There appears to be a misconception circulating in certain quarters that I am advocating that the Scottish Government keeps on asking for a Section 30 order, and then magically at some point Boris Johnson will agree out of the goodness of his heart. Sorry, but if that’s what you think you’ve not been paying attention.
What I am arguing for, and what I believe the Scottish Government ultimately intends, is to maneouvre the Johnson regime into a situation where the consequences of the Prime Minister continuing to refuse a Section 30 order become more serious for him than the consequences of saying no. At the moment there is very little downside to Johnson saying no, but that situation does not necessarily have to continue indefinitely. It ought to be the job of the independence movement and the SNP to ensure that this situation does not continue indefinitely. And there is indeed a way in which we can make it happen. It’s a way that involves holding our nerve and not panicking. It’s a way that involves seeing the true weakness of the British government instead of succumbing to British propaganda about the monolithic nature of the Conservatives’ commitment to the Union and throwing up our hands in despair because of a false belief that we’ll never get a referendum.
As has been much rehearsed and argued, there are several ways in which Scotland could have a vote on independence without the cooperation of the British Government. There’s a referendum without a Section 30 order. There’s a plebiscite election. There’s a national convention and the withdrawal of Scottish representatives from Westminster. There’s a concerted national campaign of civil disobedience. These are strategies which are not necessarily mutually exclusive. However, and this is the important bit, for any of them to work there has to be a solid and unarguable majority opinion in Scotland lending them its support. Despite the fond imaginings of sections of our movement, who bewail the repeated mandates for a referendum that the SNP has already accumulated, that majority support for an alternative strategy has been lacking. It certainly exists within the online bubble of committed independence support – but that bubble is not reflective of Scottish opinion as a whole. If it were we’d be seeing support for independence in the high 80s in the polls.
For years I have said that if Scotland had a fair and balanced media which accurately reflected the range of constitutional opinion in this country we would be independent already. But that’s not the Scotland that we live in. We live in a country where all our newspapers except The National and its Sunday edition oppose independence. We live in a country where our broadcast media is controlled outwith Scotland. Given that reality, imagine what would happen should the Scottish Government embark upon moves to independence without a Section 30 order and without first securing the support of a substantial majority of the Scottish population for that alternative strategy. The BBC would be telling one and all that it doesn’t matter if you do support independence, there’s no point in voting because it’s a “wildcat” referendum. We would be slaughtered in the media, and the very people whom we need to support the alternative strategy would be scared off by what they read in the press or see on the BBC. Those are not people who are already committed to independence. We would lose even before we got out of the starting blocks.
As I keep banging on about in this blog – committed independence supporters are not the people who need to be persuaded of the viability of an alternative strategy. There is not a sufficient majority within Scotland to support an alternative strategy unless we carefully lay the groundwork first. The Scottish Twittersphere is not enough. Bloggers and their followers aren’t enough. (And that’s not a dig at anyone in particular.) We have to ensure that people who do not currently share our enthusiasm for the independence project are on board with an alternative strategy otherwise it has no chance of succeeding. Much as some people in the movement would like to believe otherwise, we’re not quite there yet.
So it follows that if we wish to use the threat of an alternative strategy to leverage a Section 30 order out of the British Government, we must first ensure that it’s a strategy which is going to have majority support and a strategy which has a very good chance of success on its own merits. And here’s the key which so many independence supporters seem to miss, it’s not you or me who needs to see that the alternative strategy is likely to be successful and to enjoy widespread support in Scotland – it’s the British nationalists.
This can only happen following a formal request for a Section 30 order being refused, and that in turn is only going to happen following the reelection of a majority SNP government in the next Scottish elections standing on an explicit mandate for another referendum. It’s their reelection as a majority government in a Scotland where there are consistent majorities in polls for independence which will provide the Scottish Government with the moral and political capital that it requires in order to make a success of a credible threat to embark upon an alternative route if Boris Johnson says no. If he does not think that the threat is credible, he’s going to continue to refuse to play ball.
However if Johnson does believe that the threat is credible then he is likely to U-turn and to concede to a Section 30 order in order to maintain some semblance of being in control of events. He needs to do so in order to preserve the British nationalist fiction that Scotland’s membership of the UK is voluntary. It would be an immensely powerful argument in our favour to be able to campaign in a vote for independence which our opponents have done their utmost to prevent from happening.
Of course the obvious reply is that the SNP have already got a mandate which they haven’t used. However it’s one thing to have a mandate for another referendum, it’s quite a different thing to believe that you’re going to win that referendum. We only have one shot at this, because if we lose the next referendum then the question of independence really is off the table for a generation. We are where we are now because of Brexit. Brexit was not foreseen in 2014, and it’s Brexit, compounded by the Coronavirus epidemic, which has provided the rationale for a second referendum. However although Brexit gave us the reason for another referendum, we couldn’t have that referendum until Brexit had actually happened and its consequences felt by a public which is largely not engaged with politics the way that pro-indepedence activists are. It’s only this year that Brexit has happened. Yet even if we had by some miracle wangled a referendum earlier, it’s also only this year that we’ve started to see consistent majorities for yes in the polls. And then the virus struck.
Then there are those who say that Johnson would never agree to a Section 30 order because he would end up being the British PM who lost Scotland and would have to resign. To which one can only retort that a British PM is also supposed to resign if he’s caught lying to the Queen and prorogating Parliament based on a lie. A Prime Minister is also supposed to resign if he lies to Parliament, something which Johnson has done on repeated occasions But here we are, and there Johnson still is. He’s only going to resign if he possesses a modicum of shame and a sense of responsibility, two things in which he has been singularly lacking throughout his entire career. Johnson is quite likely to paint the loss of Scotland as him being England’s champion. That’s why it’s significant that recent polls have found that a majority of Conservative voters in England are in favour of English independence. It means that Johnson’s voter base is unlikely to punish him for the loss of Scotland. Indeed a large part of it is likely to reward him for it. Keeping your voters on board is all that counts in politics.
None of this implies that I’m an enthusiastic cheerleader for everything that Nicola Sturgeon has done. She could be doing a lot more to ensure that her previously committed supporters are on board. We are where we are now because many in the independence movement feel adrift and rudderless, and the responsibility for that lies with the leadership of the SNP. Nicola Sturgeon could and should have been a lot more forceful in pressing the case for independence. Her much touted speech in January was an error which she really didn’t need to make. The Alex Salmond trial speaks poorly of a party which is riven with egos and careerists – it tells us that certain people really need to get a firm grip of themselves. There is currently considerable disquiet in the wider independence movement, which is precisely what is causing all the talk of the need for a second party on the list, and the SNP leadership could and should be taking a far more active role in calming nerves and providing reassurance to those nervous and frustrated independence supporters.
However as we have these debates, let’s always remember two things. Two extremely important things. First – we’re all on the same side. What we disagree about is tactics and not the fundamentals. Our opponents are not one another, it’s the Conservative Goverment and its British nationalist helpers. There is a regretable tendency in some quarters of this movement to forget that it’s not the people with whom you disagree over tactics who are your real opponents, it’s the British nationalists who profit from us falling out amongst ourselves. Yes by all means we can disagree, but always try and remember what yer mammy told you about how you can disagree without being disagreeable. (Unless of course you’re one of the Scotland in Union trolls who periodically attempt to infest the comments section of this blog. In which case you can piss right off.)
And secondly, and perhaps even more importantly – we are winning. We are now in a Scotland where a clear majority support independence.
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