That is the question some are asking, as the SNP contemplates the May 2021 Scottish Parliament election. The discussion takes place in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic – and the huge public health effort to manage and suppress the virus rightly takes precedence over all political matters at present. As we move forward, voters will – also rightly – want us to prioritise recovery from Covid-19 over a second independence referendum. However, it is natural that SNP members will wish to discuss what should go into the SNP manifesto on this issue and I have no doubt it will be open to debate.
The 2016 manifesto supported a second referendum if there was evidence that independence had become the preferred option of a majority of voters or if there was a major change to the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out the EU against our will.
Arguably, on the basis of recent polling, both those criteria have now been met and the Scottish Parliament has approved holding a referendum and passed legislation to set general rules for referendums within its competence. We are all set to rock and roll then, at an appropriate juncture, except that UK ministers have refused to provide a Section 30 order to enable Holyrood to legislate in a reserved area.
The UK and Scottish Governments managed to make a deal on this before, enabling the 2014 referendum to take place, in an agreement that bound both governments to respect the referendum outcome. However, the current UK Government says that it is too soon to hold a second referendum. That is also the Labour Party’s position.
This situation has led some to suggest that the SNP should rethink its approach. They argue that the UK Government will continue to refuse a Section 30 order, so there is no point in the Scottish Government continuing to demand one. Roughly speaking, the proposed alternatives run like this.
- The 2021 SNP manifesto should explicitly state that a Yes majority in the next Scottish Parliament election will provide a mandate for the Scottish Government to open negotiations on independence without the need for a referendum. It is assumed that this would lead to negotiations on independence commencing, perhaps encouraged by a campaign of civil disobedience. This is described as Plan B.
- It is also argued that the Scottish Government should take legal action to establish the Scottish Parliament’s right to legislate for a referendum on independence itself, without a Section 30 order. Assuming that the action was successful, and the referendum bill passed, the Scottish Government would hold a referendum. If the UK Government refused to acknowledge the outcome, a campaign of civil disobedience should be initiated. This is also described as Plan B.
It can also be suggested that, in either of the above circumstances, Scotland’s right to self-determination would be recognised by other countries, and even that the EU or UN could become involved to assist us.
Would a Plan B work?
I agree that the UK Government’s intransigence on a Section 30 order is a significant problem for us. However, the argument for replacing current policy does not simply rest on identifying a difficulty with the existing plan, it also rests on whether the alternatives which are suggested overcome that difficulty. Let’s consider if that is the case.
Firstly, let’s consider whether the Scottish Government should try to open negotiations on independence without holding a second referendum. Opening negotiations on the basis of a majority vote in an election rather than a referendum was, it is sometimes pointed out, the position held by the SNP prior to devolution.
However, if the argument is that our policy must change because the UK Government will continue to refuse a Section 30 order, it is not clear to me why we would expect them to enter into independence negotiations on the basis of an election result, having opposed holding a referendum to establish that independence is what the Scottish people want.
I would need to hear further explanation from proponents of this argument as to why they think this has any chance of success because, on the face of it, it seems pretty unlikely. In fact, I suspect it would be easier for UK ministers to refuse a demand to open negotiations on independence, without any referendum having taken place, than it would be to continue to deny us a Section 30 order.
Secondly, let’s consider whether the Scottish Government should hold a second independence referendum without a Section 30 order, if it is established that the Scottish Parliament has the legal competence to legislate for one.
For me, this is a stronger argument, though I have some reservations about placing too much reliance on decisions of a court to move forward – we need to remember those decisions could go against us as well as for us. But a referendum authorised by the Scottish Parliament could be a powerful lever to exert pressure on the UK Government if they continue to be inflexible.
However it could not, in itself, give effect to independence, unless the UK Government either agreed to recognise the outcome and open negotiations or to hold a further referendum. So I don’t really see this as a replacement for current policy, but rather as an addition to it.
If we continue to find ourselves stymied, it would be natural to call on the international community and its institutions to support our right to self-determination. There is a lot of goodwill for Scotland in the world. But I would still sound a note of caution. National governments and international organisations do not generally intervene in the internal political affairs of sovereign states, as a matter of policy. Therefore, if the UK Government could not be brought to recognise the result of a referendum on independence, it is very unlikely the rest of the world would either.
We have all seen this scenario playing out in Catalonia. It is deeply unfair. But the world is set up to protect the rights and interests of established nation states. We must acknowledge that reality, even though we don’t like it. It is, after all, a major part of the reason we want Scotland to become an established nation state.
This also has relevance for Scotland’s relations with the EU. Post-Brexit, the EU and its member states have a much better understanding of Scotland’s position. There is huge sympathy for us and little doubt that an independent Scotland would be warmly welcomed into the European family of nations. But that does not mean that the EU would formally intercede on our behalf. Whether the EU would use its soft power to assist us is perhaps the question we should be asking.
My conclusion then is that, while concerns about the intransigence of the UK Government are well founded, I am not persuaded that either of the mooted policy changes removes this difficulty, though a referendum authorised by the Scottish Parliament is a policy we should hold in reserve. Neither should we place too much reliance on external support to smooth our path.
