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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