Michael Gove is correct. You won’t see or hear those words very often. And never without some qualification. My own qualifying supplement is that Gove is correct, but only partly, coincidentally and in a sense.
That the British Electoral Commission is wasting its time is true in the sense that, as an agency of the British state, it should have no role in the process that will restore Scotland’s independence. It is also true that the British Electoral Commission is wasting its time in the sense that it is testing the wrong question. But we’ll come back to that.
Given that the British Electoral Commission should not play any part in Scotland’s exercise of its right of self-determination it follows that whatever process the British Electoral Commission is involved in cannot be intended to lead to the restoration of Scotland’s independence. This necessarily implies that Scotland’s First Minister had some other purpose in mind when she formally requested that the British Electoral Commission re-test the question that was asked in the 2014 referendum. One more way in which Nicola Sturgeon is going over old ground and repeating the mistakes of the past and failing to learn lessons and acting as if nothing has changed since the first independence referendum and so it’s perfectly appropriate to do everything the same way as it was done then.
Michael Gove is almost certainly correct about this other purpose being to maintain the pretence of a 2020 referendum as not-quite-promised by the First Minister. It is difficult to fathom what other reason she might have for embarking on such an exercise. No legislation has been proposed or passed in the Scottish Parliament to enable a referendum this year. Until that legislation is passed, nobody can know what the question on the ballot paper will be. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a different question might be suggested and that this could be the question chosen by MSPs. The First Minister may think it a good idea to act as if nothing had changed since the first referendum. But MSPs might disagree. It’s a gratifying thought, even if no more than that.
Which brings us back to Michael Gove’s assertion that the British Electoral Commission is wasting its time because the First Minister’s request that they re-test a question which has already been tested in the most effective way possible is merely “an exercise designed to persuade Scottish National Party members that a referendum is imminent”. He is only partly correct. The exercise is designed to fool the entire Yes movement into believing that a referendum is imminent. But, of course, there is no way a British Nationalist such as Michael Gove will admit to support for independence beyond the ranks of SNP members. He has to stay on-message. Scotland’s cause must be portrayed as a minority obsession.
As already noted, the re-testing of the 2014 referendum question is a waste of time not only because it has already been subjected to the ultimate test of use in an actual referendum in addition to passing all pre-testing but because, supposing the First Minister comes to her senses, it will not be the question asked in a future referendum and because, supposing the First Minister comes to her senses, no agency of any external government will be permitted a role in the process the next time Scotland’s people exercise their right of self-determination.
What that testing of the old question tells us is that, while it may have been adequate and acceptable when it was agreed, that was more than seven years ago. The political landscape has undergone tectonic changes since January 2013. It is, at the very least, questionable whether the same question could be adequate and acceptable in dramatically altered circumstances. I would maintain that it is unquestionably inadequate, unacceptable and just plain wrong.
I was never happy with the question asked in the 2014 referendum.
“Should Scotland be an independent country?”
Put that question to the people of any other nation and they’ll assume you’re ignorantly offensive or simply daft. Independence is normal. Independence is the default status of all nations. The people of other nations take it for granted that their nation should be independent. Other than those who have experienced occupation by an aggressive imperialist and/or totalitarian power, they would probably have difficulty imagining anything different. Independence is normal. Only in cringe-ridden Scotland would such a question be asked. Only in meekly, obsequiously subordinate Scotland could such a question be asked without provoking widespread outrage and anger. Only the colonised mind might find this question acceptable. Only the colonised mind would fail to challenge and reject the premise that Scotland “should” be anything other than a normal independent country.
The question originally proposed by Alex Salmond’s administration was only slightly better. Only marginally less offensive. And only is one were making generous allowance for the context of devolution and the constraints this imposes on the Scottish Government.
“Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”
This at least hints at independence being the default assumption. Which is almost certainly why the British government objected to it. The British establishment cannot allow that anything other that the iniquitously asymmetric Union is ‘normal’. As one would expect, the British Electoral Commission sided with the British Establishment of which it is part. The question was disallowed, effectively for acknowledging normality.
