There appears to be a general assumption that (a) Nicola Sturgeon will renew the request for a Section 30 order with a view to holding a new independence referendum; and (b) that Theresa May will refuse. If I have learned anything in more than half a century observing politics – and people – it is that one should beware of easy assumptions.
I have made my views on asking for a Section 30 order plain on many occasions. It would be a mistake. I take the view that the British Prime Minister cannot have a veto over the right of self-determination that is vested wholly in the people of Scotland and guaranteed by the Charter of the United Nations. To ask Westminster’s permission for a referendum is to acknowledge and affirm their authority to refuse that permission and, thereby, effectively veto the exercise of Scotland’s right of self-determination.
One response to this is that the precedent has been set by Alex Salmond going down the Section 30 route for the 2014 referendum. I reject this argument. I maintain that Salmond had options and chose the Section 30 route only because that was judged to be the best option in the circumstances which prevailed at the time. I see no reason why this should have the effect of precluding all other options for all time.
Those circumstances no longer prevail. The entire political environment has altered dramatically since 2014. To choose the Section 30 route even in such drastically different circumstances could be argued to imply that it is the appropriate or sole option in any circumstances. Asking for a Section 30 order again really would set a precedent. Granting the British political elite a veto over Scotland’s right of self-determination once can be seen as politically astute. Doing so twice would surely be political folly.
The argument goes that Theresa May will refuse the Section 30 order and Nicola Sturgeon can then claim that she tried that route and has now been forced by British intransigence to go another way. That’s really not a good look. Doing something only because you’ve been forced into it doesn’t give the impression of being in control. Going that other route should be a matter of choice. It should be seen as decisive action, rather than compelled reaction.
But what if Theresa May doesn’t refuse that Section 30 order? Suggesting this possibility usually elicits a response querying why she would allow it. What possible reason could Theresa May have for granting a Section 30 order? I can think of one. It’s all about control of the process.
If Theresa May grants a Section 30 order this means that there must be a new agreement between the two governments establishing the ground rules for the referendum. By asking for the Section 30 order, Nicola Sturgeon would be accepting the need for such a negotiated agreement. Theresa May would then make demands that Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t possibly agree to – such as a qualified majority requirement or the exclusion from the franchise of 16/17-year olds. No agreement! No referendum!
Requesting a Section 30 order is a lose/lose scenario for Nicola Sturgeon. Either way, she ends up having to find another way forward having been made to look weak and having afforded the British political elite an authority to which they are not entitled. The First Minister must seize control of the process from the outset.
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