I am surely not alone in appreciating the irony of the First Minister’s comment about not squandering valuable time. Four years and eight months after it became plain to see that another referendum would be required our elected leaders are only now talking about introducing the necessary legislation. Legislation that will not be passed by MSPs until the end of this year. By which time fully five years will have elapsed without any action to address the constitutional issue.
Nor, as far as can be determined, has there been any planning for a new campaign. There may, of course, have been much activity behind the scenes. Activity to which the rest of us have not been privy. But all available evidence suggests that here has been no fresh thinking at all. Statements and remarks from those ‘leading SNP figures’ who might be expected to have at least an inkling of Nicola Sturgeon’s intentions almost invariably refer to some variation on the theme of ‘getting the positive case for independence out there’. In other words, a repeat of the 2014 referendum campaign.
The impression that there has been no new thinking on a second independence referendum campaign is only reinforced by the First Minister’s talk of taking the Section 30 route again. I am surely not the only one to react with despair and not a little anger to talk of meekly petitioning the British political elite for permission to exercise the right of self-determination which is the inalienable entitlement of Scotland’s people.
The only vaguely hopeful sign is that FM has intimated she doesn’t intend to go cap in hand to Theresa May (and it will be Theresa May) immediately. It seems that she is keeping her options open on the timing of her humiliating mission. Which leaves the slight hope that she is preserving the option to eschew the Section 30 process and all the problems that it implies. If, however, the Section 30 route is written into the legislation then, barring a late amendment in the Scottish Parliament, those problems become inescapable.
Suppose the First Minister’s pleading falls on deaf ears, as expected. What happens then? The British government will claim that, by requesting the gracious consent of a failed and doomed Prime Minister, the Scottish Government has conceded that it cannot proceed without that consent. Will an alternative course of action be written into the legislation? It would seem that is has to be. Otherwise, the First Minister will be obliged to go back to the Scottish Parliament for approval of this alternative. More delay.
What might this alternative course of action involve? An ‘advisory’ referendum of some sort, perhaps. Followed by further months of wrangling with the British government. Maybe a belated realisation that there can be no new referendum without seizing total control of the entire process. That Westminster has to be cut out altogether. But this would require a decidedly inelegant U-turn on the earlier legitimising of the British state’s authority to deny Scotland’s right of self-determination. If the Scottish government is maintaining that the British government cannot reverse its acknowledgement of Scotland’s right of self-determination as per the Edinburgh Agreement, how can the Scottish Government then insist on its right to reverse its recognition of the British state’s authority to deny Scotland’s right of self-determination? It looks very much like the kind of self-serving double standards we so deplore when it is deployed by the British political elite. And it will surely lead to yet more time-consuming ‘discussions’ between the two governments.
Why request a Section 30 order at all when it is sure to be refused? Requesting a Section 30 order and proceeding without one both lead to precisely the same confrontation with the British government. But requesting a Section 30 order severely weakens the Scottish Government’s position.
What if the request is not refused? A possibility little considered by commentators. Politically, however, it could be the British state’s smartest move. Giving the Scottish Government permission to proceed with a new constitutional referendum allows the British establishment to avoid much of the backlash that refusal would entail. And it would allow the British political elite a degree of influence over the process which could even allow them to sabotage that process.
By requesting and accepting a Section 30 order the Scottish Government commits to proceeding only on the basis of a formal agreement between the two sides. It would be very easy for the British side to prevent any such agreement. Or, at least, to render negotiations interminable. All they’d have to do is demand something that the Scottish Government cannot possibly agree to – such as the exclusion of 16- and 17-year olds.
Once again, this leads to confrontation. That confrontation is inevitable. There is no path to the restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status which does not pass through a point at which there is direct and potentially acrimonious confrontation with the British state.
Even if taking the Section 30 route didn’t do anything else; even if it didn’t mean that the Scottish Government would be approaching that point of confrontation weakened by having already conceded so much, there would still be the matter of time. Long months and years have already been squandered. It is only the stunning incompetence of the British political elite which has put off the full impact of Brexit’s constitutional implications. Further delay poses an unacceptable risk that Scotland may find itself locked into an anomalous and dysfunctional political union on terms imposed by ‘One Nation’ British Nationalists.
Attempting to restore Scotland’s independence while adhering to laws and procedures purposefully designed to preserve the Union is, self-evidently, a doomed enterprise. That point of confrontation with the British state must come. We must approach that confrontation on our own terms and with all our strength intact. We must decide which of the British state’s rules is to be broken. We must decide the manner in which it is broken. We must decide when it is broken. If we do not, then the British state will. And it will do so in a way that seriously, perhaps fatally, disadvantages the independence cause.
The common thread running through all of these issues is the Union – effectively, a constitutional device by which the people of Scotland are denied the full and effective exercise of their sovereignty in order that the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state may be preserved. For the sake of Scotland and in the name of democracy, the British state must be broken. The Union must be dissolved. And now is the time.
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