Best laid schemes?

It lifts my heart to see Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny trying to inject some much needed sense of urgency into the independence campaign. But a sense of urgency isn’t much use if your plan of action is flawed.

The idea of of using either a Scottish or a UK general election as a substitute for a referendum is problematic for a number of reasons. For a start, no election is ever about a single issue. There is no way that an election can be made a vote on a single issue without the cooperation of all parties. And why would the British parties cooperate? If they were willing to have a vote on the constitutional issue then they wouldn’t be so fanatically opposed to a referendum. All the British parties need do in order to counter this strategy is focus their campaign on a small number of other issues, such as health and education. By doing this, while ignoring the constitutional issue other than when castigating the SNP for ignoring the other issues, the British parties make the outcome of the election disputable. They can easily claim that people were not voting on a single issue.

That is why we have referendums. Because they are the only way to achieve a clear and incontestable expression of the will of the people. And even referendums often fail to do this. Look at the the EU referendum, for example. Can anyone claim that it delivered a clear and incontestable result? It is self-evidently not clear if people are disputing what the outcome actually means. How many different ‘flavours’ of Brexit have been proposed? In every instance, the proponents of each flavour assert that this is what people voted for.

Neither can the result of the EU referendum sensibly be described as incontestable. It is being contested. It is being contested by those of us who are persuaded that the will of Scotland’s people should prevail in Scotland. It is being contested by those who – for good reason – are persuaded that the Leave campaign acted illegally. It cannot be said that the result is incontestable.

It would be no different, and probably much worse, were there an attempt to use an election as a substitute for a referendum. It would inevitably lack the one thing it needs more than anything else – democratic legitimacy.

Then there’s the fact that there is already a mandate for a new constitutional referendum. A very clear mandate with all the democratic legitimacy anybody could wish for. That mandate is being flatly denied by the British state. Why would it be any different for this new mandate? Why wouldn’t the British simply ignore that as well? Especially as we’d be implicitly admitting that the existing mandate was such as could be ignored. By saying we need another one, we’d not only undermine the democratic legitimacy of the mandate we already have, but of any and all mandates.

Angus and Chris want us to put our energies into a flawed project to acquire a new mandate when, surely, we should be exerting ourselves to the fullest in defence of the mandate we have. If we can’t defend that mandate, why would anyone imagine we might successfully defend a mandate which, for the reasons already given, could not possibly be clear and incontestable.

There must be a referendum. The people are sovereign. No significant constitutional reform can stand the test of democratic legitimacy absent the explicit consent of the people. What Angus and Chris are talking about is, not an alternative to a referendum, but an alternative route to a referendum. And it is a route we have already travelled. Apparently, to no avail. We’ve done the thing about using an election to get a mandate for a referendum. We still don’t have a referendum. What purpose might be served by repeating the whole process?

Then there’s the far from small matter of the consequences of delay. The next date for a Scottish general election is 6 May 2021, with the Westminster elections a year after that. All ‘plans’ for delaying action by the Scottish Government to resolve the constitutional issue lack the same thing – proposals for dealing with what the British state is doing to resolve the constitutional issue in its own way and in its own favour. All of these plans are seemingly based on an assumption – or a hope – that the British state will do nothing to prevent those plans going ahead. Every word uttered by British politicians tells us that this is a false assumption and a forlorn hope.

We cannot even be certain that there will be a Scottish Parliament on 6 May 2021. We can be certain that the British state will have taken steps to ensure that Holyrood no longer provides a solid base for the lever that will prise Scotland from the Union.

If, as seems to be the case, Angus and Chris – together with the entire SNP leadership – allow that the existing impediments to a referendum are sufficient to prevent it happening, how do they propose to overcome the much larger obstacles that will undoubtedly be contrived by the British establishment while we wait for a polling day that’s about 20 months away?

I’m sure much more could be said about how flawed this so-called ‘Plan B’ is. But let what has already been said suffice for the moment and consider this latest suggestion from Angus MacNeil. Again, I stress that I have the utmost respect for both Angus and Chris. I very much admire the way in which both these individuals have been prepared to stick their heads above the parapet in trying to impress upon the party leadership and the Yes movement the urgent nature of Scotland’s predicament. But, if their ‘Plan B’ is flawed, the idea of launching a rerun the 2014 Yes campaign can only be described as seriously, dangerously misguided.

For nearly five years now, I have been writing and talking about the need to totally rethink the new referendum campaign taking account of lessons learned from the 2014 referendum. I don’t claim to have been the sole voice warning of the dangers inherent in ignoring those lessons, but we were few. We are few no longer. Perhaps it’s time we were listened to.