To be fair, it is likely that Salmond anticipated this. He is, after all, one of the most astute and wily political operators of our time. The sort of player it would suit the British establishment to have removed from the field. He was bound to be aware that the British political elite would protest every proposal he proffered for no other reason than that it was he who was proffering it. They had to be seen to be keeping the uppity Jocks in line. Especially the uppiest of all uppity Jocks. Knowing the first proposal was going to be rejected, Salmond ensured that the second was something he could live with.
He did much the same with the so-called “second question”. Which was actually a third option on the ballot for some form of enhanced devolution – or ‘devo-max’. This was the last thing Salmond wanted as it would split the constitutional reform vote at significant cost to the Yes option. His crafty solution was to drop a hint in a speech that it was his preference. The response from the British government was precisely as he expected. And exactly what he wanted. The “second question” was excluded.
The ballot question that was settled on struck me not only as offensive to the un-colonised or decolonised Scottish mind, but as massively misleading in that it made independence the contentious concept. Independence is normal. It is not and never can be a contentious concept. It is the concept of a nation’s status that is assumed by pretty much everybody in every other nation. Although there are some in some nations who are eager to threaten the independence of other countries, few if any question the appropriateness of independence for their own nation. Only in Scotland will you find people who consider the independence of their own nation a contentious concept – and a horrifying prospect.
Making the concept of independence the focus of debate gave the anti-independence campaign a huge advantage. It got Unionists and British Nationalist off the hook very nicely. The last thing they wanted was a debate about the Union and what it means for Scotland. But, by rights, that is what the referendum campaign should have been. It should have been a rigorous examination of the Union and forceful interrogation of those who seek its preservation at any cost to Scotland. It wasn’t. The question defines the campaign. And the question in the 2014 referendum forced the Yes side to defend the constitutional normality of independence rather than attacking the constitutional aberration that is the Union. And it allowed the forces intent on continuing to deny the sovereignty of Scotland’s people to dodge questions about their ‘precious’ Union and to focus on generating a thick fog of doubt around the concept of independence. The question in the 2014 referendum was an absolute gift to the anti-independence campaign.
It was doubt wot won it! A more apt nickname for Better Together than ‘Project Fear’ would have been ‘Project Doubt’. The entire No campaign was an exercise in reframing. The issue was reframed from being about the Union to being about independence. The question on the ballot did much of the work for them. Questions generate doubt. It’s human nature. If as you leave home to go on holiday somebody asks if you remembered to lock the back door, it doesn’t matter how certain you were that you had, as soon as the question is asked you start to have doubts. Doubts that may haunt you and ruin your holiday. Doubts that may even put you off going away altogether.
So it was with ‘Project Doubt’. The No campaign was essentially just an incessant stream of questions blasted into the minds of Scotland’s voters by the British media. Questions create doubt. The British establishment and its lackeys in Scotland knew that this was all they had to do. People tend to be averse to change of any kind. They also tend to be risk averse. All that was required was that the independence which is generally regarded as normal should be made to appear a very dubious prospect for Scotland. A step into the unknown. A leap in the dark. The question provided the foundation for a No campaign that was entirely an edifice of lies and intimidation.
All of this was aided by the fact that independence itself is not in undisputed concept. There is no single definition. There could be no unified Yes message because the Yes movement is so proudly diverse. The campaign for independence itself generated doubt because it was never clear which of the variations on the theme of independence was the independence being campaigned for. A situation that was only aggravated by the tendency of all too many in the Yes movement to run with propaganda cues being fed to the anti-independence campaign by the British media.
It all stems from the question asked on the ballot paper. National independence may have some legal definition. But in the context of Scotland’s civic nationalism the term refers at least as much to intangibles such as promise and potential as to a status specified in law. It is not possible to build an effective political campaign around a disputed concept. An effective campaign message cannot be vague or diffuse or ambiguous or ambivalent. The question asked in the 2014 referendum campaign ensured that the Yes side would be obliged to attempt the impossible. That the Yes campaign did so well was entirely down the the huge numbers of Yes campaigners and the massive effort they put in. They did Scotland proud. And they did it despite a question that stacked the deck against them from the outset.
Nicola Sturgeon proposes to use the same question. Think about that.
