There’s been a lot of discussion within the independence movement recently about the timing of the next referendum. There are those who are deeply suspicious of the SNP leadership, and whether Nicola Sturgeon is serious in her pursuit of a Section 30 order and a referendum next year. Some want a referendum right now, before Brexit starts to wreak its destructive effects. They warn that the momentum will go out of the movement, that the devastation of a no deal Brexit will drive EU citizens away. Others call for caution and point to the slow rise in support for independence in opinion polls as evidence that we can and should wait for support to rise to 60%. Then they say, when there is a referendum we can be certain of winning it.
It’s important that we never forget that this is not a disagreement about our goal, it’s a disagreement about tactics. All of us within the independence movement want the same thing, independence for this country. We may have different views about how we get there. We may have different ideas of the kind of independent Scotland that we seek to build. However we should, we must, agree to disagree without being disagreeable, because it’s only as a product of that respectful disagreement that a new consensus can emerge.
For my own part I believe that we are not yet at the end of the Section 30 order road, but we’re approaching the sign that tells us that the bridge is out and an alternative route will be required. I do not believe that a Section 30 order is the be all and end all of Scottish independence. It is not a necessary precondition to another referendum, although in this current political landscape it is desirable to seek one. That may change in the near future.
The reason why it is presently a good idea to pursue a Section 30 order is because that is the best way to ensure that soft noes and undecideds can be carried with us. They must see that the Scottish Government has exhausted every possible means of getting Westminster’s cooperation before they will agree with us on the necessity of an alternative strategy. Only once it becomes apparent to soft no voters and undecideds that the anti-independence parties are being dishonest in their refusal of another referendum will we be able to count on their support for a different route to independence. Those of us who already support independence already know that the anti-independence parties are being dishonest and anti-democratic, but we’re not the ones that the SNP needs to prove a case to.
I share the frustration that is widespread in the grassroots movement that the SNP leadership is not being assertive enough in pursuit of independence, but I accept that their strategy is to court soft noes and undecideds, and the way to do that is to prove to those voters that the Scottish Government is sincere in its opposition to a damaging Brexit. Again, it seems to me that the SNP strategy is to ensure that soft noes and undecideds are carried with us. Those of us who are nailed on independence supporters feel that this approach is marginalising us. Although it may be understandable, it is frustrating.
Those frustrations are growing ever more strong because the political pressure is rising. We are facing an execution date in the shape of Brexit day on 31 October. It’s only a month away now, and there is still no apparent solution to the Brexit problem and we seem no closer to another independence referendum. We have a British Prime Minister who is taking a blowtorch to what passes for a British constitution and who is indulging himself in dangerous language designed to whip up his base into a frenzy of fury. It would have been unthinkable a few short years ago, but we are now actually living in a UK where the rule of law is being challenged, and where democracy is under threat – and the threats to it come from the British government itself. So much for that safety and security of the UK that Scotland was promised in 2014.
It’s difficult to see how Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson can get around the Benn Act which requires him to ask the EU for an extension to Article 50 in less than three weeks time if there’s no deal on the table. It’s even harder to see how this Prime Minister can get a deal, all the more so since he’s been making only perfunctory moves in that direction, moves which appear to be designed more at putting the blame for no-deal on the EU and his opponents in the Commons than in achieving a deal. We feel stuck, with no idea how the current situation can be resolved.
We are mired in uncertainty. It’s that uncertainty which is responsible for the rising sense of anxiety that so many of us feel. You can’t go about your daily life without knowing what’s happening just a month down the line. It’s a recipe for panic, for depression, for worry. It is known that uncertainty is a cause of stress, and that stress in turn is a cause of depression. The feeling that you are powerless to influence your fate leads many into a sink of despair. It leads others to lash out. It leads some to anger.
What we do know is that there’s going to be a Westminster General Election sooner rather than later. We have no clue how that election is going to work out at a UK level. But we can be fairly sure that unless the SNP does something spectacularly self-destructive between now and election day that it is poised to make substantial gains at the coming election. So for the time being I am still prepared to give the SNP leadership the benefit of any doubt. The British political landscape will change after the coming election, and the Scottish political landscape will change even more. There is an excellent chance that Scottish Conservative and the Labour party in Scotland MPs can be substantially reduced in number or perhaps even wiped out entirely. Parties which have suffered electoral defeats on that scale are in no place to claim that the party that defeated them has no popular mandate.
I doubt that Westminster will be any more disposed to cooperate with a Section 30 order after the next election than it is at the moment, for the exact same reason that it won’t be disposed to cooperate should opinion polls show a substantial and consistent lead for Yes. Westminster and the anti-independence parties will be even less disposed to facilitate a referendum than they currently are, because then they will know with absolute certainty that they are going to lose the referendum. They’re not going to cooperate with their own destruction. They will only find some other spurious grounds for denying a Section 30 order. In turn this means that should we wait until the polls show a strong and consistent lead for independence, or we wait until after the next election when the SNP return 50 or more MPs, then we’re still faced with the problem of how to bring the referendum about in the face of Westminster’s opposition. So we’re right back to where we are now.
However what can change after the next General Election is the SNP’s determination to pursue another independence referendum. A significant and substantial boost to the party’s electoral fortunes could and should embolden the leadership. Immediately after an unequivocal victory at the ballot box in that election, an election which must be fought on a mandate to give Scotland the right to choose its own path, the SNP must press vigorously for a Section 30 order. Not to request it, but to demand it as the right of the Scottish people. We must ensure that the focus of our campaign if that demand is rebuffed should be the perversion of Scottish democracy by a Westminster Parliament which refuses to recognise a mandate given by the Scottish people at an election. The right of Scotland to determine its own future is not conditional on the permission of non-Scottish MPs.
When this demand is made, it must be made clear to whoever is in Downing Street at the time that his or her cooperation is not necessary, that Scotland has a sovereign right to determine its own future and that right is not subject to a veto from a British Prime Minister whom Scotland did not vote for. If Westminster wishes to ensure that it still seen to respect the decisions of Scotland, that this really is a union, then it is very much in Westminster’s interests to agree to a referendum. That’s the only hope in hell that the anti-independence parties have of going into the independence referendum as defenders of a union of nations and not as apologists for a unitary Brexit Greater England. But it must be made plain to Westminster that Scotland will be deciding irrespective of a Prime Minister’s yes or no.
If Westminster refuses yet again to cooperate with a Section 30 order, then I believe it will be time for alternative routes to an independence vote. Joanna Cherry’s legal expertise could and should be used to test the legality of a referendum without a Section 30 order. Anyone who tells you that a referendum without a Section 30 order is illegal is offering you a political opinion, not a legal fact. The only legal fact is that the matter has never been tested in the courts. It should be.
Simultaneously with a legal challenge, the independence movement should start preparations for a plebiscite election. The next election in Scotland after this General Election should be transformed into one which seeks a mandate not for a referendum, but for independence itself. We must make it very plain to the anti-democratic forces of British nationalism in Scotland that one way or another, the people of Scotland will have their say. And they will do so without seeking permission from Westminster.
The inescapable truth that the British nationalist parties don’t want Scotland to realise is that if we have to demand our right to vote, it can only be because they are trying to thwart democracy. If a democratic mandate is refused then you’re not living in a democracy. A Scotland that isn’t allowed to choose its own future is a Scotland that’s imprisoned. One way or another, Scotland is going to have its say. The best cure for the anxiety that is bred by uncertainty is to take your fate into your own hands.
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