Perhaps, instead of mocking and decrying the #DissolveTheUnion campaign, SNP politicians and those ‘big names’ in the Yes movement should practise what they preach and listen to what we have to say. It is curious, in the extreme, that they urge us so fervently to listen to our opponents whilst turning a totally deaf ear to those within the Yes movement who decline to toe the ‘positive’ line.

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16 thoughts on “Best laid schemes?

  1. “…There must be a referendum. The people are sovereign. No significant constitutional reform can stand the test of democratic legitimacy absent the explicit consent of the people…”

    I would not demur from that at all, Mr Bell, except on one point: the ‘people’s vote’ has no necessity in international law to be pre independence to be legitimate and democratic; a ratifying vote will do the same business. Indeed, this has been the most widely-used form of plebiscite. We have come to the pre independence vote precisely because the party has pandered to the British Nationalists, and my fear is that we would have the same result as every other recent pre independence vote elsewhere – NO, again. I am not disagreeing with you. I simply would lessen the odds of another NO vote because, as you say, the British State will go much farther this time to prevent a positive referendum result.

    I think that both Angus MacNeil and Chris McEleny are willing to step out and say the unthinkable. Frankly, I cannot see any other explanation for the leadership’s hesitancy except that independence is not now the main issue. You would imagine that your campaign and the campaign to resile the Treaty would be equally considered, but it seems that anything that does not accord with party orthodoxy is now beyond the pale, when every means of escaping the Union should be utilized. It is not as if independence is now, any longer, a minority preference of the SNP: it is an absolute necessity; it is a moral imperative. Why don’t they run all other routes to independence parallel to another referendum by means of the S30 Order?

    It need not be ‘either or’ because, if it can be seen that the numbers simply do not stack up for a referendum in those circumstances, it will be perfectly legitimate to use any, or all, other routes if they are running parallel rather than as alternatives. Just because the numbers are not (apparently) overwhelming in the polls for independence can just as easily be put down to massive, negative interference from the British Nationalist parties up here, on behalf of their HQs, coupled with massive Westminster intransigence, as we see in Catalunya. Enough outside interference and any campaign can be halted, or, at least, slowed, as the British/English ruling elites have shown in turning even on each other. Anti Jeremy Corbyn propaganda proves that point. We cannot take it on trust that Scottish people do not want a second referendum, independence, or anything else because the British State propaganda machine has been in full swing since 2014. I also believe that we, here and now, must do all in our power to bring about independence because, if we don’t, it will be visited again, by future generations, but, next time, it cannot be done peacefully and democratically because the door will have been slammed in our face. It is for this reason, above all others, that I fear the leadership’s apparent lack of urgency and its apparent determination to stick to domestic law which is designed to constrain constitutional ambitions contrary to those of the British State, when international law would afford an openness that the British State will not welcome, but which can only be good for democracy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A ratifying vote is still a referendum. The problem is if a post-independence ratifying vote fails. Then you have a real constitutional crisis. You say that a ratifying vote “has been the most widely-used form of plebiscite”. But you neglect to mention that the ratifying vote came after independence had been chosen by some means that was imbued with similar democratic legitimacy. Nor do you take due account of the different constitutional situations which prevailed in those instances where a ratifying vote occurred.

      If we reject a process defined and controlled by the British state as inappropriate and unworkable, then we should equally eschew processes that were designed for other nations, in other circumstances and at other times, We must adopt and control a process made in Scotland and for Scotland. As things stand, that process must involve a referendum to first establish that restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status is the clear and incontestable will of the majority of Scotland’s people. For all the reasons given, Plan B is inadequate and unsatisfactory.

      Debating alternatives to a referendum is as much a distraction as academic debates about the possibility of pursuing the dissolution of the Union through the courts. We must focus first on the process leading to the referendum, and then on the campaign strategy by which we win that referendum.


      1. “A ratifying vote is still a referendum. The problem is if a post-independence ratifying vote fails. Then you have a real constitutional crisis.”

        Yes, but then, if the plebiscite is drawn up with appropriate rigour, and every option on the plebiscite ballot is consistent with Scotland’s lawful and inalienable Sovereignty, then it becomes difficult, indeed “unconstitutional”, to present a practicable option on that ballot which advocates the Union status quo, and the accompanying forfeiture of sovereignty. It’s an option that cannot “lawfully” be delivered, and is thus void.

