As an ‘early adopter’ of opposition to the Section 30 process, I have been pointing out the folly of hoping that process might serve Scotland’s cause at least since it became clear that the First Minister intended committing Scotland to this folly. Reviewing the 2014 independence referendum in the days and weeks subsequent to the tragedy of the vote, the first conclusion I came to was that there would have to be another referendum. The second conclusion was that pretty much everything about this new referendum would inevitably and necessarily be very different from the first one. It now seems to me that we should not think of this as a new referendum at all, but as the completion of a process begun in 2011.
One of the responses I often get when criticising Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to the Section 30 process is the insistence that she must be seen to be trying to use this process so that she can say she tried everything. Of course, this response is nonsensical on the face of it because doing the same thing again isn’t trying everything. It is not trying anything different. It is avoiding trying anything that hasn’t been tried before. Therefore, the best that she can say to whoever it is that she feels the need to say it to is that she had tried everything except anything that hadn’t previously been tried. Which, logically, would be likely to mean most things.
If Nicola Sturgeon was determined to try everything before moving on to whatever it was she was minded to do having tried everything else, why did she not toss some eye of newt and toe of frog in a cauldron and simmer gently until Scotland’s independence was restored? The reason she didn’t resort to magic is, obviously, that the chances of potions and incantations being effective were as close to zero as made no difference. Why then did she feel obliged to try something which had barely a better chance of being effective? It’s at least as easy to imagine Scotland’s independence being restored by a process involving a lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing hell-broth as it is to suppose it might come about through a process that is critically dependent on obtaining the full agreement and willing cooperation of the British establishment.
What about the thing she was minded to do after she’d expended lots of time and energy trying things that had been tried before and things that were vanishingly unlikely to work? Surely this thing must be something she considered likely to succeed. Otherwise, why hold it in reserve? But if she had in mind something that she thought would work, why was she bothering with things that wouldn’t? Why not just go straight to whatever it was that she was minded to go to when she’d tried everything else – except witchery?
What is this thing that she was minded to do when she’d…. blah blah blah? Why has she not gone to this thing now that it is clear that the thing that was tried before and was never going to work has been tried again and, as anticipated, hasn’t worked? Why has she not at least hinted at the nature of this ultimate option? Why has nobody been able to figure out what it may be?
By far the most common response to my criticism of Nicola Sturgeon’s whole approach to the constitutional issue isn’t really a response at at. Not a meaningful response. More of an evasion. With monotonous regularity I am asked what my alternative is. Why is Nicola Sturgeon not asked what her alternative is? After all, she is the one with the power. She is the one making the decisions. Why are her apologists more interested in what I would do in a hypothetical universe than in what is going on here in the real world? Strange!
It shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out what the final option is. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, once you’ve eliminated magic and the honest cooperation of the British political elite whatever is left is your only option. As Nicola Sturgeon has squandered whatever other options she might have had while trying things that were tried before and things that self-evidently could not work, whatever is left must be the thing that she was going to do when she’d finished farting around with futile efforts.
So why doesn’t she just get on with it? As we try to work out what this final option is, it appears that we must consider only things which are better done later rather than sooner. Apparently, it is something that had to wait until after Scotland had been wrenched unwillingly from its place in Europe. But being thus forcefully deprived of our EU membership was, according to Nicola Sturgeon, the worst thing ever. So, whatever the final option is, it must be something so good as to be worth having even at the cost of Scotland suffering the worst thing ever. What could it be?
Could somebody check and see if Nicola Sturgeon has recently submitted an expenses claim for a cauldron? Maybe have a look at Peter Murrell’s Amazon wishlist while you’re at it.
I’m not being flippant. No more flippant than the situation warrants. The situation really is as confused and ridiculous as the foregoing implies. When the most glaringly obvious lesson of the first referendum was that the next one had to be totally different, Nicola Sturgeon decided to try and approach it as if the circumstances were unchanged. It cannot sensibly be claimed that the situation now, in 2020, is in any way similar to the situation in 2011. And yet Nicola Sturgeon acts as if the old solutions are relevant to the new reality. It is truly inexplicable.
