the UK's nations before EU exit could take place, was rejected. Such arrangements are commonly required for significant constitutional changes in federal and quasi-federal states.
In advance of the referendum vote, the Scottish Parliament voted on an all-party basis in favour of remaining in the EU.
The Scottish National Party's manifesto for the 2016 Scottish parliamentary election, which took place shortly before the EU referendum, contained a commitment to give the people of Scotland a choice if certain conditions were met-
We believe that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people - or if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.
The SNP formed the government of Scotland after this election, based on that manifesto.
The EU referendum was held on 23 June 2016. In Scotland 62% of voters supported remaining in the EU, with a majority for remain in every Scottish council area; while in England and Wales only 47% of voters supported remain. Overall, across the UK, 17,410,742 people voted to leave and 16,141,241 voted to remain. This meant that Scotland, despite its vote to remain in the EU, faced EU exit against its will.
The Scottish Government accepted the result of the EU referendum, though the First Minister committed to exploring options to give effect to the votes of the people of Scotland, and to giving the people of Scotland a choice over their future. The Scottish Parliament endorsed this approach, and in March 2017 it mandated the Scottish Government to seek an agreement with the UK Government for an independence referendum at a time to be determined by the Scottish Parliament.
A mandate reinforced by the people of Scotland
The Scottish Government believes that events since 2016 have reinforced the mandate it has from the people of Scotland.
A majority of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament have voted to endorse that mandate.
The people of Scotland express their democratic will through elections. Their votes since the EU referendum demonstrate the continued force and relevance of the mandate the Scottish Government received in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections.
In the 2017 UK general election, held after the EU referendum, a majority of Scottish MPs were returned on a manifesto that explicitly referenced the mandate from 2016-
"Last year's Holyrood election delivered the democratic mandate for an independence referendum. The recent vote of Scotland's national Parliament has underlined that mandate. If the SNP wins a majority of Scottish seats in this election, that would complete a triple lock, further reinforcing the democratic mandate which already exists."
In the 2019 UK general election, held after the conclusion of UK-EU negotiations on a withdrawal agreement, a majority of Scottish MPs were returned on a manifesto that noted the Scottish Government's mandate and asserted that-
- "the people of Scotland have the right to choose their own future in a new referendum on becoming an independent country,
- it must be for the Scottish Parliament, not Westminster, to decide when an independence referendum should be held-and the SNP intends that it will be in 2020."