“The proverb warns that, ‘You should not bite the hand that feeds you.’ But maybe you should, if it prevents you from feeding yourself.” –
And so, after many years of false starts and being told to “hold, hold” it looks like we’re finally off and back into a new independence campaign, a little shy of a decade after the previous one kicked off.
On Tuesday Nicola Sturgeon announced an update to her plan to deliver an independence referendum in the first half of this Parliamentary term. “Plan A” had always been to seek a sanctioned referendum by way of a formal Section 30 order to the UK Government resulting in something akin to the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement. But with Boris Johnson now and Theresa May before him being consistent in denying such a request, pressure had been mounting to deliver some kind of “Plan B”.
This week, we saw what that would look like. Should a Section 30 order not be forthcoming then the Scottish Government shall bring forward a Referendum Bill anyway and ask the Parliament to approve it. Given the pro-indy majority between the SNP and the Scottish Greens, it would be a miracle and a scandal if it doesn’t pass though – assuming no other party comes out at least as pro-referendum – all eyes will be on those pro-referendum (and the handful of quietly pro-independence MSPs within the Unionist parties) to see if they argue for a free vote or break with any party whip to vote the Bill. Will there be a repeat of Wendy Alexander’s 2008 “Bring it on” moment from any of the parties? I doubt it. Indeed, the biggest challenge to the referendum process – particularly an unsanctioned referendum – is the other side not playing at all.
However there is still a major hurdle to clear if an unsanctioned referendum will take place and that’s the fact that the UK Constitution and whether or not the powers reserved to the UK Government by the Scotland Act include the power to hold a referendum on reserved policy matters. If it does not, then Scotland would be able to hold a referendum despite then having to rely on the UK Government to carry out the appropriate legislation to make it happen.
Several groups in the independence movement called for scrutiny of this legislation several years ago on the basis that while the “creative ambiguity” of “can they or can’t they?” certainly plays well in the theatre of the political chambers, it doesn’t do much for actually pushing forward the cause of independence. The fact that the FM has proactively pushed this matter this matter to the courts is somewhat of a new development or, at least, not one that many were expecting. This obviates the uncertainty over whether or not the UK Government will challenge the legislation (or anyone else would – see successful court challenges against UK Brexit or Home Office policy) and maintains some initiative over the whole affair.
Should the courts decide that the Scottish Government is not able to unilaterally hold a referendum on reserved matters then “Plan C” is to turn the next available UK General Election (hinted to take place at some point between October 2023 and the end of 2024, though thanks to the repeal of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, we can’t say for sure) into a de facto plebiscite on independence whereby the campaign would be fought on the single issue of independence and a majority of votes cast being for openly pro-independence parties being taken by the Scottish Government as a mandate to begin independence negotiations in the same way that a majority in a referendum would be.
I’m not particularly condemning of any of this – I welcome the progress that has been made. The thing is, that this is precisely the kind of thing that many folk in the independence campaign have been request from the Scottish Government for many years now – at least back to the aborted 2017 attempt by Sturgeon to seek a Section 30 order from Theresa May when she was told “Now is not the time”. Several folk also called for the Scottish Government to find that constitutional clarity in the courts and some even took the matter there themselves only for the Scottish Government to argue against them saying that the matter was premature, hypothetical and academic and therefore shouldn’t be thrashed out at this stage – almost…”now is not the time” again? The court case concluded one day before then Scottish Government Constitution Secretary Mike Russell announced an “11-point plan” to forward the case for an independence referendum.
What I’m saying in all of this is that I welcome this week’s announcement and I particularly welcome that it broadly follows the first part of the plan I personally wrote about two years ago, it’s just that I wonder why this couldn’t have been done five years ago and why the Scottish Government spent so much time and effort condemning those who said so.
But that’s behind us now. I’ll happily welcome them back as they join us now in campaigning for the independence that we all want for Scotland. There are still hurdles to climb in the process and procedure of how we go about democratically expressing our desire for independence (for one, would a General Election plebiscite involve an umbrella alliance of pro-indy parties?) but more importantly, the plan I mentioned is founded on the case that the actual democratic event we use – be it a referendum, a plebiscite or something else – isn’t nearly as important as ensuring that the UK Government accepts the result of that event as valid. If they don’t grant “permission” for the event (as would be implied by a Section 30 order) or if they don’t accept the result of an unsanctioned referendum or a plebiscite, then they will not come to the table to negotiate the particulars of our independence (simply “walking away” and making a unilateral declaration of independence is not an option if we want any hope of the endeavour remaining democratic, building in the “loser’s consent” we’ll need or even resulting in a functioning nation-state).
So how do we bring Boris to the table? The truth is that he will refuse to accept the reality of independence while doing so wins him more or costs him fewer votes than the alternative. As we campaign, we shall have to do all of the traditional things to win as many votes and as much support as we can. We’ve published data showing that Yes-minded but often non-voting “working class” folk who have felt the worst of the brunt of UK Austerity are already on our side and only need a reason to turn out and vote. This stands compared to richer, middle-class voters who may be swayed from No to Yes in the moment by a headline but have proven to be a lot harder “anchor” in that position so may be vulnerable to another headline the following day to swing them back.
But this is only one part of the campaign. We will also need to bring that political pressure to bear on Johnson and the UK Government to raise the cost of their refusal above where they are willing to maintain it. History has shown that by far the most effective tool in our campaign box of tricks in this regard is what is known as a non-violent, escalating pressure campaign. We’ve published details of that as a formal policy paper here and specific examples of what that could look like can be found on part two of my blog on this topic – this includes things like instructing our politicians in the House of Commons not just keep supporting UK Government activities but begin to actively disrupt them first by “civil obedience” (obeying the rules, but in disruptive ways, such as using archaic Parliamentary Procedures to hold up debates or embarrass the UK State) then, if necessary, by “civil disobedience” (actively breaking those rules).
Since 2014, Common Weal has been at the vanguard of the independence movement. We’ve produced hundreds of policy papers on how Scotland can be a nation that puts All of Us First and also to ensure that the independence campaign is standing on a policy foundation that is stronger than it ever has been. We have produced books on the work that Scotland needs to starting the day after our referendum and on the world’s first fully funded, national-scale Green New Deal. We produce a weekly podcast to discuss our work. We support dozens of Local activist groups around Scotland and we recently launched a campaign centre to help coordinate them. We’ve done all of this without Government money (Scotland or UK), without lucrative corporate sponsors or funding grants, without product endorsements or even without adverts on our website. Everything we do has been supported by folk like yourself reading this and our average regular donation is only £10 a month. If you want to help us, please consider signing up as a donor and/or joining the campaign centre to get involved. Where we’ve been critical of the Scottish Government or others, it hasn’t been without reason but even so we are proud to be standing once again, front and centre of the fight for Scotland’s existence as an independent nation (especially as one of our staff members recently confessed that they were too young to vote in the last one). The next 16 months are going to be as busy as any time since the 2014 referendum. We’re ready to take on that challenge and to help Scotland win its independence for All of Us.