Two underlying constants remain. The two imperatives to which the situation may be reduced as an aid to understanding. The British state’s existential imperative to preserve the Union. And Scotland’s existential imperative to end the Union. But even these constants are not unchanged since 2011. Both are very much more intense now than they were then. Scotland’s imperative is the irresistible force. England-as-Britain’s imperative is the immovable object.
But this simplification doesn’t tell the whole story. The irresistible force versus immovable object analogy doesn’t hold because it assumes parity of power. And we know that no such parity exists. We know that the Union, by its essential nature, tips the balance of power massively in favour of the immovable object. There is balance only in the sense that the situation is irresoluble. Scotland’s imperative isn’t going away. The asymmetry of the Union means that it can, in principle, be resisted forever. But the force that turns out not to be irresistible is nonetheless ineradicable.
It is assumed, by the terminally naive, that the British state’s role as immovable object is untenable or insupportable or otherwise fated to fail. It is assumed, by the incredibly credulous, that the British state’s intransigent immovability will serve to intensify the irresistibility of Scotland’s force unto the point where the immovable moves. But that only works if the immovable object gives a shit about the strength of Scotland’s aspirations. It doesn’t. It is assumed that there is a magic number which, when touched by the polls, will cause the immovable object to split and sunder. There is no such magic number. There is no level of support for independence which can require acknowledgement from England-as-Britain. Again, that is the nature of the Union. As in all things, the Union stipulates that Scotland’s imperative must always be subordinate to that of the British state.
It was ever thus. Even in 2011, this was the reality of the situation. The difference was that the reality remained concealed beneath the polite pretence of democracy. The British political elite, represented by David Cameron, was maintaining the charade of democracy when they agreed to the first referendum. Alex Salmond went along with this charade because it was expedient. He had to deliver a referendum even if it was all no more than political theatre. Whether he was aware that it was a sham is not known. Astute political operator that he is, it’s easy to believe that he knew full well the British had no intention of honouring the Edinburgh Agreement. No mere concord or contract could overcome the imperative to preserve the Union. Whether Scotland’s political leaders knew it or not, the Brits were always going to renege on the deal.
The mask began to slip almost immediately as the campaign got underway. By the time Yes was hitting 50% in the polls, the ugly face of jealous Britannia was plainly visible to those who were prepared to look. Even victory could not fully restore the pretence of respect for democratic principles that David Cameron had worn as he signed the Edinburgh Agreement with perfidious fingers crossed behind his back.
This is what makes Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to the constitutional issue so hard to comprehend. There is no longer any attempt to hide the fact that the British state simply will not countenance democratic principles which put the Union in jeopardy. And yet Nicola Sturgeon remains stuck in the role Alex Salmond had to play when he was on stage with David Cameron. It’s a different play. The actors have all changed and they are all working from a new script. They’re all doing it wrong except oor Nicola!
We are now in the third act of this four-act drama. And Nicola Sturgeon still shows no signs of being aware that she’s not in the play she thinks she’s in. She is intent on reprising a familiar part. The gossip columns hint that she has her eye on a leading role in Broadway production.
It may be testing the limits of this theatrical analogy but I would suggest that Scotland’s voters are the audience while Yes activists are the producers. Currently, most of the audience is still applauding Sturgeon’s performance because, even reading from the wrong script, she sells it like a pro. And the punters appreciate the work she’s doing in Holyrood so are reluctant to stop clapping. The producers, however, see what’s happening and are appalled. They know they need to intervene before the drama turns into a farce.
I promise I’m now done with theatrical allusions. The metaphor has served its purpose. It nicely describes the situation in terms that are easily understood. But it still leaves us wondering what happens next. And not in the good way associated with a well-written mystery.
There’s a reason for abandoning the theatre analogy other than that it has grown tedious. I mentioned earlier that we were in the third act of a four-act play. We really don’t want to stay for the fourth act. The fourth act is interminable and very, very ugly.
What is clear is that something truly dramatic has to happen. The impasse must be broken and broken as a matter of urgency. That means going off-script. It means going improv. (Sorry!) It means we must accept that the new situation demands a fresh approach. The old ways don’t work in the new reality. The idea that we can somehow revert to the pretence of British democracy (demockracy?) that existed prior to the 2014 referendum is sheer fantasy. And we somehow have to get this through to Nicola Sturgeon – as a matter of extreme urgency!