        To play Devil’s advocate, the closest “Unionist” option compatible Scottish Sovereignty would be a voluntary Confederal Union of Sovereign Nation States, with a sovereign veto formally enshrined in its Constitution.

        To me as an Independentist, that seems both reasonable and rational, (as a legitimate option on a ballot), but I fear our Unionist brethren wouldn’t see it that way, and screech that abject surrender of sovereignty was their democratic entitlement, and must therefore be on the ballot. Strange breed of people I know, but it takes all sorts…

        It would however turn the tables on “DevoMax”. It would be the Unionist vote which would be split between a Confederal UK respecting Scotland’s sovereignty, and a status quo UK with Scotland’s utter subjugation, (and remember, it is only the latter option that is incompatible with Scotland’s Constitution). It might very well be the “abject surrender” option which divides the Unionist vote so they fall.

        Not the easiest “sell” to make I accept, but a ratification plebiscite is a lot more flexible than a binary referendum, and I think that makes it workable and winnable.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. There is still a chance we will have a UK General election based on Brexit. If that is the case it is not unreasonable to suggest a “Scotland in EU ” stance is appropriate.


    1. Of course it is. But that is hardly a ‘Plan B’ or an “alternative route to independence”. All it can possibly do is reaffirm the mandate for a referendum. And we’ve already done that.

      Quite apart from that, isn’t it about bloody tome we stopped strategising on the basis of what the British state might do and started acting instead of reacting? Haven’t we already spent way too much time waiting to see what the British government will do? They’ll always be doing something. So we could be waiting forever.

      When waiting becomes the strategy, all you do is wait. And pretty soon that is all you are capable of doing. Because the capacity to act atrophies while your resources are devoted to justifying further procrastination.

      What is required is bold, decisive action on the part of the Scottish Government with the explicit purpose of ending the Union. That is what people are waiting for. That is what will tip the balance.


      1. I was merely making an observation should a UK GE take place. The SNP has a mandate already and it will be for others to try and stop the democratic process. No harm waiting to see who the Tory elected by some pensioners will be but by 1st November the Independence movement needs to prepare for 2020.


        1. The words “no harm waiting” drive me to despair. The words “prepare for 2020” push me deeper yet into that slough of despond. What you mean is that it doesn’t suit you to consider the consequences of delay. We are not all so naively blinkered. We are not all in dumb denial of the near certainty that there will be no Scottish Parliament by 2020. Not all of us fail to realise the implications of this.


          1. You winding me up! Nothing will happen until Johnson (more likely) becomes Prime Minister. Brexit will take place, or more likely the Tories will blame the EU for a delay. As this happens more of the “undecided” will see Independence as a way forward. 2020 IS the most realistic timing for a referendum. Like most things in life it is outwith our hands. Still I cannot see SNP or Independence supporters accepting any delay beyond that.


            1. My point is proved by the way you simply airbrush out the threat to the Scottish Parliament. Delay is NOT a consequence-free option. It is dangerously reckless to pretend that it is. And that is what all Postponers do all the time. They flatly refuse to address the consequences of procrastination. Bad things just don’t happen in their fantasy politics.

              Less woolly-minded people see the dangers clearly enough. But even when these dangers are spelled out to Postponers, they still refuse to acknowledge them. Just as you refuse to acknowledge the probability that one of the next UK Prime Minister’s first acts will be to ‘suspend’ Holyrood. A concern that is based on the kind of sound reasoning which is so woefully absent from Postponers’ fantasies.


              1. I didn’t airbrush the Scots Parliament out of consideration — its on recess! Facts are usually the best option I feel. Waiting a few weeks to see who the tory PM is and whether or not Brexit occurs (and when) is sensible. As for what happens next will depend on those facts. A degree o flexibility is necessary including will we win!


                1. Your first remark simply shows that you don’t even bother reading responses. So I’m not sure why you imagine anybody should pay any attention to yours.

                  What the fuck possible difference does it make which of those two British Nationalists becomes Prime Minister? That’s a real question, by the way. But I don’t suppose you’ll have a sensible response for it either.

                  We know Brexit is happening, and when. Or, at least, those of us who are paying attention know. If you imagine there’s a chance it might not happen, then it’s for you to explain how that might happen. And by ‘explain’ I mean describe the process. It’s no good just saying Article 50 would be revoked. That’s just stating the obvious. You need to explain how it gets to be revoked. Who revokes it. And when.

                  And you finish by returning to the dumb delusion that delay is a consequence-free option. Pathetic stuff.


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