Michael Gove’s comments on Scottish independence vote flag up the vulnerability of the United Kingdom

The senior government cabinet minister Michael Gove has said London will not stand in the way of another Scottish independence vote.

Monday, 2nd August 2021, 8:23 am
Updated Monday, 2nd August 2021, 8:33 am
News Letter editorial

Mr Gove, however, said that ministers would only accede to such as vote if it is the “settled will” of the people of Scotland.

A unionist might, on first hearing of such comments, be very concerned that it is an apparent signal of weakness.

After all, unionists — particularly in Northern Ireland — have good reason to be concerned about this Conservative government’s commitment to the Union, in light of the NI Protocol.

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The rise of English nationalism has been greatly exaggerated, but at the same time it is clearly the case that many Brexiteers in England have little attachment to the UK.

In fact, nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland are well aware of such potential indifference, and are quite happy to be awkward partners within the UK, in the hope that such English feelings of ambivalence towards the Union increase.

But Mr Gove is aware of all this, and is probably playing a clever game. He knows that Boris Johnson’s Etonian confidence, even arrogance, does not go down well in Scotland. He, however, as a Scot knows how to placate fellow Scots.

By emphasising that Scotland has the right to exit the UK, Mr Gove is trying to minimise any perception in Scotland that lofty English Tories are denying Scots their national destiny.

At the same time, however, by reiterating the right of Scotland to quit the Union, he is flagging up a profound constitutional weakness of the UK. Conservative and Labour governments have both conceded that NI and Scotland can leave on the basis of a 50% plus one plebiscite.

Thus all they need to do is generate a plausible case that such support might be there from time to time and put it to the test sporadically, then they need to win only once.

This is a serious vulnerability. No say is given the nation as a whole, except insofar as it can delay such referendums.