A different approach was always going to be required. That has been apparent for at least five years. And that approach was always going to be basically the one thing. The only thing that is left when all the other things are ruled out. Early in that five years, there may have been a number of options or variations available. It was always going to be necessary to confront the British state. But there were opportunities to ‘finesse’ the political manoeuvring. It is doubtful if that can be done now. It is doubtful if it is even worth trying.
The final option is UDI.
Not UDI (unilateral declaration of independence) as this tends to be understood. The term is only used because of the pejorative connotations that were hung on it during the Rhodesia crisis of the mid-1960s. The term is nonsensical in that any independence must be declared otherwise nobody would know it had happened. And all declarations of independence are necessarily unilateral as only the people of the state assuming or resuming independence have the right and authority to make that choice. Use of the term is intended to imply an equivalence between Scotland today and Rhodesia more than half a century ago which is totally specious. Rhodesia’s declaration of independence was deemed illegal by the UN not because it was unilateral but because it lacked democratic legitimacy. There was no majority rule in Rhodesia. The African nation was governed by the tiny (5%) white minority. That minority could not possibly qualify for the right of self-determination. That white minority was guilty of withholding from the black majority its right of self-determination in a manner comparable with the way in which the British ruling elite is denying Scotland’s right to choose the form of government which suits our needs.
There is absolutely no question of Scotland’s declaration of independence being anything other than unilateral because nobody else has the authority to to declare Scotland independent. There is absolutely no question of Scotland’s unilateral declaration of independence being undemocratic as that declaration is entirely conditional on affirmation by a majority of Scotland’s people as determined in an impeccably democratic plebiscite. The government of England-as-Britain may denounce it as illegal. In fact, it almost certainly will. But neither the UN nor the EU nor any of the international community will echo the rUK’s denunciation because they would have no grounds for doing so. The indignant outrage of British Nationalists has no standing in international law.
UDI it is! But our UDI, defined by us.
All we have to do is ensure that the process by which the unilateral declaration of independence is endorsed is indisputably democratic. This requires, among other things, that the UK government be totally excluded. Under international law, it can have no role as its status is that of an external agency. To be unarguably democratic, the referendum must be entirely made and managed in Scotland.
Other democratic criteria that apply are such as the widest possible franchise (Black people get to vote so not at all like Rhodesia!) and independent oversight of every stage in the process. (Just not by the British!) None of this is rocket surgery. It’s all stuff that has been done before many times and stuff which Scotland is perfectly capable of and qualified to do.
Nor need the referendum precede the declaration. The declaration of independence must take the form of a proposal by a grand assembly of Scotland’s democratically elected representatives that the Union be dissolved and Scotland’s rightful status as an independent nation restored. This proposal having been approved by the Scottish Parliament it can be put to a popular vote. This is a declaration of intent that is, of democratic necessity, subject to confirmation by the electorate. Indeed, the declaration must come first, and as a matter of the utmost urgency, in order to secure a democratic route to a referendum (and the restoration of independence) that the British will otherwise do absolutely anything to obstruct.
This is what must happen. There is no point in debating it because it is the only option still open to us. It is a Scottish UDI or it is a return to London rule via the British state’s agents in Scotland and rapid absorption into a right wing British state with eradication of any distinctiveness.
“But what if it all goes wrong?”, I hear you wail. What if it does? We will certainly be no worse off than we would be if we didn’t make the effort. Consider that the change of approach being suggested (demanded?) does not merely apply to the process by which we get to a referendum but to the form of that referendum and the nature of the campaign prior to the vote. Even if you suppose it possible that the people of Scotland might be offered a case for maintaining the Union that they find sufficiently persuasive to vote accordingly, the British Nationalists simply resume where they left off before being so rudely interrupted by democracy.
We literally have nothing to lose by acting as if we are a nation worthy of a place among the independent nations of the world. We have everything to lose by imagining we can trust Scotland’s fate to British ‘demockracy’.
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