I understand how frustrating this is. I am frustrated too. But I think those arguing for replacing current manifesto commitments with variant Plan Bs may be providing solutions to the wrong problem. When you encounter an obstacle in your way, of course you look for a different path. But that path would need to take you around the obstacle. The obstacle we face is that the UK Government is currently preventing us from taking Plan A forward. Yet there is no evidence that they would be more willing at this stage to co-operate with a Plan B. We would face the same obstacle whichever path we took.
What should we do?
My preference is to stay on the path we are already on, and include in our 2021 manifesto a commitment to escalate our demand that the UK Government agrees to a second referendum on independence. This could include a commitment to consider a referendum authorised by the Scottish Parliament if the UK Government continues to refuse a Section 30 order.
Why? Well, for me, the precedent set by the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012 is important. By signing up to it the UK Government was recognising the right of the Scottish people to decide our own future. There is a powerful democratic argument here. I don’t think we should concede that the UK Government has a moral right to refuse a Section 30 order in the face of a clear democratic mandate. But in a sense that is what we would be doing if we drop our demand for one and I feel that would be an error just at the point when majority opinion is lining up behind us.
Let’s also remember that UK ministers have not ruled out a second referendum. Rather, they argue that 2014 was a once in a generation event and we need to wait the length of a generation for a second one (albeit no-one is quite sure how long that is). In my view this is simply a gambit to buy time. But, even if we take this argument at face value, it falls apart in light of all that has happened since 2014.
The past 6 years have delivered more political shocks than have been experienced by many previous generations. They have also delivered the precise circumstances that were set out as the criteria for demanding a second referendum in the SNP’s 2016 manifesto. Refusing to respond to this extraordinary turn of events is not sustainable in the long term. But the question is, how can we put pressure on the UK Government to change its position in the shorter term?
Maximising support for independence is absolutely fundamental to success.
Currently, there can be no ground campaign for independence and we don’t yet know when we will return to a sufficient level of social or political normality to allow it. But the electorate will continue to evaluate the arguments for and against independence during this period and it is reasonable to assume opinion will continue to tilt in our favour. (It brings me out in a cold sweat to write this, as it sound complacent, but it is difficult to see what could strengthen the arguments for remaining in the UK right now).
When the time comes, if opinion continues on its current trajectory, we will be able to say that the majority of Scots support us. This matters. Our case is immeasurably stronger if we can demonstrate that independence has become the settled will of the Scottish people. Our primary focus must be on extending and strengthening that majority.
Beyond that, we could consider what leverage we have over the UK Government. Tactical civic disobedience can be a part of this, for sure, as could a referendum authorised by the Scottish Parliament. The more ways that can be found to mobilise the support for independence, the better.
But I also think we should consider how to whittle away at opposition to independence and make it a more acceptable proposition to UK ministers. We need some carrots as well as sticks in our armoury. This could be challenging! The relationship between the Scottish and UK Governments – and between Scottish voters and the UK Government – is likely to be strained in the coming months, and we weren’t exactly best pals to begin with. As the economic fallout from Covid-19 bites, and the next stages of Brexit emerge, there may be fundamental and painful differences of opinion.
Nonetheless, we should still consider how we can make Scottish independence more palatable, not only to the UK Government but to ordinary people across the rest of the UK and, of course, to those who oppose independence in Scotland. Too often the debate is framed by others entirely in confrontational terms – almost as Scotland v England. This is damaging to our cause and we need to reset this framing. This may involve trying to more successfully separate making the case for independence from the day to day rough and tumble of politics.
Could we try to frame independence more positively from the perspective of the UK? How could we boost the advantages and mitigate the disadvantages from their point of view? What benefits might Scottish independence bring to the UK, as well as to Scotland? In 2014, the White Paper set out the case for a different kind of 21st century partnership between Scotland and the UK. We could revisit this approach, in the context of Brexit. There could be advantages for the rest of the UK in having Scotland remain part of the single market, for example.
We should also remember that Scotland is not the only part of the UK which potentially has major constitutional change on the horizon. Could we consider how to present fundamental changes to the political structure of the UK as a progressive development that could work for all partners, rather than simply as a failure of the British State? This would be a far more attractive offer to the British State than cheerleading its impending demise would be. It might challenge some aspects of how we make the case for change but the reward could be a clearer path to achieving it.
I would like to see these kinds of broader issues discussed rather than a debate focussed on questioning whether there are ways to circumvent the need, ultimately, to get agreement from the UK Government to move forward. Unfortunately there aren’t. Like it or not, we need the co-operation of the UK to become independent. Therefore we need to use every tool at our disposal to secure it. The only clear alternative to that is UDI and everyone agrees that is not on the table
I close by saying again that I completely understand how frustrating this situation is. But it’s worth remembering how many obstacles we have already overcome. If there is a lesson to be learnt from the history of the SNP it is that persistence pays off. There have been many points over the past decades where it has been really difficult to see a way forward. But we have always found one. We are closer to independence now than we have ever been before. The last stretch is going to be difficult and demanding but, if we hold our nerve, we will get there.