It’s time to drop the tedious ‘once in a generation’ argument against a second Scottish independence referendum

‘Once in a generation’ has become the rhetoric against a second referendum on Scottish independence, but that position is untenable and undemocratic, writes Jenna Macfarlane

The 'once in a generation' argument against a second independence referendum needs to be left behind by the likes of Boris Johnson (Credit: Kim Mogg)

Contrary to what the 2014 ballot paper said, whether you’re in favour of an independent Scotland or not is not as simple as a “yes” or “no”.

The country breaking off from the rest of the UK has ramifications which are incredibly nuanced, and both sides have a lot of work to do before pitching their case to voters should indyref2 happen.

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But one argument against a second referendum that needs to be left behind as the debate progresses is that the vote was a “once in a generation” event.

This is the catchphrase that senior Tory ministers keep coming back to when saying another vote on the matter shouldn’t play out.

Now, it is true that during the first indy campaign, both Nicola Sturgeon and former First Minister Alex Salmond used the saying “once in a generation opportunity” to describe the choice facing the people of Scotland.

Mr Salmond’s foreword to the government’s independence White Paper in 2013 read: “The debate we are engaged in as a nation is about the future of all of us lucky enough to live in this diverse and vibrant country. It is a rare and precious moment in the history of Scotland - a once in a generation opportunity to chart a better way.”

Yet, what is clear from this statement is that Mr Salmond is not agreeing to a set-in-stone constitutional principle that Scots will only be able to vote for independence once in their lifetimes and is instead simply rallying voters up to seize the opportunity being afforded to them.

Tories can’t agree on how long a generation is

However, Conservatives, and Boris Johnson in particular, have latched onto this slogan as a legitimate reason not to allow another Scottish independence vote to go ahead.

Back in January, Mr Johnson told the BBC’s Andrew Marr: “Referendums in my experience, direct experience, in this country are not particularly jolly events.

“They don’t have a notably unifying force in the national mood, they should be only once in a generation.”

The PM suggested that a “generation” constitutes 40 years between the first and second Scottish independence referendums.

But it seems a generation is as long as a piece of string as far as the Tories are concerned.

Douglas Ross, when he was Scotland Office minister, said, vaguely, it should be “30, 40 or 50 years”, while his former boss Alister Jack, the Scottish Secretary, said another vote shouldn’t take place during Ms Sturgeon’s lifetime.

And it should not be forgotten that Mr Johnson also called the December 2019 general election a “once in a generation” event - but nobody actually thinks that will be the last Westminster vote for decades to come.

Indeed, as announced in today’s Queen Speech, ministers intend to introduce a Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill which will provide Mr Johnson with the power to call an even earlier election before 2024.

What of the generation who were too young to vote the first time?

The only time the length of a generation is set out in legislation is in the Good Friday Agreement, which states there should be seven years between border polls on a united Ireland.

Although the political history of Northern Ireland is, obviously, very different to that of Scotland, that number was endorsed by MPs and in the referendum.

However, democracy is a fluid and ever-changing system which accommodates differing beliefs, so it’s not right to confine the will of the people to a certain timescale.

What of the people who have sadly passed away since that initial independence vote was cast - did they not pave the way for other generations to have their say?

What of the generation that was too young to vote in the first referendum, who would jump at the chance to cast that all-important ballot a second time around?

Those who were just nine when the referendum took place are now 16, with their own opinions and preferences when it comes to whether Scotland should stay as part of the UK.

Crucially, it is their futures that would be most affected by the outcome of an indyref2.

Denying these younger generations a choice in Scotland’s future due to the perpetuation of an unconstitutional slogan is not only undemocratic but deeply, morally wrong.