“To discover strategy is to fulfill mandate” –
On Sunday Politics Scotland this morning, the new Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack shifted the goalposts again. The 2014 independence referendum has now been declared a “once in a lifetime” event and that even a pro-independence majority in the 2021 Scottish elections or even an outright SNP majority in those elections would be insufficient grounds for him to grant Scotland his permission to self-determine our form of government.
He went even further than this extremist position by stating categorically that he believed that it would be “absolutely unacceptable” for Scotland to hold any such referendum at a time of its choosing and under our own terms – effectively attempting to apply a veto to the Referendums Bill passed by the Scottish Parliament recently.
I think we should have a look at this Tory attempt to stifle Scottish Democracy.
In My View…
At the heart of this is a now infamous phrase which has come to be a sword at the neck of the pro-independence campaign. Alex Salmond, and others, stated – more than once – that “in [his] view”, the referendum would be a “once in a generation, perhaps once in a lifetime, opportunity”.
There were good political reasons for making this statement. There were many then, and now, who support the principle of Scottish independence or the idea that Scotland would and should one day become independent but that the time isn’t right. “Yes, but not yet” is a perfectly valid political position to defend but in a binary referendum, it’s still a “No” vote. There will have been some who saw “once in a generation” and thought “Well, if not now, when?” and voted Yes.
In a sense, Salmond’s prediction was correct, albeit for perverse reasons. Rather than referendum’s generally being driven by rare circumstances the UK Government is attempting to suppress Scottish democracy by holding that view as a cast iron promise which, of course, is vague enough to never need be met.
I get that some people will not particularly want to go through another referendum campaign or that they’d continue to oppose the proposition of that referendum but if we want to hold ourselves as a democracy then we must accept that the results of elections, referendums and other democratic tools can be immutable or they can be democratic. Never both. It is not in any way disrespectful of any previous result to state this – indeed, the opposite is true as it is disrespectful of an electorate and to democracy itself to state that you, not they, are the arbiter of their fate.
Other views on Scotland’s constitutional future have been expressed since 2014 and, indeed, one of them was directly referenced by Jack this morning. The idea that a pro-independence majority in Holyrood would be a sufficient mandate for a referendum on the simple basis that such a parliament could pass a Motion instructing the Scottish Government to call said referendum.
Jack was challenged with this view but dismissed it on the basis that it was merely Ruth Davidson’s view and not his own.
Another view, proclaimed wide and far by the media of the day, was that of Gordon Brown, the former PM, who stated that in his view a No vote would lead to Scottish Home Rule and “as close to federalism as is possible”.
This view wasn’t mentioned in the Alister Jack interview but five years after the referendum we very clearly do not live in the Federal United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and there are very few hints that we ever will do, despite increasing movement from Scottish Labour to define what Federalism even means.
So what we have here is a Tory Government which has seen three “views” on the future of the constitutional debate.
The view of the former Prime Minister is completely ignorable because they don’t like it.
The view of the former Scottish Tory leader is completely dismissable because they don’t like it.
But the view of the former First Minister is to be cast not only in stone but is as close to a codified constitutional article as the UK can get without writing a codified constitution because it happens to align with their personal view of not having another referendum ever.
This is no way to run a democracy, much less one which purports to uphold international law (except when it doesn’t) and abide by the fundamental principles such as the right to self-determination. If the UK wants to hold itself as modern democracy then within its constitution it should contain a clear and achievable process for both joining and leaving this union of nations. Assuming, of course, that the UK government indeed hold to the definition that the UK IS a union of nations and not to the view they took in 2013 when they said that the 1707 Treaty of Union “extinguished” Scotland and absorbed it into a kind of Greater England.
What (Some) Unionists Actually Think
For a while now, I’ve been challenging senior pro-Union campaigns to come up with a pathway to independence that they would accept even if they don’t personally agree with it. They have yet to reply but a recent attempt did spark several replies from pro-union activists and voters on Twitter. Those views range from the reasonable if arguable “get a pro-indy majority in 2021” through “Get a super-majority in several elections” out to following the UK Government and saying “never”.
Few, if any, take the view formerly held by Ruth Davidson to the effect that the current Scottish Parliamentary results or the results in Scotland of the recent General Election constitute such a mandate.
Moving on from Mandates
In the absence of a rationally codified constitutional process for independence (and even if there was one) we need to move beyond the mandate for a referendum. I’ve been saying this for some time now but the purpose of a referendum should be to ratify a decision, not create a majority for one and the mandate to hold a referendum should come from that same place. The UK will always deny a referendum if the cost of doing so is (perceived to be) less than the cost of not denying it so the goalposts for the mandate to hold one will always shift out to just beyond “not yet”.
Focusing too sharply on this argument will also have a corrosive effect on Scottish politics, especially next year, when – having almost certainly failed to deliver on a promise for a 2020 referendum, the SNP will ask disenchanted independence activists to “lend” their vote to the party just one more time…
Instead, we need to bring the debate back to independence itself rather than the mechanisms and procedures. If we win the argument, everything else becomes more of a formality and even if the UK continues to deny that “mandate” then the ability to ramp up the pressure on them and the cost of the denial becomes so much easier and more possible.
So why do we need independence now and not later?
The world is on fire and we desperately need to do something about it. We, in Scotland, have a government at least willing to say the right things when it comes to climate change and, with a bit more pressure, they can become a government willing to actually do the work needed to deliver a Green New Deal in Scotland within 25 years of picking up the first shovel. Common Weal has already written that plan which you can read here.
What has this got to do with independence?
We have only got about a decade left to start making the changes we need to make in order to prevent the planet from warming to dangerous levels. We do not have time to wait for Boris Johnson to lose an election and be replaced by someone who may or may not be more amenable to Scotland. Nor do we have time to wait for the rest of the world to do something before we decide that we might try to catch up.
The Multilateral approach to climate change has worked about as well as the multilateral approach to ridding the world of nuclear weapons. It’s going to take those who have the ability to do something to step out of the pack and do it – to show that it’s both possible and beneficial – and then to start bringing others with us. Once the voters of England see Scotland begin to transform our homes, our jobs and our country into something that they want too then we can help them get it.
There are also benefits to going first in the sense that we do not have enough trained workers to fill the jobs that we need and if we wait till others kick off their Green New Deal plans then we won’t be able to import them either. We’re going to have to start a massive training programme using those workers we do have here and around Europe and the world to rapidly bootstrap our economies into the place we want to be.
The point is that if you recognise the climate emergency then you must recognise that the best way for Scotland and the UK to contribute to the solution is now via independence and the transfer of critical powers from those who won’t use them till they think they have no choice to those who will use them because there already is no choice.
I’m convinced now that this is how Scotland wins its independence. Not via the existential arguments of nationhood that have already won over many Yes voters but via a practical vision of how we help save an increasingly dire world and give a future to those who will feel the effects most acutely.
And rather than waiting forlornly and hoping that polls will rise out of the goodness of their hearts or hoping that a hostile government that has already killed thousands , systematically oppressed thousands more and threatened to deport thousands more on top of that will become just a bit more hostile, we should be putting out the prospectus of what Scotland can do as an independent nation. Show voters that vision. Start taking the steps we can take right now to move towards it and then, everything else will becoming inevitable, regardless of the Secretary of State for Scotland’s own, ultimately ignorable, views to the contrary.