The 2014 referendum should have been, in the words of Dr Elliot Bulmer, a “constitutional conversation” about “rights, identity, values and principles”. Instead, it ended up being an unseemly and unedifying squabble about money. This was the second wave of the No campaign’s reframing exercise. The constitutional question was reframed as an economic issue. How better to generate doubt than to let loose the economic doom-mongers who can be hired to make an economic case against breathing if the intention is to suffocate the credulous en masse. Which, perhaps counter-intuitively, would be very, very wrong.
There were lessons to be learned from this. None appear to have been learned. Nicola Sturgeon is still talking about “making the economic case for independence”.
Independence is normal. It is the Union which is anomalous. It is the Union which should be under scrutiny in a constitutional referendum. It is the constitution which should be the topic of debate.
Self-evidently, this describes a referendum and a campaign both entirely different from the previous one. And yet Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP seem determined to replicate that first referendum and campaign in every way possible. The same Section 30 process. The same referendum question and, given that the question defines the campaign, the same unseemly and unedifying squabble about money. No lessons learned and no meaningful account taken of the drastically altered political landscape. It makes no sense!
If it did make some sense, somebody would be able to explain it. I have been questioning this ‘strategy’ for some years now. Certainly since 2015. As I write, I have yet to receive a sensible response. I am inundated with requests and demands to stop asking the questions. But I have been given no answers to questions I have asked inter alia about the Section 30 process. Nobody is willing or able to address the serious concerns that are now being voiced by more and more people in the party and the Yes movement. Attempts by others to open up discussion about strategy have been shut down quickly and with an efficiency that is slightly disturbing. And still none of it makes any kind of sense.
The lessons of the past are clear and easy enough to take on board even if not quite so simply translated into action. Those lessons can be distilled down to two statements about a new referendum.
The referendum process, from beginning to end, must be entirely made and managed in Scotland. It must, in compliance with international laws and conventions; in keeping with best practice; of necessity; and insofar as it may be practicable, prohibit and exclude any and all external interference and influence in the exercise by the people of Scotland of their inalienable democratic right of self-determination.
The referendum must seek the verdict of the people of Scotland on the Union. The referendum campaign must be focused on the constitutional issue being decided. The question on the ballot must relate to the Union. However the question is worded, it must ask that the people of Scotland decide whether they want Scotland to remain bound in the Union.*
Achieving this will require that the entire idea of the referendum be rethought and the campaign reformulated. It will involve an exercise in reframing at least as comprehensive and effective as that by which the British state thwarted Scotland’s aspirations in the first referendum.
It will require a Scottish Government and a First Minister prepared to act boldly and decisively and determinedly. It will require that our elected representatives act like the political leaders of a nation for which independence is a natural condition and rightful status. It will require that we all act as the citizens of an independent nation would if called upon to defend their independence and their distinctive political culture.
And it all needs to start five years ago.
* I should have said something about the form of the ballot paper and the manner in which the question is put. This was a clumsy omission for which I apologise and which I shall now seek to rectify.
The question should take the form of a proposal to dissolve Union with voters being invited to agree (YES) or disagree (NO). This YES/NO arrangement must be maintained. The Yes ‘brand’ is far too well-established and much too intimately bound to the independence campaign for it to be altered without causing confusion. To a lesser degree perhaps, the same could be said of NO. These words now define the two sides in the constitutional debate. Messing with that is a recipe for disaster.
The proposal on the ballot paper will reiterate the proposal passed by the Scottish Parliament. It may be feasible, and thought wise, to have a concise statement of the proposal on the front of the ballot paper and a longer, fuller explanation on the reverse. Copies of the proposal, in all relevant languages, will already have been widely distributed in the course of the campaign.
I shall offer two distinct and valuable advantages to putting the question in this way.
Firstly, everybody will know exactly what they are voting for (or against). There can be no subsequent argument about what a particular vote ‘means’. It’s there in clear print on every ballot paper.
Secondly, neither official campaign organisations nor the media will be able to misrepresent the issue. It may be considered efficacious to require that campaign organisations be required to carry the proposal text on all publications. It may even be a good idea to make misrepresentation of the proposal a criminal offence.
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